US agencies streamline broadband funding process

Two agencies cut a third funding round from broadband grant and loan programs

Two U.S. agencies responsible for distributing US$7.2 billion in broadband deployment grants by the end of 2010 have streamlined the process by cutting one of three rounds of funding.

The U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) plan to announce a second and final funding round in early 2010, the agencies said.

The two agencies issued a request for information (RFI) Tuesday, asking for feedback on the broadband deployment programs offered by each agency. The RFI seeks input on ways to streamline the application process, and it asks whether the agencies can better balance the public’s interest in transparency and openness with broadband providers' interest in maintaining the confidentiality of proprietary data.

In the first round of funding, for about $4 billion in grants and loans, the two agencies received 2,200 applications for about $28 billion in funding. The agencies expect to award the first-round funding in December.

With the "overwhelming response," a consolidated final round makes sense, Lawrence Strickling, NTIA's administrator, said in a statement.

The consolidated second round will get the money out faster in an effort to help the U.S. economy, the agencies said. The broadband programs are part of a $787 billion economic stimulus package passed by Congress early this year.

The consolidated approach "gives applicants and communities a greater opportunity to come together to form networks and find more creative ways to connect to the global economy through broadband,” Jonathan Adelstein, RUS administrator, said in a statement. “We are listening to applicants, reviewing applications received, and all indications suggest a need to revisit the application process. We will consider changes ... to make the process more applicant friendly from beginning to end.”

Craig Settles, a community broadband consultant and president of Successful.com, said it makes sense for the agencies to cut one funding round.

"If you look at the level to which the first round was over-subscribed, applicants collectively asking for seven times the $4 billion of funds available, it makes no sense to try to do two funding rounds for smaller amounts when there's this kind of demand," he said. "Also, the administrative burden of preparing for, receiving and reviewing these applications is huge. Both agencies probably cut their admin time in half by consolidating the last two rounds."

The RFI, with the agencies seeking comments on the process, came as a pleasant surprise, Settles added. The original rules did not allow for proposals from local governments and public-private partnerships, he said, and the RFI acknowledges those complaints.

The RFI also is asking for people to comment on definitions of "remote" and "unserved" areas eligible for special funding, he noted. "The RFI even asks if the agencies should adjust their focus to address proposals with a clear economic development impact," Settles said. "This is significant because it goes beyond just trying to accomplish a goal of getting people online, and gets to the heart of the [stimulus package's] primary goal -- turning the economy around."

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