February 11, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
With the final funding window for broadband stimulus applicants opening on Feb. 16, groups submitting proposals should pay attention to the guidance offered at workshops being hosted around the country by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Services (RUS). The two federal agencies are disbursing $7.2 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for broadband projects.
The NTIA and RUS have conducted seven workshops, so far, with two more scheduled -- one in Fayetteville, N.C., and another in Atlanta.
NTIA administrator Lawrence Strickling recently described his routine thought process when reviewing applications to a room of workshop attendees in Denver.
"When these projects are brought to me, I very much am looking for the management experience of the team that's putting it together, the budget they've put together and the reasonableness of the assumptions they're making," Strickling said. "We want to see that this is a project that will stand on its own once the federal money is gone."
Strickling said inclusion of private companies with experience doing similar projects to those proposed would signal that competency to him.
For the second funding window, the agency will focus its dollars on middle-mile proposals.
"We think it helps to prime the pump for the last mile projects that need to be built," Strickling said.
A middle-mile project functions as a connectivity backbone from which "last-mile" providers extend their own equipment to buildings. The last-mile providers then sell broadband subscriptions to the occupants of those buildings.
Strickling said he was unlikely to approve proposals costing more than $150 million or less than $5 million. He sees an application that requests less than $5 million as a red flag that the applicant hasn't gathered adequate community partners. The NTIA announced last month it would give special priority to applications that included "anchor tenants," like hospitals, community colleges and government agencies. Any project involving such organizations should cost a minimum of $5 million, in Strickling's view. He labeled such proposals "public-private partnerships," but reassured the Denver audience that the partnerships didn't need to involve onerous legal attachments.
"We want to know that the county development office was at least talked to and that the key anchor institutions were given an opportunity to participate. Showing in the application that the applicant has done that is really important to me," Strickling said.
He views anchor tenant participation as essential to encouraging broadband usage among resistant end-users.
"If you're not in a community where the schools, key government facilities, hospitals and libraries are hooked up, there is less [tendency] for people to see it as something they want in their homes," Strickling said.
The NTIA's preference for collaboration extends to public computing grant applications as well. Strickling said he wouldn't even consider applications requesting less than $500,000. He spoke glowingly of statewide library proposals his agency had already approved. The winning applicants involved several libraries and based their submissions on survey research of where the most need existed in their states.
"It's much more impressive of a project to us than some we've gotten where a single library filed and asked for a $20,000 grant to create a public computer center," Strickling remarked. "That isn't to say they didn't have a meaningful project for their community. [But] it costs us more than $20,000 to even look at that application."