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Broadband Stimulus: NTIA, RUS Go for Round 2

The rules for the second, and final, round of broadband stimulus awards came out late last week. And, while several important changes are included, the agencies overseeing the program haven’t given hopeful recipients much time to apply.

The communications industry has waited for weeks for the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to release the guidelines for cities, service providers and institutions seeking some of the remaining $4.8 billion in funds. Congress in early 2010 allotted $7.2 billion total to the broadband portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; most of the funds from the first stage have yet to be distributed, although they’ve been appropriated. And now that Round 2 is underway, get ready: applications are due no later than March 15 – that’s less than a 60-days heads-up. The NTIA and RUS will take applications – online only, so expect some server clogs – starting on Feb. 16 and expect to announce winners by Sept. 30.

The good news is, the federal agencies have taken some of the industry’s pleas to heart, to make some changes in response to problems experienced in the first round. For example, blending NTIA and RUS processes and guidelines earlier created chaos for applicants and reviewers. This time around, the feds agreed to nix that. Overall, officials are making the application process easier, and putting the grants and loans toward projects that will carry the most impact.

At NTIA, that means a heavy focus on middle-mile deployments. Over at RUS, that translates into last-mile investments and a stronger emphasis on satellite service.

Broadband strategist and consultant Craig Settles said those last two points were wise moves.

Focusing on the middle-mile makes sense for NTIA because it lets the agency bring broadband to large areas through each separate award.

“Rather than spend time reviewing 30 proposals for $1 million each, better to review one proposal for $30 million,” he noted. “There’s less administrative hassle on the backend where NTIA has to manage each funded project to completion.”

Over at RUS, giving priority to the last-mile means the agency’s 400 field offices can help Washington-based managers oversee awarded projects more easily.

“We are going to stretch every last dime to maximize economic development in rural areas that currently lack adequate broadband service,” said Jonathan Adelstein, RUS administrator.

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