Keep Your Eyes On the Broadband Prize

Between now and the Ides of March is a critical period for ensuring the $7.2 billion of broadband stimulus money produces networks that actually improve communities. During this time, NTIA in the Commerce Dept., RUS in the USDA and the FCC start gathering feedback that determines rules for who gets this money.

I plan to post details to keep you abreast on how local communities, as well as the smaller vendors and providers they’re likely to use, can shape the rules for distributing stimulus money. This will be an honest best effort to get to the people making the decisions.

The latest word

NTIA is having “open door” meetings starting March 2 for anyone who wants to come in and tell NTIA how you feel they should distribute the grants for max effect. In theory, any interested party can schedule a meeting. Since Ms Brown at the NTIA has received many more calls and e-mails than there are hours in the week, we’ll see who gets in. Call. It can’t hurt.

BIG NEWS – On March 10 at 10:00 a.m. EST in the auditorium of the Dept of Commerce building, NTIA, RUS and the FCC are jointly hosting a public meeting to discuss the bill and the grants. It’s supposed to be Webcast. They’ll take questions, so this should be a very lively event. Insightful? Maybe not so much.  Address:1401 Constitution Ave, N.W., Washington D.C. (Please enter at 14th St).

Keep an eye out for the meeting agenda at these Web sites:  http://www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants, http://www.usda.gov/rurdev (may not be live yet), http://www.fcc.gov.

 Allies

For those of us not near enough to just drop by D.C. for a chat, or already tied up for March 10, we need feet in the street to channel our issues. Here are a couple of possible channels. 

The National Association of Towns and Townships (NATaT) is a D.C.-based org that champions small towns, townships and rural communities.  Their point person agreed to carry the broadband message to a meeting next week and the March 10 meeting, as well as rally their troops. I’m sending her key points and supporting materials tomorrow (2/27).

Bingham McCutchen LLP is a D.C. law firm with a practice group that helps local governments navigate the grant maze of NTIA and RUS. Their point person will be at the March 10 meeting to be additional ears and eyes. Since Bingham’s services and mine are complementary, we’ll be helping each other get the word out.

Jim Baller is one of the key forces in municipal governments’ fight for muni networks, and a main player in the Broadband Coalition that’s working for good legislation. Get on his daily newsletter list – list@baller.com, check out his Web site – www.Baller.com.

 Another ally in the cause is Harold Feld, recently of Media Access Project. He’s on his own now consulting. His greatest value to me has been his insights to the inner workings of government behind the facades policy makers throw up. He also writes really good analysis pieces.

Action steps (what to do in the next couple of weeks)

Read the stimulus bill. It’s only 11 pages.

Watch the rules (and possible RFP) development process like a hawk.

Understand the two key things communities need in the rules for granting funds: 1) make money available directly to local governments to avoid state intervention, 2) send most of the money to private sector firms and nonprofits with clearly established local government (city, county) partnerships. Yeah, there are other issues, but lose these first two and everything else is an uphill battle. 

Focus on known sources within the sphere we need to influence (NTIA, RUS, FCC), directly or through allies. Flog the hell out of the messages above.

MOLTO IMPORTANTE – Local government or private sector company, go to Grants.gov, Get Registered and get your DUNS number and your CCR number. Without these two, you can’t be a player. Expect ALL grants (until further notice) to go through this Web site. 

Subscribe to this blog so you keep current with development. Post helpful tips, verified rumors.  

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Broadband Stimulus – Are We There Yet?

Now that the dust has cleared, some people are wondering if they should pop the champagne corks on last Friday’s victory getting the broadband investment in Obama’s stimulus bill passed. Go ahead, pop ‘em, but don’t drink too much. There’s a long road still ahead.

In January I released a report, Fighting the Next Good Fight, that lays out a high-level roadmap to a national broadband strategy that makes sense and gets the job done right. The recommended steps reflect several points that eventually made it into the bill (I’m selling crystal balls next month).

