Colleges and universities will help bring broadband internet to underserved schools, businesses, and neighborhoods after Vice President Joe Biden announced the first round of federal stimulus funds to expand high-speed web access on Dec. 17.
Eighteen projects nationwide, funded by $182 million in stimulus dollars, will build long-awaited fiber-optic networks in rural areas not served by high-bandwidth web connections in larger nearby cities.
The University of Maine is among the campuses involved in the broadband expansion program. Maine will partner with Biddleford Internet Corp.–along with several other companies–to build three fiber optic rings across 1,100 miles of rural area with $25.4 million in funding.
The massive network will connect 10 University of Maine campuses and pass through about 100 communities with more than 110,000 houses, according to the government’s projections.
University of Maine officials said only college campuses located on or near the Interstate-95 corridor have access to reliable broadband connections. Students and faculty in rural areas only have access to networks that are strained as campuses grow and more people connect to the web and use valuable but limited bandwidth.
"We cannot obtain the level of connectivity that we need to keep up with the [enrollment] growth and student demand," said Jeff Letourneau, acting executive director of Networkmaine, a university group formed this year that spearheaded the effort to formulate a broadband expansion plan that private companies could support.
"What it does for our rural campuses is bring them up to an even playing field for their academic pursuits," he added. "This project will help us meet those demands at a fixed cost."
FairPoint, a North Carolina-based internet provider, competed for the stimulus dollars and criticized the university for its involvement in the stimulus program. The company proposed a $20 million plan to add to its existing internet network.
Severin Beliveau, an attorney representing FairPoint, told the Bangor Daily News in August that the university would be receiving a "subsidy from taxpayers" if the stimulus money was awarded to Biddleford and other companies teaming with the university.
"It caught us somewhat by surprise," Letourneau said, adding that Maine simply served as the "catalyst" to find a consensus broadband plan for internet companies to rally behind. "But we didn’t pay much heed to it."
Having a dependable broadband network at all University of Maine campuses, Letourneau said, would be critical in competing for research funds. Campuses without high-speed access are not usually considered for national projects that bring millions to colleges and universities.
The University of New Mexico joined the New Mexico State Library to propose a plan designed to give broadband access to 3,000 homes and 1,000 businesses. The plan was awarded $1.4 million in federal funding.
New Mexico is among the states with the fewest web users. The state ranks 36th nationally in broadband access and 46th in percentage of internet users.
Biden spoke Dec. 17 at a technologically advanced manufacturing plant in north Georgia whose business has been held back by the lack of a broadband network in its part of the state.
A $33.5 million grant to the North Georgia Network Cooperative for a fiber-optic ring will bring high-speed internet connections to the northern Georgia foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The project will serve an eight-county area with a population of 334,000.
A combined grant/loan of $2.4 million to the Consolidated Electric Cooperative in north central Ohio will fund construction of a 166-mile fiber network that will be used, among other things, to connect 16 electrical substations to support a smart grid project.
Other projects receiving funds include a 4G wireless network to be built by an Alaska Native Corporation in southwestern Alaska, a fiber-to-the-home project in a remote corner of New Hampshire, and computer centers for 84 libraries in Arizona.
Congress included $7.2 billion for broadband projects in the stimulus bill to create jobs and bring new economic opportunities to parts of the country left behind in today’s digital age.
That includes $4.7 billion to be awarded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, and $2.5 billion to be awarded by the Rural Utilities Service, part of the Agriculture Department.
Demand for the broadband money has been intense—far outstripping the amount of federal dollars available.
The Commerce and Agriculture Departments received nearly 2,200 applications submitted by local governments, inner-city community groups, rural cooperatives, nonprofits, and for-profit corporations in every corner of the country.
They asked for a total of $28 billion to pay for fiber-optic lines, wireless clouds, computer labs, internet training programs, municipal communications networks, and a range of other projects to bridge the digital divide.
The administration plans to award a total of $2 billion in grants and loans on a rolling basis over the next 75 days as it starts doling out the first round of broadband stimulus funding.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.