Update (6/9/09): Access Humboldt recorded the event and the video is online.

Today the RTC sponsored a luncheon that was intended to elucidate the confusing information surrounding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), how it might affect our region and specifically the prospects of improved broadband deployment. The room at the Red Lion was full of movers and shakers in economic development and Internet access interests.

Before the main attraction, though, we were treated to Nick Roney who won the annual  Don Wolski Memorial Scholarhip award. Nick read, and spontaneously augmented, his winning essay about online games and how they might extend in to useful purposes using their developed technologies and the players’ skills. His essay will appear as part of RTC’s ongoing Tech Beat articles in the Times-Standard. We also honored Chris Crawford for his hard work for RTC and especially the volunteer hours he continues to contribute to keeping the Tech Beat articles running with fresh content.

The main program featured Michael Kraft, Sean McLoughlin and Connie Stewart who each tried to provide a perspective on ARRA and how it will affect our region.

Michael, Executive Director of the North Coast Small  Business Development Center, provided a general look at how small businesses could take advantage of the funds. As the money will largely be delivered to government and non-profit agencies, small businesses will mostly benefit from a kind of trickle down affect wherein they may experience increased business from projects that will require contractors to actually do the work, and, of course, from the result of any large projects generating increased economic activity. However, a loan program that will be administered by the Small  Business Administration (SBA) will offer low cost loans of up to $35,000 to businesses that would otherwise be healthy if not for the recession itself. It’s unclear to me how a business might qualify for this niche loan, but if you feel you might, I would contact the SBA as the program will be available as early as June 15th.

The heart of the program dealt with broadband projects that are being developed to take advantage of ARRA and other stimulus funds. There’s been some controversy over who, what and how proposals are being developed to access the funds. However, it’s increasingly clear that there is no formal group attempting to muscle out others to gain an advantage with the Federal Government. There are, however, individuals who have a vision of widespread deployment of multiple fiber routes creating a robust, redundant and open system for the region.

Among the issues appear to be: 1) How to streamline policies and permitting across multiple regions and agencies in order to make proects feasible within budgets and timelines directed by the stimulus funds; 2) While ARRA funds offer to cover a large percentage of the cost of building mulitple fiber, the region will have to come up with ongoing management and maintnenance costs (how this will happen is unclear and will probably result in many individual solutions depending on the specific project; 3) Policy issues of open access and open competition for last mile deployment of services must be addressed; 4) Ongoing ownership of networks, which is related to the latter is completely unknown, but most systems will probably result in some public/private partnerships; 5) These and many other issues still have yet to be worked out,  yet they need to be in some degree, in a short amount of time, in order to even apply for the funds.

One effort is attempting to pull together several counties in order to create a regional application that would have a good chance of being awarded is using a model that created a regional plan for managing water resources. This model would create a Memo of Understanding between the four counties of Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte and Mendocino that would become the formal agency (is agency the correct word?) to submit an application for funds to build these multiple fiber lines.

I am aware that other groups (private organizations, local tribes) are also putting forth their own plans. Some may agree to partner with this regional proposal, others will probably go forward with their independent proposals.

If all of this sounds confusing, it is. In fact, while people are trying to figure out the best possible solutions, the rules for applying have not even been solidified by the Federal Government. To add to the confusion, the State of California has its own evolving agenda and will try to influence both local proposals and how the Federal Government decides what proposals should be accepted. All this while California’s budget remains in crisis mode.

These notes are my interpretation of what’s going on and are not necessarily intended to be definitive, nor comprehensive. Even though I am a board member of RTC, I am not writing on their behalf. There is much more I have left out of this report. Feel free to add your own take in the comments.