Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Broadband Mapping In Tennessee A Low Priority

$350 million in stimulus funding for broadband mapping is flowing to a group called Connected Nation, but the emphasis in Tennessee is on "branding" and mapping plans by Connected Tennessee ends up getting the lowest funding.

Art Brodsky writes about the cautionary tale of Tennessee in Huffington Post:

There is a more direct way to obtain state funds, short of having to go through the whole cumbersome bidding process. Our second cautionary tale of state mapping comes from Tennessee.

On April 23, 2008 the state gave final approval to a three-year, $6.675 million contract (excerpts here) with Connected Tennessee (CT). The contract, first agreed to in 2007, was labeled as a "non-competitive negotiation," which was justified because, the contract noted, that Connected Nation (the original grantee) had a successful program in Kentucky and that costs for Tennessee were "at similar or lower amounts" than the Kentucky programs.

There is some disagreement, however, about how successful the Kentucky program, the birthplace of Connected Nation, actually is. Jonathan Miller, the Kentucky Secretary of Finance, was blunt in his evaluation, saying in an interview, "We smell something pretty bad" with the mapping program, and the state is trying to "develop plans try to cope with it."


"Based on the amount of money being spent, the mapping is fairly far down. At the top of the list is that Connected Tennessee "shall provide a custom branding strategy for Tennessee's Trail to Innovation." Once the state approves a design, CT's top duties were to

a. Create press releases that reflect the goals of the initiative
b. Obtain placement of communications/promotions content in relevant media outlets
c. Develop and place customized ads in key periodicals
d. Publish and distribute reports on the progress of the initiative to the State and other appropriate stakeholders

Also on the list of things to do are creating a statewide steering committee from universities, health organizations and tech companies; establish eCommunity leadership teams, develop through those teams goals for increased tech adoption; provide consultation to the teams and provide regional updates on the expansion of technology programs. They also have to give away 1,000 computers each year.

Listed after all of those - produce a map of broadband services areas, creating "a reliable illustration of where broadband does and does not exist." The first map is due within three months and is updated quarterly. Listed after the mapping is a requirement that CT survey consumers and businesses on the level of technology use.

The contract breaks down into $2.225 million per year. Of that total, $1.325 million is dedicated to the "custom branding strategy," including the steering committee and leadership teams. Another $400,000 is allocated for computer distribution. There are also two consumer survey reports worth $150,000 and two business survey reports, worth another $150,000. The broadband maps are budgeted for $200,000 -- $50,000 per map.

Longway, the president of the Tennessee broadband company, testified before the state broadband task force and before state legislative committees against a Connect Tennessee contract. Longway told us he thought that mapping should be done by a Tennessee company, not an outside group, and criticized the state for signing a non-competitive contract. Longway, who has also worked with Arkansas state officials on broadband planning, said he was once asked point-blank by an influential legislator whether he supported Connected Tennessee. Longway said he replied, "No, they're awful."

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