February 16, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
The second and final funding window for broadband stimulus applications opened Tuesday, Feb. 16. Applicants have until March 15 to complete their submissions, which preparers are working feverishly to align with the latest broadband stimulus eligibility requirements. Given that the federal government is still holding workshops on how best to craft applications, expect a rush of submissions near the end of this funding period. Applications will go either to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) or the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the two agencies disbursing $7.2 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for broadband projects.
The NTIA announced last month that 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 the view of Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the NTIA. At a recent workshop in Denver, he labeled such proposals "public-private partnerships," but reassured the 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.
He described his routine thought process when reviewing applications.
"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."
The bulk of the NTIA's share of the funds will go to middle-mile projects, while the RUS will fund mostly to last-mile proposals.
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.
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."