Thursday, February 11, 2010

Broadband Stimulus Timeline Is Snowed Under

Can the feds award $231 million a day in broadband stimulus funds? 02/11/2010 San Francisco
- Has the second crippling snow storm to paralyze Washington, DC in less than a week also paralyzed the exceedingly tight schedule for the federal broadband stimulus program?

Will Mother Nature give federal agency mangers the justification to accede to demands for scheduling rationality and data transparency from Congress, state officials, telecom service providers, network equipment manufacturers, and municipalities around the nation?

Today as the federal government starts its fourth full day of mandatory shutdown, these are the lead questions circulating today among District-based congressional staffers, agency employees, and telecom lawyer / lobbyists involved in the "bbstim" effort funded by $7.2 billion in federal stimulus appropriations. The questions are being asked over phone calls and in web conferences, rather than in government and private offices, as the core civilian workforce of the U.S. government sit holed up in their homes.

Beyond the Beltway, out around the nation from whence a total of 2,187 funding applications were generated in Round I of the program, the singular question is being put more succinctly: 'Will the bureaucrats in Washington face reality?'

Round II Funding Application Start Date: Tuesday, February 16
Present federal rules, issued in January, state that the application phase of the program's funding Round II will open next Tuesday morning, February 16. At that time the Easygrant online applications system is slated to begin allowing Round II applicants to file their requests for $4.6 billion in broadband stimulus funding. The application window closes on March 15, under the same rules established by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

Federal officials have repeatedly stated, including in congressional testimony, that all Round I awards and rejections would be announced in time for meaningful decisions to be made by Round II applicants. Further driving this scheduling goal of the two agencies managing the program are the requirements that Round II applicants may not apply for a "proposed service area" in which Round I monies have already been awarded.

Even before winter weather did brought the federal city to its knees, the enunciated goal of full disclosure of Round I wins and losses, and of adequate scheduling for rational Round II decision making by applicants appeared to many applicants and program watchers as untenable.

The Pipeline: 17% of Round I Funds Awarded
While federal officials have stated that the majority of Round I rejection letters have been issued and/or received at this point, only $693 million (17%) of the first round's total allocation of $4.2 billion has been awarded. The award number includes $96.1 million issued to 54 states and territories for the broadband mapping program. The $4.2 billion includes reserves of $525 million.

The Pipeline: 10% of Broadband Stimulus Funds Awarded
From the best we can determine, 1,306 rejection letters have been issued to date for the 2,187 applications. As of Monday of this week, 41 projects have received a total of $597 million in funding from NTIA and RUS in the core BTOP and BIP programs of the agencies, in addition to the mapping awards for which only states and territories were eligible. Thus, the 2 agencies have awarded only 10%, $693,007,665, of the total $7.2 billion appropriated for the entire program as the Round II application system is about to open.

The Timeline: $231 million in Daily Awards for 17 Days?
While there have been several statements from federal agency managers that the goal is to announce all awards prior to next Tuesday, the official statements attributed to authorized spokespeople hold that all awards are targeted for announcement by February 28. Even if the agencies are able to hold to this tight schedule, Round II applicants will have only 2 weeks complete their applications based on knowledge of who won and who lost in Round I.

With 17 days left between now and February 28, the key question to be asked of federal managers at NTIA and RUS is: Will these two agencies be able to award an estimated $231 million per day, inclusive of reserves, between now and the end of February? Even if the agencies are able to award the funds by the announced late February target date, is the information about Round I awards and rejections sufficient to make for improved application quality in Round II?

On those calls and online meetings, the broadband stimulus community is today asking those detail-level questions. Is this type of schedule at all feasible when the bulk of federal employees and private contractors assigned to the program are unable to commute to work for upwards of a full work week?

Will Congress Have A Say?
There is a growing consensus in the community of state broadband officials, municipal leaders, service providers, and the army of consulting specialists supporting them that the federal broadband stimulus program is now snowed under in terms of lack of transparency and scheduling.

Of the many officials and private companies working with program, an increasingly number are turning to their representatives in Congress to plead for more information about the reasons for Round I awards and rejections, and to plead for more time.

One wonders if Congress will be able to grasp the details of what is happening now, and direct the agencies to resolve the problems.
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