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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Volunteer Review Plan for First Broadband Stimulus Applications Ignites Firestorm

StimulatingBroadband.com 07/09/09 A federal agency proposal to use volunteer reviewers to make approval and denial decisions on the first round of approximately $ 1.6 billion in Recovery Act broadband stimulus competitive grant applications has set-off a firestorm of protest.

The program, first announced online on Monday, July 6, is being launched by the National Information and Telecommunications Administration (NTIA), of the US Department of Commerce. A description of the volunteer reviewer solicitation program was posted at: Call for Reviewers Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, part of the joint federal agency site BroadbandUSA.gov.

NTIA states in the Call that the agency "...is soliciting volunteers to serve as panelists to evaluate grant proposals for the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), an important part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009."

Criticism from the Floor

The plan was publicly described yesterday at an outreach Workshop held outside Boston by officials of NTIA, the Commerce agency administering $4.7 billion of the federal Recovery Act's total $7.2 billion funding for broadband stimulus programs.

The plan was described, initially in passing, by a NTIA employee during a breakout session on the NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) as part of the day long Workshop, one of ten such public outreach events scheduled around the nation during July. The NTIA speaker was met with immediate questions about the volunteer effort, negative comments, and outright strong criticism of the plan.

One state broadband administrator posed a direct question to the official, asking "What is to prevent the large telephone companies from just loading the process with their employees?"

Other attendees peppered NTIA representatives with questions and concerns, most exploring the obvious potential for conflict of interest and similar abuse of the volunteer program.

The Workshop was attended by approximately 300 telecom industry representatives, state broadband program officials from several jurisdictions in the Northeast, attorneys and consultants, and broadband community activists. Most of the questions from the the estimated 50 people attending the breakout session were focused on the Call for Reviewers.

Criticism from the Blogoshphere

Ms. Esme Vos, editor of the online publication MuniWireless.com, informed StimualtingBroadband.com last evening that she was outright calling for a boycott by experienced telecom industry practitioners of the NTIA volunteer review program.

"I am calling for a boycott or perhaps more strongly, an old-fashioned workers' strike, the way workers used to do in the US many moons ago," stated Ms. Vos in an e-mail.

"I don't see Commerce department employees working for free, do you? Why should they tell us we should work for free? I am beyond appalled. This tells me that the US government is not serious about broadband because if it were, it would pay very good money (of the sort they seem to shower on Halliburton) for experts to assess these networks. By the way, if I see "experts" who I know have a serious conflict of interest acting as volunteer grant reviewers, I will expose them on Muniwireless.com," concluded Ms. Vos.

Broadband author and consultant Mr. Craig Settles posted criticism today on his site Fighting the Next Good Fight, saying "How skilled are these people really going to be to be able to look at a 100- or 200-page proposal and be able to determine if it should get the 5 points for affordability, or points for having a strong management team, which are all elements of the NOFA? The people who are best qualified to do this work are either working 20 hours a day to keep the job they have, or trying to find a job."

"And from the political side, the vulnerability for tampering and unfair influence is huge. There's talk of these volunteers working from home. Even if they sign a confidentiality statement and swear on a stack to bibles to not have a conflict of interest, who the heck is going to look over their shoulder to ensure this. For that matter, when you get down to it, anyone can look over their shoulder - literally -at home or their office who hasn't signed a pledge of confidentiality or no conflict of interest," said Mr. Settles in a separate communication with StimulatingBroadband.com.

USDA to Use Federal Employees & Retained Contractors for Review
The balance of the total in Recovery Act broadband monies, a budget authorization of $2.5 billion, is being managed by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

USDA officials stated yesterday in a Workshop session attended by StimulatingBroadband.com that RUS would not be using volunteers in any part of its grant and loan application review process. During a presentation on the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) of RUS, a USDA official stated that RUS is now in the process of retaining federal contractors to compliment its agency workforce of over 6,000 federal employees assigned to program management in the field. USDA estimates that an unknown number of these experienced program employees will be temporary reassigned to grant and loan review tasks, including management of the selected federal contractors.

Our Take: We were sincere in expressing our thanks to the managers and employees of NTIA and RUS we met yesterday at the Boston area Workshop. We have done so throughout the past months we have been covering the "broadband stim" story nationally.

We were in the room when a hard working NTIA employee was besieged with questions about the volunteer reviewer program.

Both NTIA and RUS deserve nothing but thanks from all of us that care about the transformative powers of ubiquitous broadband in American society for the yeoman's duty they have performed over the past 5 months.

On this issue however, we think NTIA has made a mistake. The Department of Commerce and NTIA need to go back and issue a call for paid federal contractors to supplement DOC-NTIA employees managing the review process. USDA-RUS is the model in this regard. StimulatingBroadband.com
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