Hood River’s Keenwire scores funding help for rural broadband projects

12 Sep

Everybody wants more of it, but nobody can get as much as they want.

Oh, get your mind out of the gutter.

I’m talking about broadband. Broadband is the common term for a wired or wireless link that can deliver large, larger and largest quantities of data. It’s the holy grail for people who want to move audio, video and graphic files to or from their laptops and smart phones.

According to a report by the Federal Communications Commission in July 2010, up to 24 million Americans lack access to broadband. Most of them are poor, or live in rural areas, or both.

On Thursday (Sept. 9), I spent some time with the brain trust behind Keenwire, a cool Hood River company trying to close the gap between the haves and have-nots in the world of broadband. In Oregon, that means almost all of us.

Keenwire operates out of office space at the corner of State and 13th Street. Tricia Stevens is the president, and one of five owners, including Scott Perala, Jerry Anson, Laura McAllister and Dan Wahl. Stevens’  husband, Scott, is in charge of “strategic relations.”

He’s perfect for the rainmaker role, given his extensive background in broadband industry. The key thing to note is that Keenwire has been the point of the spear for three successful grant applications (out of 14 submitted) through the government’s $7.2 billion broadband stimulus initiative.

The stimulus act approved in February 2009 allocated that money in roughly equal shares for disbursal by the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA). The goal was to fund broadband projects that would serve rural areas and Native American reservations.

Keenwire prepared 14 grant applications for both Rounds 1 and 2. The three funded were $25.3 million to Rivada Sea Lion Broadband in Alaska; $30 million to the North Florida Broadband Authority, and $24 million to the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance.

“For us to have been a part of three rants of this size is pretty substantial,” Scott Stevens says.

Deadline for Round 2 awards is the end of this month (September 2010). Oregon didn’t do that well in Round 1. It got $10 million in broadband system grants, out of total U.S. awards of about $4 billion. When there’s money on the tree, pickers show up for harvest. That round saw 2,200 applications representing $28 billion in projects — obviously way more than the government was prepared to fund.

For Oregon, the USDA’s Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) awarded the Canby Telephone Association $496,090, and the city of Sandy $374,537. The Gervais Telephone Co. got a joint award of $314,430. And the Lane Council of Governments got $7.340 million through the Commerce’s Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP).

Keenwire shot for the moon in Round 2, pulling together Greenwire Broadband to push the Oregon Broadband Initiative. Designed to foster collaboration with public and private entities to deliver broadband to 28 of Oregon’s 36 counties, the Initiative is budgeted at $189 million. Keenwire prepared a grant request of $129 million to support that effort.

That said, “We’re not likely to be funded,” Tricia Stevens admits.

Even so, Keenwire is pushing Greenwire ahead in search of private investment, and positioning itself to provide project management, engineering and compliance help to the people it has helped get grants, and other applicants. Award recipients have three years to deliver.

Rural broadband is just one focus for Keenwire. The other is to help public safety agencies respond to an unfunded mandate that they get their communications systems so they call can talk together — what’s called “interoperability” — by Jan. 1, 2013.

Scott Stevens first saw the need — and opportunity — to serve rural markets when he was working a decade ago for Electro-Comm Distributing, a Denver wholesaler. He helped found its wireless broadband department. After moving to Aspen, he saw “an extreme demand for connectivity on a nationwide basis,” and helped an investment group raise $28 million to deploy National Broadband. It put wireless towers every 40 miles along 17,000 miles of fiber in 38 states.

“We put metro capacity and pricing to tier 2 and 3 markets,” Scott Stevens recalls. “Walmart wanted a tower at every store.”

Stevens later worked with the FCC to expand the wireless spectrum to rural areas, helped shape the Obama campaign’s broadband policy in 2008, consulted with CenturyTel and Insitu, and helped Vail, Colo., create a municipal broadband network.

Five years ago, he and Tricia met, married and left Aspen behind for life closer to her childhood home in White Salmon. They formed Keenwire in July 2009. It now has 13 employees, and figures to add more. They make a great pot of coffee, and everyone greets visitors with wireless smiles.

Not bad for a bouncing baby 1-year-old.

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