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Schools make their case for broadband grants

The economic stimulus package allocated $7.2 billion in total funding for broadband projects.
The economic stimulus package allocated $7.2 billion in total funding for broadband projects.

Colleges and universities have applied for tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus grants designed to expand broadband internet access, arguing that university IT infrastructure makes campuses worthy recipients.

The government announced in August that an initial $4 billion in stimulus loans and grants will be used to connect rural homes to the internet, stimulate interest in getting internet service among groups that don’t use it much, and expand internet access in public locations such as schools and libraries. More than 2,200 applicants asked for a total of $28 billion in broadband funds during this initial application process–roughly seven times the amount available. Most of the applications proposed building out internet lines to bring broadband access to rural American towns and cities.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service will pick the winning applicants and announce them in November.

A review of colleges and universities that applied for federal broadband grant money showed many campuses vying to provide more computers with broadband web access to local residents, and other schools hoping to establish wide-ranging cloud-computing networks.

The Research Foundation of the State University of New York (SUNY) requested the largest higher-ed related grant, asking for $30 million to implement an educational and workforce training program run through a cloud-computing network. Cloud computing lets users access data, applications, and computer programs over a network via large server centers.

The $30 million would be used to purchases hardware and software for an expansive cloud-computing network, curriculum to educate students and workers, and delivery of “community-based educational training programs” to schools and libraries. The application said the program would focus on underrepresented populations.

“It will concurrently increase the ‘supply’ of knowledge-based workers capable of supporting the design, deployment, utilization, and management of the ‘enabling’ cloud-computing software architecture, hardware infrastructure, and service delivery,” according to SUNY’s grant application.

The SUNY project would cost $57 million over two years. New York state would provide $15 million, IBM would contribute $10 million, about $2 million would come from endowments, and the rest–if the grant money is approved–would come from the federal government.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act directs NTIA to make at least $250 million available for programs that encourage sustainable adoption of broadband services, of which up to $150 million will be allocated in this first round of grants.
The stimulus act directs the agency to make at least $200 million available for expanding the capacity of public computer centers, of which up to $50 million will be allocated in the first round.

Though competition appears stiff for the first round of financing, those who lose out will have two more rounds in which to compete before the money runs out. The stimulus allocated $7.2 billion in total funding for broadband projects. (Because some of this money will be used to fund loans, the total dollar amount handed out will be higher than that.)

Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., is one of many schools hoping to use stimulus broadband funds to establish public computer centers in areas where residents have little or no access to high-speed internet service. The university is requesting $950,590 to build computing centers in 10 local communities, an important step in creating more than 2,000 “wired workers”–entrepreneurs who conduct their business online–by 2019.

The computer centers, which would be spread throughout the Adirondack North Country area, also could become meeting places for business owners and employees using high-speed internet to bolster outreach.

“Small business owners and entrepreneurs will find workshops and professional development opportunities aimed at helping them leverage the power of broadband to grow their businesses in a sustainable manner,” Clarkson’s federal application says. “As an important part of developing the culture of ‘wired work,’ the centers will serve as ‘digital water coolers’ allowing workers to network, collaborate, and exchange ideas.”

The public computing centers each would have six “all-in-one” workstations–complete with a fax, scanner, copier, conference phone, and wireless projector–with technical support staff on hand as well.

Clarkson University’s application said the Adirondack region has seen a “slow decline” since industry has left the area since the late-1970s, and bringing broadband access to residents and local businesses could be “transformational.”

Some campus officials point out in their federal funding proposals that the grant money would create jobs and give a boost to sluggish local economies.

A $21.6 million grant application submitted by the University of Alaska Statewide Office of Information Technology proposes greater broadband access in Alaska’s community colleges, libraries, and tribal government facilities. Expanding high-speed web access would require new workers for construction and renovation, as well as staffing of public computer centers, the application notes.

Federal officials are set to announce the grant winners next month, as research shows the United States is falling behind other industrialized nations in broadband accessibility. A report released by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) last summer said America’s internet connection speed ranked 28th in the world.

The CWA report said the average download speed in South Korea is 20.4 megabits per second (Mbps)–four times faster than the U.S. average of 5.1 Mbps. Japan trails South Korea with an average of 15.8 Mbps, followed by Sweden at 12.8 Mbps and the Netherlands at 11.0 Mbps, the report said, adding that tests conducted by found the average U.S. download speed had improved by only nine-tenths of a megabit per second between 2008 and 2009.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Federal broadband grant applicants=

National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Communication Workers of America

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