WASHINGTON - The national stimulus package passed by Congress in February may have been too enthusiastic about spending money on one particular project: figuring out where broadband Internet access is available and how fast it is.
The $789 billion stimulus bill championed by the Obama administration set aside up to $350 million to create a national broadband map that could guide policies aimed at expanding high-speed Internet access. That $350 million tag struck some people in the telecommunications industry as excessive, compared with existing, smaller efforts. The map won't even be done in time to help decide where to spend much of the $7.2 billion in stimulus money earmarked for broadband programs.
Now it appears the final cost won't be as high as $350 million - though just how much it will be is unclear.
To ensure the mapping money is used "in a fiscally prudent manner," the National Telecommunications and Information Administration signaled Wednesday it would initially spend more than $100 million, and then reassess the program.
The agency, which is part of the Commerce Department, said it has received requests for $107 million in funding for projects that would map broadband in individual states over the first two years. The states want another $26 million for various purposes over five years, including steps to encourage broadband demand. On top of that, the NTIA will have to spend more money to collate the statewide maps into a national one.
But while the map should run much less than the $350 million cap set by Congress, the total still looks like it will be far higher than estimates based on the costs of smaller mapping programs in individual states.
In North Carolina, for instance, state broadband authority e-NC spends at most $275,000 per year on maintaining a map of broadband availability in the state, detailed enough to list individual addresses, according to executive director Jane Smith Patterson.
Rory Altman, director at telecommunications consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co., which has helped clients map broadband availability in some areas, said $350 million was a "ridiculous" amount of money to spend on a national broadband map.
Even $100 million might be high. The firm could create a national broadband map for $3.5 million, and "would gladly do it for $35 million," Altman said.
Dave Burstein, editor of the DSL Prime broadband industry newsletter, believes a reasonable cost for the map would be less than $30 million.
The map should reveal what most individuals already know: whether their homes can get broadband, and how fast it is. Officially, the goal for the map is to help shape broadband policy and determine where best to invest government funds. It may also help consumers shopping for Internet service.
However, the map won't be ready in time to influence the first round of broadband grants and loans funded by the stimulus package. That money will start going out this fall. And the map likely won't be finished before February's scheduled release of a national broadband plan being developed by the Federal Communications Commission, which is also mandated by the stimulus bill.