Broadband stimulus draws a wave of muni telecom bids

As major telcos ponder whether broadband stimulus funds are worth the strings attached, a diverse group of other grant applicants are moving forward with their own bids to win federal funds, including a large number of local and regional governments.

In northern New Mexico (Qwest and Windstream territory), a group of electric utilities, colleges, counties and municipalities (as well as possibly an Indian pueblo or two) are teaming up to propose a regional fiber network that would be publicly owned with capacity leased to private companies. Officials of Otsego County, New York, are looking for nearly $10 million for their own fiber network. [4/14 UPDATE: Even Palo Alto, Calif., is reviving its long-frustrated dreams of fiber.]

The New Mexico project is consistent with the advice federal administrators have given that grant applicants pool their resources to submit large-scale projects. In fact, those in New Mexico are wondering if a statewide proposal would be better than the regional one. In Ohio, representatives of the state’s Appalachian southeast corners are talking to the governor about maximizing their efforts. But as anyone with experience in multi-city projects can attest to, finding consensus on anything becomes harder as the number of cooks in the kitchen grows.

There’s been some discussion about whether the Bells are bluffing about skipping broadband stimulus, just based on the simple notion that turning down free money is crazy in any context. But in addition to whatever net neutrality conditions come with these prizes, it’s also true that broadband stimulus is largely focused on rural areas, and in the long run, that’s not where AT&T and Verizon want to be.

However, the rest of the private sector is teeming with companies hoping to get their share of federal grants. Level 3 Communications, for example, is partnering with WiMax provider Open Range Communications to get a piece of the broadband stimulus pie.

Meanwhile, in space…(man, I’ve always wanted a chance to write that), WildBlue Communications is hoping to land stimulus money to launch a new satellite that will offer faster rural broadband speeds. The company has joined forces with its competitors Hughes Networks and Inmarsat to convince federal officials of the virtues of satellites to boost rural broadband, but the feds have already voiced their openness to the sector. At the first public meeting of broadband stimulus administrators in March, Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, associate administrator for the NTIA (with the USDA, one of the two groups distributing stimulus finds), said in response to a question, “Particularly in some of the unserved areas, [satellite] will be a very attractive sort of application.”

To help decipher some of the process of attaining stimulus funds, Telephony is holding a Webinar on April 15 for which you can register here.

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