Big firms will not participate in broadband program

Three of the country’s largest Internet service providers do not plan on applying for government funds under the $7.2 billion program to deploy high-speed Internet service across the country.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, as well as AT&T and Verizon, the first- and second-largest telecommunications providers, respectively, have all said that the program was designed for smaller service providers looking to increase Internet connections rather than big companies that already have large coverage areas.

“We never saw the funds as being intended for companies like Verizon that already invest so much in broadband deployment,” said spokesman Alberto Canal. “We aren’t likely to participate.”

The program, which is part of the $787 billion stimulus package, is designed to expand high-speed Internet service to parts of the country that have little or no access to the increasingly important means of communication.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency within the Commerce Department in charge of extending the grants, will allocate $3.8 billion in the first round of funding. The first round of applications for the grants were originally due Friday, but the NTIA extended the deadline for electronic submissions to next Thursday due to slow computer systems.

Cable provider Comcast will not apply directly for the funds, but plans on working with smaller non-profits and community groups seeking help in building broadband networks, mostly in underserved rural areas, said spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice.

She said the company already offers broadband service to more than 99 percent of the homes in its coverage area.

AT&T will not immediately seek funds under the program because of the rules attached to the money.

“We closely examined the current rules and, as others have expressed, have concerns about the complexity and uncertainty they create for grant applicants,” said Michael Balmoris, AT&T spokesman.  “At this time, we are not able to participate in any of the broadband infrastructure stimulus projects that will become available through this funding program.”

The big Internet providers recently pushed back against the requirements for a related project aiming to map the availability of high-speed Internet in every state. The Commerce Department had initially asked for detailed data that showed Internet availability and speeds on a house-by-house basis.

After industry trade groups complained that the information was sensitive and not useful in such great detail, the department last week modified its data request. It agreed to accept data based on census blocks, which shows Internet offerings at a larger increment of 12 to 15 homes, and advertised speeds rather than actual speeds delivered.