Here are some addition recommendations as we hit the next part of this winding road.                                                        

Two more rivers to cross

THE most important thing over the next 60 days is to be sure activists, politicians, local communities and other broadband supporters keep a close eye on the RFP-writing process that governs grant distribution. These RFPs give the stimulus bill specific direction and teeth or, if influenced by opponents, can neuter the best intent of the bill.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Commerce Dept. and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) within the USDA are the main RFP authors. However, NTIA has a former Sprint exec as acting director who is almost certain to remain as deputy director once a final director is chosen. And RUS has a bad history of sitting on grant money instead of getting it where people need it. Watch these entities like a hawk and raise your voices so the RFP requirements are in the best interest of local communities.

Similarly, broadband supporters must pay close attention to their state governors and legislatures. Every layer this money must pass through can have people whose interests are not aligned with the best interests of broadband, or they are occupied with meeting many needs and priorities, or the temptation is great to move money elsewhere.

Know who’s driving this thing

Local communities need to realize they’re in the drivers seat. Do not assume the big incumbents own the only racetrack in town. The stimulus bill advocates technology-neutral requirements, as much network speed as possible and local government involvement in some way with every project that’s funded.

Look to local or regional service and equipment providers. Consider every technology as potentially an element of your network, from wireless to fiber to satellite, and in all of their variations. If you need a gigabyte per second per symmetrical speed, and some outfit is willing to provide it at a reasonable cost, go for it.

If you don’t have a business plan, get one. If you have one already, fine-tune it based on the RFPs. That’s a given. What you must include in the plan, which may not be obvious to some, is a clear path from initial buildout to business sustainability for these networks. The grant money only covers 80% of buildout costs. That network’s going to cost you something to complete, operate, maintain and upgrade.

Don’t be blinded by the gold. Ask the hard questions now. Who’s going to buy services on the network? Do you have anchor tenants in mind that will buy enough services to cover 60% – 70% of the sustainability costs? 

Finally, read the broadband stimulus bill. It’s only 11 pages. 

There are more issues, of course, but for now these are key ones that help ensure the early steps move us toward the broadband goals the nation needs to achieve. 

The Double-Edge Sword of Broadband Stimulus Quotes

In pushing the cause of community broadband, media coverage is a double-edged sword. Generally, the upside of getting exposure for one’s thoughts is shadowed by the fact that your thoughts are truncated to fit within the 1,100-word limit of an article or TV news segment.

Last week’s NY Times piece on the stimulus bill is such a sword. Some major advocates of the bill weren’t happy with its perception of negativity. In a 30-minute interview, a lot gets said besides the two or three sentences that eventually show up in print, so let me replay some of my thoughts you didn’t get in the Times.

This interview started with, “do you think the stimulus bill will actually generate jobs.” I addressed the terms and stipulations that determine where the money goes and in what form (e.g. grants, tax credits, loan guarantees). Some of these as presented currently could hinder short- and long-term benefits for the people who need them most.

Congress, nix any form of tax credits that are granted on a promise of future highspeed networks. States such Pennsylvania went for that sucker play with incumbents who take the credits now, but keep shuffling out some song and dance about how “it’s taking us longer than expected to deliver. However, next year…” The heck with that!! Grant not one dime of tax credit until network projects are locked in contractually with state or local governments, preferably with ironclad penalty clauses for failure to deliver.

Most of the stimulus money needs to do directly to state and local governments because they know best how to put this money to work, and many rural areas have plans already written for networks. The House version of the bill seems to be crafted by folks who better understand the needs of the people who ultimately will use the technology. However, do you want these funds to be administered by a Commerce Dept. that’s about to be headed by a far-right Senator who tried to abolish the entire department? Hmm, the Aggies could look a lot more promising.

I still wonder, given how much they hear from lobbyists versus communities, if Congress understands the full range of economic benefits and recovery broadband represents. They’re moving too fast to do proper needs analysis, the point of my quote. Probably more of this money should get out of D.C. ASAP into states and regions that have already done that analysis, and with as few telco-influenced stipulations as possible.

The interview concluded with me laying out a list of the many ways broadband can impact job creation, generate home-based businesses, improve youth and adult learning (which directly impacts their employability) and raise the quality of healthcare delivery which, by the way, affects other healthcare-related items in the overall stimulus bill.

If you really care about what’s contained in this broadband stimulus bill, you should find out who’s on the conference committee to resolve the House and Senate versions and get in their face, or e-mail box, or phone line. You get the picture.

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