(CNSNews.com) - The Obama administration is trying to figure out how to spend more than $7-billion taxpayer dollars allotted to broadband in the recently passed economic stimulus bill.
At a public hearing in Washington on Tuesday, there were more questions than answers, press reports said. The Obama administration, lacking a plan of its own, said it is looking to the public to help shape the program.
Tuesday's first public hearing on broadband at the Commerce Department drew hundreds of people -- more than 400, according to The Washington Post. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps and the Commerce Department's Acting Chief of Staff Rick Wade the headed the "roundtable" discussion.
A message on the Commerce Department's Web site notes that "President Obama believes in the power of broadband," because it "will help drive the nation's economic recovery and growth."
The public meetings "are an important part of the agencies’ efforts to move quickly to implement the Act’s Broadband Initiatives," the Commerce Department says. But according to a report in Business Week, the effort is off to a "rocky start."
At the first public hearing, government officials offered "few answers and almost no guidance," Business Week reported.
Administration officials could not even say how the government will decide which regions of the country are "unserved" by broadband, the magazine reported.
"The short answer is we've not made a decision," Business Week quoted Mark Seifert as saying. Seifert is a senior adviser at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), one of two government agencies responsible for handing out the broadband money. "We're waiting for you to help us get to those definitions," Business Week quoted Seifert as telling the crowd.
Bottom line, according to Business Week: "For almost every substantive question about how the billions will be allocated, officials said they're looking for guidance from the public. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, NTIA associate administrator, said the government is seeking input on ‘nearly every facet of the program.’”
The Washington Post, which also covered Tuesday's broadband meeting, reported that "while many details haven't been finalized on how the stimulus money will be spent and who will qualify for the grants, interest in the high-speed Internet plan was high."
The Post also noted that under the stimulus law, the "first funds" for broadband expansion must start flowing between April (next month) and June. All grants must be awarded by Sept. 30, 2010, and the broadband projects are supposed to be almost complete within two years.
The administration says it is soliciting comments from interested parties on a wide range of topics, including the criteria for awarding grants and who will be eligible to receive them.
Business Week says companies, including AT&T and Verizon, are “all struggling with whether to apply for the grants and, if so, how best to make their applications.”
The next public meetings on broadband are scheduled to take place in Washington on March 16, 19, 23 and 24. Field hearings will be held on March 17 in Las Vegas and on March 18 in Flagstaff, Ariz. The meetings will be webcast.