By Noah Garrett, special to LTW
Editor’s note: The "Innovation Exchange," a regular feature in Local Tech Wire, is written by Noah Garrett, former director of communications for the North Carolina Technology Association, a creative spirit, from writing music to news stories, and now owner and operator of NGC Communications. The focus of the Innovation Exchange is just that – creating a Web community through which people can exchange ideas and foster creativity. You can reach Noah directly at email@example.com.
CHARLESTON, S.C. – The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 appropriated $7.2 billion and directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities across the U.S., increase jobs, spur investments in technology and infrastructure, and provide long-term economic benefits.
The result is the RUS Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and the (BTOP). BIP will make loans and grants for broadband infrastructure projects in rural areas. BTOP will provide grants to fund broadband infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption projects.
These grants are part of the bigger $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed earlier this year.
Now that we got the generalities out of the way, let’s talk about it. And, we would love to hear about your experience with this as well.
So, last week, the government extended the application deadline for broadband funds six days to Aug. 20 (today) for the first round of the grants because of the high volume of applications that overloaded the electronic submission system.
This is just one of many complications organizations have or will face while reaching into the stimulus cookie jar.
As anyone who has reviewed the application process knows, it is quite lengthy and requires a good deal of resources to complete. And, given the relatively short period of time between when applications were open and the deadline, it’s no wonder many had difficulty pulling together all of the information needed to apply on time.
Overall, the process is quite difficult, non-creative, and time consuming. After working on applications in recent weeks, some of the guidelines and questions are absolutely ridiculous and about as enjoyable to read as stereo instructions.
I predict others interested in securing broadband funds will wait for the next of the three funding windows in hopes that eligibility requirements will be relaxed. I doubt the rules will change much, if at all, but we will see. Maybe you could volunteer to review (yes, application reviewers right now are volunteers), and learn the ins and outs of what makes a good and not-so-good application.
Along those lines, there are several arguments critics have raised recently that deserve a mention here. Here are a few that caught my eye:
• The eligibility requirements impose a huge burden on small rural communities, and many will not be able to meet them unless they already have a project ready to go (the term shovel-ready is used a lot) and have put together a lot of data and documents.
• The definition of underserved will exclude rural areas that have a small, wealthy holiday home-owning class, but a sizeable number of poor people who live there year-round. I bring this up, because I was a long time resident of the Outer Banks, and I’m curious if that area falls into this realm. I don’t know, but sounds like it could.
• BTOP applicants with matching funds in excess of 20 percent of their project costs get favorable treatment.
• NTIA is not willing to pay people to review grant applications. See, told you reviewers were volunteers. I do not understand why the NTIA refuses to pay qualified individuals to review proposals. Isn’t this about job creation?
The NTIA is expected to distribute up to $1.6 billion in the first round of the BTOP program, and the RUS is expected to distribute up to $2.4 billion in the first round of the BIP program. I believe first rounders will be notified of their status by October or November.
The good news is that if you missed the first round deadline today you still have two more opportunities to apply. Now, this may seem reassuring, but the Round Two and Round Three deadlines likely will come and go just as fast as the Round One deadlines.
Personally, the Broadband Stimulus is good and has some complicated components to the application process. Once you sift through all the government jargon and stringent guidelines, the nuts and bolts here promote technology infrastructure upgrades that are desperately needed in this country. And, with that in mind, it takes people to make that happen and that creates jobs.
In theory, this should work across the board. We can critique the process until we’re blue in the face, but this is the way it is – for better or worse. Good luck to all our first rounders, and let us know if you get what you think you deserve.