Flush, Wired California City Applies for Broadband Funds

Published November 1, 2009

A Los Angeles, California suburb nestled in a valley of high-density sprawl has applied for a share of the $7.4 billion in federal broadband stimulus funds intended for “underserved” communities.

The city of Monrovia is partnering with a local broadband company to apply for $2.7 million to improve the firm’s wi-fi penetration in the municipality of nearly 37,000 people. Monrovia sits along a busy freeway in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley, which has a population of approximately two million people.

“This is a no-brainer for us,” Monrovia Deputy City Manager Dick Singer told InformationWeek in late August. “It will cover our Old Town area, public safety computers, a park area, and the library.”

Shifting Costs

Robert Crandall, a telecommunications policy analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, wonders why a town in a densely populated valley in California needs the help of taxpayers to make a wi-fi project fly.

“Keep in mind that the broadband stimulus funds are supposed to go to ‘unserved’ or ‘underserved’ areas,” Crandall said. “I suppose that the parks in Monrovia fit this description, but how many people live in the parks?

“Otherwise, this appears to be a proposal to shift the cost of a wi-fi system for the city government onto the federal government,” Crandall added.

Many Suitors, Limited Funds

Champion WiFi, a subsidiary of Monrovia-based Champion Broadband, says it will cover about one-fifth of the cost of the project to expand its wi-fi service to residents of the city. The federal government, however, first has to approve the project—and there are already many suitors for the coveted broadband stimulus funds.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service, which serve as gatekeepers for the funds, had received more than 2,000 applications for grants as of late September.

While the program promises to spend $7.2 billion to increase broadband penetration across the United States, only half of that will be allocated in the first phase. So far the total sum municipalities have asked for has reached $28 billion—four times the funding of the entire program.

Solving a Non-Problem

Vince Vasquez, a senior policy analyst with the National University System Institute for Policy Research in La Jolla, California, says “government controlled Internet access is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

“Municipal wi-fi is a failed model of broadband delivery, precisely because it’s not driven by market demands, but rather, government design,” Vasquez said. “If Monrovia city officials are interested in improving broadband access, they should review the laws they have on the books that hinder competition and capital improvements.

“Business taxes, rights-of-way fees, pole fees, and other local government regulations can be revised to foster greater consumer choice and improved service delivery where it’s needed,” Vasquez said.

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is co-director of The Heartland Institute’s Center on the Digital Economy and managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.