Broadband Stimulus: NTIA Has Nov. Award Date In Sight

COMPTEL PLUS — The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) continues to cull through broadband stimulus grant applications, seven days each week, in hopes of awarding the first round of money by its somewhat-nebulous November deadline.

“We are on track,” said Angela Simpson, advisor to the assistant secretary for NTIA, during a regulatory panel at the Fall 2009 COMPTEL PLUS Convention & Expo this week.

Similarly, the Rural Utilities Service, which is handing out $2.5 billion in grants and loans, has moved 18 applications to the second step of its vetting process**; those potential recipients now must submit more information according to reviewers’ feedback. The 18 entities would concentrate on critical last-mile, remote projects.

And as NTIA reviews the hundreds of documents, it also is consulting with states and tribal nations about who should receive the $4.7 billion in broadband stimulus funds; however, the decisions about who gets what ultimately will be made by Larry Strickling, NTIA’s assistant secretary, Simpson said.

Yet, even though NTIA appears almost done with the first round of awards, there’s more work ahead for the agency – really, for government overall.

First, NTIA officials must decide whether to hold one or two more sets of broadband stimulus funding. There had been talk of three distributions, but time is running out to give away all of the money by September of next year. Simpson did not know how many rounds remain but said chances are good NTIA will hold just one more.

And a heads-up – any further rounds almost certainly will come with different criteria than the first, panel participants said. The industry should know more by the end of October; that’s when the feds hope to published the second notice of funds available for the broadband stimulus money, said the FCC’s Rob Curtis.

The good part is hopeful recipients will have more time to submit their applications than they did earlier this year. Simpson said the process will be streamlined.

“We’re trying to avoid the capacity problems of last time,” she said.

Contained in all of the micro activity, though, is a greater implication to the broadband stimulus than job creation and high-speed Internet reach. It appears the push for nationwide broadband access will, before long, bring a long-simmering issue to the fore: what to do with the bloated Universal Service Fund (USF) that subsidizes landline technologies.

For many in the communications industry, allowing the USF to go in large chunks to LECs does a disservice to taxpayers and providers alike. They argue the USF doesn’t just need to be revamped, it needs to be torn apart and rebuilt from scratch. Only then, observers say, will the USF regime fuel the innovation and expansion the Obama Administration aims to perpetuate from the broadband stimulus.

**The article originally noted that NTIA had moved 18 applications to the second step of the selection process. In fact, it was the Rural Utilities Service that advanced those applications in its own, separate process, not NTIA. The writer regrets the error.

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