Friday, January 15, 2010

Second and final broadband stimulus funding rules issued

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) today issued guidelines for the second and last funding round to disburse $7.2 billion allocated for broadband infrastructure and adoption in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.

Here's a news release on the Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) as well as links to the NOFAs for the NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the USDA/RUS Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP).

Given the delays in awarding funds from the first broadband stimulus round that closed last August, I expected this NOFA might not appear until mid-March at the earliest. Particularly given the NTIA and USDA solicited comments late last year on the funding requirements that elicited plenty of complaints and suggestions to digest.

I suspect the delays in making first round broadband infrastructure awards -- in large part likely due to numerous incumbent challenges -- prompted the NTIA and USDA accelerate the timetable in order to meet the ARRA requirement the broadband stimulus funds be fully disbursed by Sept. 30 of this year.

Unlike the first round, the latest NOFA calls for separate applications to each agency, with the NTIA concentrating on middle mile telecommunications infrastructure. I suspect by putting last mile far down on the list of funding priorities, the NTIA is hoping to cut down on the number of incumbent challenges tying up infrastructure awards in non-rural areas.

The RUS/BIP NOFA covers both middle mile and last mile infrastructure with an emphasis on the latter in unserved rural areas. Any area in which at least 50 percent of premises lack access to broadband of 5 Mbps combined for upstream and downstream throughput and is at least 75 percent rural combined is eligible under the BIP guidelines.

If a proposed BIP project area includes premises with no access to wireline -- or fixed or mobile wireless service -- offering throughput at the now obsolete Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband of at least 768 Kbs down 200 Kbs up, it is deemed "unserved" under BIP.

Unfortunately, the BIP squanders precious funds with a new separate category to underwrite discounted satellite Internet service, which in the view of this blogger is contrary to the ARRA's intent to fund advanced telecommunications infrastructure and not stopgap, substandard substitutes such as satellite.

Unlike in the first funding round, applicants no longer need define their projects based on contiguous census blocks. BTOP applicants must now use census block groups or tracts. BIP applicants can define their proposed service area boundaries as they wish using an mapping tool included in the online funding application.

Like the first round, the window for applications opens on short notice and remains open only briefly: from Feb. 16 to March 15. That means applicants will once again have to scramble which could like the first round in 2009 produce hastily developed and inferior quality applications.

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