That $80.6 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant to provide high speed broadband internet to rural areas of Louisiana keeps rearing its ugly head.
That’s the grant—the second grant—that Gov. Bobby Jindal eschewed and eventually lost when the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a three-page letter of revocation last October. Jindal had earlier declined to apply for a $60 million grant for early childhood education.
LouisianaVoice has obtained information that indicates the forfeiting of the broadband grant now appears to have been the brainchild of none other than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which last August bestowed its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award, on Jindal at ALEC’s national conference in New Orleans.
The project would have created 900 miles of cable over 21 rural parishes in Louisiana and would have supported several Louisiana universities with expanded optical fiber networking capacity that could have complimented the Board of Regents’ $20 million Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI) project, designed to extend high-speed networking capabilities in the state.
But Jindal, whose wife’s charitable foundation received funding from AT&T, preferred that the project be carried out by private companies—such as AT&T. He refused to re-apply for the grant because of what he called a “heavy-handed approach from the federal government that would have undermined and taken over private business.”
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu called Jindal’s reasoning “hogwash.” She said the grant would not have interfered with private enterprise and in fact, just the opposite was true. “We weren’t trying to create a government broadband system; it’s granting money for private companies to lay the cable,” she said.
Even more ominous, that revocation letter from Arlene Simpson Porter, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Division (NOAA), informed the Jindal administration, “Consideration of this adverse action may be used in future funding decisions for your organization.”
That could mean that Jindal’s decision could be used against the state in any future grant applications.
The problems started March 17, 2011, when BTOP staff informed the Board of Regents that the project was nine months behind schedule. A formal response was requested by May 13, 2011, but on May 17, there still was no formal response and a corrective action plan (CAP) letter was sent to the Board of Regents.
That was followed on May 26 by a conference call between BTOP staff, the Board of Regents and the Division of Administration (DOA) to discuss the CAP response. On June 14, the Board of Regents and DOA issued a response letter in which it was noted that the DOA Office of Information Technology (OIT) would provide project oversight to ensure that implementation of the BTOP grant would not be in direct competition with private providers.
The state was notified on July 6 that it was even further behind on the project and additional problems were encountered on July 12. On July 27, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requested that NOAA suspend Louisiana’s U.S. Treasury Automated System Application for Payment (ASAP) account pending corrective actions, including delivery of project benefits and compliance with award terms and conditions.
The Board of Regents on Aug. 8 provided BTOP staff with a chart outlining the planning process and goals. A month later, the Regents proposed an alternative design that included a new plan, new project schedule with new structure and milestones and a survey of service providers that would provide unspecified indefeasible right of use (IRU). An IRU is a contractual agreement between operators of communications systems, including fiber optics.
The Regents’ proposal was rejected by NOAA, which on Sept. 20 issued a 30-day notice of termination of award. That was followed by Simpson-Porter’s Oct. 26 termination letter.
Could the loss of the grant have been orchestrated by ALEC? Could the administration have deliberately stalled until the grant was pulled in order to comply with ALEC’s national agenda?
Perhaps we will never know the answer to that, but consider this:
As far back as August of 2010, at ALEC’s annual meeting in San Diego, its Telecommunications & Information Technology Task Force passed the following resolution:
• Whereas, it is the mission of the American Legislative Exchange Council to advance the Jeffersonian principles of the free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty, and
• Whereas, broadband information services sector is critical to growing the nation’s economy, enhancing quality of life through new and innovative applications, and enabling greater job creation, and
• Whereas, the rise of private investment in broadband technologies has dramatically transformed the way consumers work, live, learn, and conduct their daily lives, and
• Whereas, ALEC believes that innovation, private investment, and market competition, not additional regulations, should drive the continued deployment and adoption of broadband information services, and
• Whereas, the FCC has moved forward with a plan that would impose its authority on the internet and regulate the provision of broadband information services, and
• Therefore, be it resolved that ALEC voices its support of lawmakers and regulators avoiding the unnecessary, burdensome and economically harmful regulation of broadband internet service companies, including the providers of the infrastructure that supports and enables internet services, and further
• Be it resolved that ALEC urges that the FCC, Congress, and state regulatory and legislative bodies refocus their efforts on specific and limited initiatives targeted at ensuring that broadband service is made universally available and affordable to consumers, rejecting overly prescriptive regulation that would harm innovation, investment, and job growth, and further
• Be it resolved that ALEC’s opposition to the sweeping redefinition of broadband services be communicated to all ALEC members, and further
• Be it resolved that ALEC shall convey its support to the members of the United States Congress and Executive Branch.
The resolution was offered by Intuit, Inc., following a presentation by Eagle Communications on “concerns over federal grants being used to fund businesses to compete head-to-head with broadband service providers in areas that are already being served.” Intuit was one of the corporate members that recently pulled out from ALEC after the controversy over Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, a law strongly supported by ALEC, and the subsequent shooting death of a black youth by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
AT&T and Cox Communications, both major investors in cable TV and internet services, are also members of ALEC. AT&T even serves on ALEC’s corporate board.
Louisiana legislators attending that San Diego conference – at state expense – included:
• Former Rep. John LaBruzzo (R-Metairie);
• Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Marksville);
• Rep. Thomas Carmody (R-Shreveport);
• Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville);
• Rep. Joe Harrison (R-Gray);
• Rep. Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte);
• Sen. Yvonne Dorsey (D-Baton Rouge).