Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Second NOFA for broadband stimulus funds should include seed funding for telecom coops

Cooperatives are in the news a lot this week. Specifically, health care cooperatives as a more politically palatable alternative to a Medicare- like government insurance "public option" plan that is generating a lot of controversy as Congress crafts an overhaul of private U.S. health care finance.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is currently fleshing out the concept, which would reportedly include about $6 billion in seed funding to help the health care cooperatives get up and running.

As the National Telecommunications and Information Administraiton (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) prepare the Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) for the second round of federal economic stimulus subsidies for broadband infrastructure this fall, they should include a similar provision for telecom consumer coops. Getting adequate funding and/or loan guarantees to cover the not insignificant cost of experts and consultants to put together a preliminary network design and business case analysis/long range business plan in time to meet the NOFA application deadline can be an insurmountable hurdle for coops that might otherwise propose solid plans to better connect areas that are unserved or underserved when it comes to broadband.

The guidelines for the first NOFA (applications are due this week) allowed for up to five percent of project planning costs to be refunded -- but only if the project is approved. However, that creates a Catch-22 for coops since they can't even develop a proposal that meets the NOFA requirements without these costs covered at the outset, which means a lot of potentially meritorious projects could fall by the wayside.

The second NOFA should include a preliminary step to allow telecom coops that have or have applied for 501(c)(12) tax exempt status to apply for grant funding or loan guarantees to cover project planning costs on the condition that they engage qualified consultants on an arms-length basis and put forth a good faith effort to complete the work within a relatively short period of time (60 days, for example).

They would then have to propose their projects immediately thereafter if the planning work shows the proposed project would meet the NOFA guidelines and be economically sustainable. If the project turns out not to be so based on preliminary design and business planning, that would give coops the opportunity to tweak their proposals to comply with the guidelines or drop them, saving both them and the federal agencies the time and effort of reviewing unfeasible proposals.

Full disclosure: Your blogger is founder and president of a startup telecom cooperative in El Dorado County, California.

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