RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Those of you who live in an area with limited Internet access, here's some news: The government wants to hook you up. The Obama administration's stimulus package includes just over $7 billion to extend broadband access where it's not widely available. But so far only a fraction of that money has been given out and some applicants for the funding say major telecom companies are trying to block those projects, as Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: One of the first grants to be awarded is going to a project known as the Three Ring Binder.
Mr. FLETCHER KITTREDGE (President, GWI): It is three large fiberoptic rings that cover the entire state of Maine.
ROSE: Fletcher Kittredge is the president of GWI, an Internet and phone company in Maine that was the lead sponsor on the application. Kittredge says it will extend what's called middle mile infrastructure, bringing high-speed Internet access to rural parts of the state that currently don't have any.
Mr. KITTREDGE: The analogy we use up here is this is kind of the Maine turnpike of the telecommunications network.
ROSE: Kittredge's company was part of a coalition that applied for - and got -$25 million in federal money to build the Three Ring Binder. The group includes the University of Maine and other local Internet companies, but it does not include the state's biggest Internet provider, FairPoint. In fact, the company helped write a state bill aimed at blocking parts of the plan. State Representative Stacey Fitts introduced the bill, which would prevent the university from offering broadbands to private customers.
State Representative STACEY FITTS (Republican, Maine): We have entities like the university that's supported by the state that are potentially in direct competition with folks that are out there trying to eke out a living in the private sector.
ROSE: FairPoint, which declined to comment for this story, is in bankruptcy. But Fletcher Kittredge at GWI says rather than trying to fight the project, FairPoint could be using the new fiberoptic lines to deliver broadband to more people.
Mr. KITTREDGE: It doesn't necessarily have to be a threat. If they involve themselves in it, and fully understand what the opportunities are for them, they could really make a lot of this.
ROSE: But so far, few of the nation's biggest Internet providers seem to be taking that advice.
Mr. CRAIG SETTLES (Author, "Fighting The Next Good Fight"): They aren't leading, they aren't following, and they won't get out of the way.
ROSE: Craig Settles is the author of "Fighting The Next Good Fight," a book about broadband business strategy. He says the nation's biggest telecom companies have generally decided not to apply for federal stimulus money.
Mr. SETTLES: They're not going to put proposals on the table because they don't like the rules. Yet they're not going to cooperate with the entities that are going after the money.
ROSE: Settles says that's in part because the grants could force those carriers to share their wires with competitors. But there's been no shortage of smaller companies and municipalities that are applying for the stimulus money. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has received more than 2,200 applications. Several of them came from a coalition of community groups and city government in Philadelphia.
The city's chief technology officer, Allan Frank, says the application - which so far has not been funded - calls for more computers in libraries and rec centers in the poorest neighborhoods, as well as free wireless access in outdoor public spaces.
Mr. ALLAN FRANK (Chief Technology Officer, Philadelphia): We don't expect to be providing the same sort of speeds in those public spaces as you can get when you pay. We're trying to focus on - let's just call it the neediest of the needy.
ROSE: But it's the free public space wireless that's drawn an objection from cable and Internet giant Comcast. The Philadelphia-based company filed comments about the city's plans with the NTIA. The comments themselves are not public. Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice says her company is merely pointing out that it already offers broadband in Philadelphia.
Ms. SENA FITZMAURICE (Comcast): We said that the applications that should have priority were areas that were unserved, rather than areas that are already served by a commercial competitor.
ROSE: Comcast and other big Internet companies have filed thousands of such comments on applications across the country. NTIA press secretary Jessica Schafer says it's impossible to say exactly how much weight those comments carry.
Ms. JESSICA SCHAFER (NTIA): The fact that there's an existing provider that offers some level of broadband service somewhere within the project's proposed service area does not disqualify the project from funding.
ROSE: The NTIA has given out less than $300 million so far. Most has gone to grants that focus on unserved rural communities, like the Three Ring Binder in Maine. But Todd Wolfson at the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia wants to see more help for underserved urban communities, where broadband is technically available but still too expensive for many residents.
Mr. TODD WOLFSON (Media Mobilizing Project): This city, one out of two, do not have Internet in their home, and they can't afford it. We need to solve this problem.
ROSE: A second round of broadband grant applications is due in March. Wolfson says his group and the city plan to apply again.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
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