Broadband Stimulus: Just One More Funding Round Slated

The agencies responsible for handing out $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money will hold just one more funds-distribution round, rather than the originally expected two.

Larry Strickling, administrator for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said on Tuesday that switching to a total of two rounds rather than three means “potential applicants will gain more time to form partnerships and create stronger project proposals.”

Industry observers have suspected this announcement was coming, as NTIA and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are operating on a tight deadline – they must pay all of the grants and loan recipients by the end of September 2010. Plus, Angela Simpson, Strickling’s adviser, told COMPTEL PLUS attendees in October chances were good only two rounds would take place.

NTIA and RUS have confirmed the speculation and say the change is good. Jonathan Adelstein, the former FCC commissioner who’s now leading the RUS, said the strategy will “get the funds out the door faster to stimulate the economy and create jobs.”

Perhaps more to the point, though, is that having one additional round gives administrators a chance to revamp the application process. Many providers, municipalities, universities and other hopeful recipients have complained the application requirements are convoluted and time-consuming. Therefore, a number of entities have refused to participate in the stimulus program, which defeats the aim of the $787 billion American Reinvestment & Recovery Act.

NTIA and RUS now are fielding public comments to determine what to overhaul.

“We will consider changes … to make the process more ‘applicant friendly’ from beginning to end,” Adelstein said.

The feds want to know how to streamline the application process while ensuring they get complete information. NTIA and RUS also said in a press release they want input on achieving a balance between the public’s interest in transparency and “stakeholders’ legitimate interest” in keeping proprietary data confidential.

Further, the agencies want to know where the rest of the broadband stimulus funds should go, based on criteria such as the number of end users or institutions connecting to service, the number of new jobs created and the projected increase in broadband adoption rates. One of the key issues in that discussion will be the installation of middle-mile facilities that support telemedicine and online distance learning, NTIA and RUS said. Finally, as they seek feedback and suggestions, policymakers are wondering whether their definition of “remote area” has been too restrictive.

In the meantime, NTIA and RUS have yet to award the first set of broadband stimulus funds. The distributions at first were slated for this fall but have steadily been pushed out; the agencies said on Tuesday they plan to name the recipients of up to $4 billion in grants and loans some time in December.

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