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November 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 11
Top of Mind

Are We There Yet? Are We There Yet?

Could November include the magical moment in which the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Rural Utilities Service announce the winners of the first round broadband stimulus process? All signs point to maybe.

The NTIA recently told me that it and RUS expect to disclose the winners between November and the end of the year. At stake in this round is $4 billion, although the agencies recently revealed they had received requests for grants and loans totaling nearly $28 billion.

Whenever free money is involved, people pay attention. And with all the buildup around the broadband stimulus, it’s really been kind of exciting. But it’s also caused a great degree of frustration.

First people were anxious because they wanted to make sure they got a piece of the pie, but it took a while for the FCC (News - Alert), the NTIA and RUS to lay out the definitions, requirements and point criteria around this first round of stimulus funding. Of course, when those rules finally were released, various groups didn’t like different aspects of them.

At the same time many who were entertaining the idea of participating in the first round, particularly smaller and often rural operators with very limited budgets and human resources, felt the time and work required just to put together an application would be too much of a drain on their businesses. But even those organizations that were able to get to the finish line with completed applications then struggled to submit their applications online due to server problems at the agencies.

But that’s all in the past. What’s happening now is we’re getting ever-closer to the federal government naming the winners and finally doling out this much-sought-after money. And when it does it will give everybody involved in the first round, as well as those waiting on the sidelines, a much better idea about what regulators are looking for in their efforts to make broadband more widely available to a more diverse selection of the population while creating jobs and enabling important applications.

Lest that makes anyone too comfortable, let me remind you that while the initial word out of Washington was that there would be a total of three rounds of broadband stimulus funding. And the NTIA told me recently the FCC was expected to issue a second Notice of Fund Availability document laying out the rules for the second round of funding this quarter, with the second round application process opening shortly after that. However, since that conversation NTIA executive Lawrence E. Strickling told the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet Committee on Energy and Commerce of the U.S. House of Representatives the agencies were now considering merging the second and third broadband stimulus rounds into a single and final round.

“This more consolidated approach may have the potential of yielding benefits for all stakeholders,” he said. “First, it would enable us to complete the entire grant-making process in the summer of 2010, as opposed to next September, thus expediting the stimulative benefits for the economy and job creation that the Recovery Act promises.

“Combining the second and third rounds into a single funding round, and adjusting the application deadline, could afford additional time – both to stakeholders, to provide us with well-informed views on how the first round worked for applicants, and to NTIA and RUS, to learn from our experience and adjust those aspects of the process that need to be improved. Also, parties who wish to collaborate on an application, such as through consortia or public-private partnerships, could have additional time to work out the details of those arrangements. Finally, combining the final two rounds may also economize on administrative expenses.”

The idea of expediting the distribution of stimulus funds seems reasonable. But I’m not clear on how merging the two rounds and moving thing up to the summer of 2010 affords anyone additional time. IT

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