Lawmakers say broadband grants should be more accessible to small firms

House members are calling for a simplified application and review process for small businesses applying for broadband stimulus grants.

House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia M. Velazquez (D-NY) and ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) sent a letter today to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utility Service asking for barriers to be lowered for smaller firms vying for broadband funds. NTIA Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling and RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein testified before the committee last month and were asked to address some of the complaints of small businesses trying to navigate the application process.

In the letter, Velazquez and Graves recommended that the grant program give priority to unserved areas that have no broadband access. They also asked for improvements to the Web site businesses must use to submit application materials.

"It is our understanding that the procedures for using this Web site are confusing and time- and resource-consuming, particularly for small businesses," they wrote. "Without such changes, the committee is concerned that awards will be issued with an inaccurate or incomplete picture of existing service."

They also asked for changes to some of the program provisions. Currently, grant recipients are not allowed to sell grant-funded facilities for 10 years. They also must provide matching funds of 20 percent of the total cost of the project.

The lawmakers say these stipulations are cost-prohibitive for small businesses.

Ironically, some say the program is too tailored for small businesses, making it difficult for larger firms to apply for the broadband funds. Satellite provider Hughes Networks told me yesterday, during a demonstration for FCC officials, that the online application required documentation of every census block area the company served. That would require the manual entry of thousands of census blocks for each state, which was too time consuming for its staff since Hughes provides service across the country.

Hughes wants the NTIA and RUS to change the online system to be more accommodating to firms that cover more than a few counties.