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Broadband Stimulus Grants Seen as Political Flashpoint

The head of the lead agency charged with disbursing $7 billion in economic stimulus funding to jumpstart new broadband deployments on Wednesday acknowledged that beyond the technical and administrative hurdles his organization faces, it also confronts a public relations challenge.

In a keynote address at a conference convened by a coalition representing community-level broadband projects, Lawrence Strickling, the assistant secretary for communications and information at the Department of Commerce and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, urged members of the audience to call attention to their projects and highlight their successes.

"We're in an election year," Strickling said. "There are people out there who have as their commitment the desire to try to embarrass this program. And they'll be looking at every little thing that you're doing."

Just last week, Strickling appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee for an oversight hearing on the broadband grant program. For the first 15 minutes or so of the hearing, Strickling said he was quizzed about the cost of routers that one grant recipient in a member's district was using, a level of minutiae that signaled the extent to which the broadband program had been politicized.

"There are folks out there who don't want to hear the truth about this. And it's important that every one of you be very vigilant," Strickling told members of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

The broadband grants and loans were a microcosm of the massive economic stimulus package the president signed into law in early 2009, the first major legislative achievement of the Obama administration, and one that political opponents have denounced as an exhibit of wasteful government spending that failed to achieve the economic recovery its backers promised. Stimulus projects have become a favorite target for GOP lawmakers with oversight authority over the various agencies implementing the programs, and have served as a flashpoint in the broader debate about the proper role of the federal government in nursing the economy back to health, a philosophical divide that figures to play prominently in the fall election.

In such a hyper-politicized environment, Strickling is urging grant recipients to focus on ensuring that their broadband projects will remain viable once the government awards expire.

"Everyone should understand, we're focused on working with each of you to help evaluate and determine how you can keep your projects going past the end of the federal money arriving," he said.

"The one thing nobody should have any illusions about is whether there's going to be any new federal money. I just do not see any prospects for additional grant money coming out of this Congress this year or next year -- for the foreseeable future -- just given the dynamics of what we're dealing with right now. But we want to make sure that the money that's already in these communities gets fully spent, and we'll work with you to make that happen," he added.

By the numbers, the broadband grant program has facilitated the deployment of 56,000 miles of infrastructure coverage, helping to deliver high-speed connectivity to some 8,000 community anchor institutions, Strickling said. Meanwhile, programs to stoke broadband adoption have resulted in roughly 350,000 new broadband subscribers, and Strickling boasted that the grant programs led to the direct creation of 4,000 new jobs in the second quarter of fiscal 2012, and helping thousands more find work with the aid of computer training programs and other initiatives funded by stimulus money.

"This has multiplier effects beyond just the direct investment you're making and the jobs that you're creating in your own programs or through the vendors who are being put to work, but we're also helping other people lift themselves up and find work as well," Strickling said.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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