Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Public Interest Groups Say Broadband Stimulus Needs More Time

NATOA and 13 Others Call for Round II Extension to April 30 02/17/2010
- A coalition of public interest groups closely aligned with the policies and politics of the Obama Administration has called for the current funding window of the federal broadband stimulus program to be extended by 6 weeks.

Funding Round II of the total $7.2 billion broadband stimulus program within the Recovery Act was launched yesterday with the opening of a 30 day application submittal window. The public sector and non-profit groups have asked, in a letter sent on February 12, that the submission deadline, established by federal rules issued January 17, be extended from March 15 to April 30, 2010.

Many applicants, congressional staff, state broadband program chiefs, and trade associations have complained to the agencies about both the tight deadlines of the program. The lack of open or transparent data relative to the application pipeline has also been an issue voiced, most prominently by a wireless trade association in January.

The NATOA sponsored letter, issued February 12, is however the first major expression of dissatisfaction from a significant public coalition of interests directly involved in the broadband stimulus process.

Key to criticism of the program's schedule is the fact that only 17% of the funds allocated to the first funding round of the effort have been awarded to date. Round II applicants thus have little factual information in-hand to make their decisions about "proposed service areas" outlined in their requests for funding. laid out these criticisms, calling on Congress to correct the situation in a Commentary of January 27th.

In the letter released yesterday (below), and addressed to Lawrence Strickling of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Jonathan Adelstein of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the groups stated, "the overlap of pending Round I award announcements and preparations for Round 2 applications is proving to be extremely difficult for applicants."

The group of 14 organizations was assembled by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the professional association of local telecom regulators and system managers. Joining NATOA in the coalition are groups at the core of the Washington public interest lobby framing much of the Obama telecom policy agenda. Signatories include Ralph Nader's U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Public Knowledge, the Benton Foundation, the Media and Democracy Coalition, and the Open Technology Institute of the New America Foundation.

Our Take: NATOA's Good Effort Won't Work Without Congress
We love NATOA dearly, what with having been one of the group's first congressional witnesses back when (what we then called) "cable-telco competition" was just a wild idea some of us had. The federal broadband policies of the Obama Administration could not exist without the leadership role played by NATOA and many of its co-signatories on the important letter they issued on February 12.

The letter misses the mark however on 2 points:

1. The letter makes no mention of the role of congressional oversight in fixing the probelm. Administrators Adelstein and Strickling are extremely unlikely by themselves to extend the Round II application window for the necessary and fully reasonable period of 6 weeks requested. NTIA and RUS have been hearing the complaints of state and local officials from around the nation for weeks, and have done nothing but push ahead with an untenable schedule.

Only powerful Members of Congress, sitting on the applicable committees, and who are in the Democratic majority will fully fix the significant problems with the broadband stimulus program. Only Congressmen and Senators will give the pass to the White House necessary to extend the application window, as doing so is likely to move some Round II awards beyond the statutory deadline of September 30th established by the Recovery Act.

2. The letter is silent on the complete lack of transparent data of the broadband stimulus Round I pipeline. Round II applicants, along with the state broadband administrators, and corporate broadband stimulus programs are also correctly demanding data about the awards and rejections from Round I.

In many cases public sector groups, economic development agencies, and states spent well over $100,000 each on grant writing for large middle mile projects, yet have not a clue as to why their funding requests were rejected.

Lsstly, none of us in the national broadband stimulus community know what weight was assigned to incumbent challenges filed against Round I applications. Until and unless NTIA and RUS cease their continued violation of President Obama's directives for open and transparent government process, we will never know if indeed the incumbents are derailing the program. Many of us have pointed to this issue for months, and several prominent industry voices have raised the issue anew.
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