January 15, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
The second funding window for broadband stimulus applications and two sets of revised eligibility requirements were announced Friday, Jan. 15.
Proposals are due between Feb. 16 and March 15, and awards should be announced by Sept. 30.
Applicants will need to study a new, separate notice of funds available (NOFA) for grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and a separate NOFA for money from the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the two federal agencies in charge of disbursing the $7.2 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for broadband projects.
Combining rules for two different agencies in one NOFA caused confusion, according to Oakland, Calif.-based municipal broadband analyst Craig Settles. "When you integrate two agencies with different staff, procedures and histories, their rules are bound to clash," Settles said.
An estimated $4.8 billion remains from the Recovery Act for broadband grants. About $2.4 billion already has been awarded through the first funding window that occurred in December 2009, or was set aside for establishing a national broadband map and administrating the funds. The agencies say separate NOFAs will enable projects to promote the two agencies' distinct objectives.
The NTIA will focus its $2.6 billion share on "middle-mile" projects, while the RUS will direct the bulk of its $2.2 billion on "last-mile" initiatives. Middle-mile is a term for fiber backbone networks that cut through broad areas of the country. Last-mile refers to equipment that service providers extend from the backbone to homes and businesses.
"Based on the feedback we received from stakeholders and our own experience in the first funding round, we are making the application process more user-friendly, sharpening our funding focus to make the biggest impact with this investment and streamlining our review process to increase efficiency," said NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling, in a statement.
The NTIA cautioned that middle-mile projects with a strong "comprehensive community" approach would have an edge for this funding window. The NTIA defines this as connecting key community anchor institutions, such as libraries, hospitals, community colleges, universities and public safety institutions.
Public-private partnerships, driven by vendors but endorsed by governments, are likely the best candidates for meeting those types of stipulations, said Gartner research Vice President Alex Winogradoff in a recent Government Technology interview. "If you have a reasonable public-private relationship in which the government doesn't become overbearing, those situations work," Winogradoff said.
In fact, in an attempt to encourage collaboration, earlier this month the Obama administration launched an online matchmaking portal called BroadbandMatch where those with broadband proposals can connect with similar partners.
Agencies seeking funds to expand their public computing facilities can try for the $150 million the NTIA is offering for that purpose during this window. The agency is also setting aside $100 million for initiatives aimed at encouraging broadband usage in communities that are hesitant to it.
The RUS funding announcement called special attention to one simplified NOFA requirement in particular. The first NOFA had two funding options -- grants of up to 100 percent in remote rural areas, and 50/50 loan-grant combinations in nonremote rural areas, the agency said in a statement. For the second round, the RUS notice eliminates this distinction and adopts a base 75/25 grant/loan combination for all projects. The RUS says its new approach provides flexibility for seeking a waiver if additional grant resources are needed for areas that are difficult to serve.
Also written into the new RUS notice is a second application review process during which applicants could adjust their proposals to better meet program objectives. The RUS even promises to offer advice to those applicants on how to improve their proposals.
Also Friday, the NTIA and RUS announced a series of public workshops to review the application process and answer questions from prospective applicants. The workshops will be held in Portland, Ore.; Reno, Nev.; Denver; San Antonio; Eureka, Mo.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Detroit; Blacksburg, Va.; Fayetteville, N.C.; and Atlanta. Interested parties can register for the workshops at www.broadbandusa.gov.