Getting the broadband stimulus program right

Currently in the broadband stimulus program, the pressure of a Congressionally-imposed funding deadline is once again causing best practices for technology deployment to be sacrificed on the altar of political necessity. The potential damage, financial and otherwise, is huge. Conversely, a viable solution is simple.

The monumental bind we’re in is that it’s highly unlikely NTIA and RUS can push all of the Round 1 stimulus funds out the door by Sunday, February 28. However, all applications for Round 2 funding are due 15 days later. By the rules for Round 2, applicants’ proposals will be rejected if they propose to build broadband in areas already funded.

To use a Metro subway analogy to understand this problem’s implications, it’s not good to bring your train barreling into the station if you don’t know if the previous train is still there or has safely pulled away. The Round 2 process is about to crash headlong into Round 1. Round 2 will become a tangled mess. If Congress’ goal is to facilitate the quick delivery of broadband to stimulate economic recovery and lay a foundation for economic advancement, prepare to be disappointed.

The simple solution is to extend the deadline for Round 2 applicants. However, in the face of complaints from communities, providers and vendors nationwide, the agencies have dug in their heels refusing to yield, citing the September 30 deadline for awarding all of the money. It’s time for someone (or several) in Congress to step up, acknowledge that we can’t achieve broadband’s promised economic goals if the program implodes and therefore grant NTIA and RUS a 30-45 day extension.

You gave the FCC an extension because it made sense. It makes even more sense for NTIA and RUS. There are billions of dollars riding on their program. More importantly, this stimulus program represents a significant down payment on the vision of bringing true highspeed broadband to communities across the U.S. A major train wreck at this stage wipes out all of that.

Since we can’t force a do-over, but we clearly can’t get there from here given the realities that face NTIA and RUS, the only logical course is an extension. There also needs to be some procedural changes by the agencies and also by Congress if it intends to continue championing broadband in policy and in legislation.

While there are acknowledged concerns and criticisms regarding the program’s execution, the roots of many of these problems were planted unintentionally a year ago when Congress gave NTIA and RUS a mandate to be done by September. This set the stage for politics to clash with the realities of technology.

Remember the Supremes (the Motown version)? They sang “You can’t hurry love.” Well, you can’t hurry billion-dollar funding programs for 1000’s of applicants with multi-million dollar tech projects involving multiple political jurisdictions, various stakeholder groups and a montage of vendors and service providers. It makes no sense to paint an agency into a box that sets them up to fail.

You should be expedient, however, and demand the same from the agencies responsible for facilitating technology-related programs. If, as many are hoping, we get new deadlines, the agencies also need to be heavily encouraged to make some changes to make this funding process more expedient and effective for everyone involved.
Transparency has been a casualty in this stage of the process. Entities spent huge amounts of time and money (some up to $100,000) to prepare applications, and many received a one-page form rejection letter. They have little or no clue as to what was wrong. Telling people what you want in Round 2 without better clarification of what was good or bad about their Round 1 application doesn’t really cut it.
Transparency takes additional hits as the agencies fail to give the applicants or the public a true picture of how much weight incumbent challenges had on proposals being rejected. The issue of incumbents dictating a process they themselves don’t have the guts to participate in is not a minor issue. Furthermore, the scores applicants received in the process are not available. How do you encourage communities to bring great plans to the table when they have no quantitative clues as to what constitute good and bad proposals? 

Finally, someone needs to direct the agencies to modify their dependence on, or abandon outright, their online mapping tool that applicants are supposed to use to determine where there is or isn’t coverage. I know it cost them a lot of money and there’s departmental ego equity invested as well. However, there is near universal agreement by communities, service providers and vendors that this online tool is woefully lacking in broadband usage data and general functionality that would be useful in determining the viability of an applicant’s proposal. (In the interest of fair disclosure, I will say that I have a horse in this stimulus race.)

The broadband stimulus program offers many great potential benefits. But sometimes you can’t hurry technology success.

Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant and author of Fighting the Next Good Fight: Bringing True Broadband to Your Community.