We Got the NOFA. Now Let’s Move Broadband Forward!

It’s time to move this broadband ball forward!

 In my analyst role, I could ponder the winners and losers of the NOFA (broadband stimulus grant rules), or summarize 121 (+ 45 pages on broadband mapping grants) in 900 words. But I’ll let others do that.

In my role (and day job) as a consultant to those who want to put a true broadband network in place post haste, my main thoughts over the weekend focused on how you can get it done. The depth of broadband needs, the insanely short NOFA deadline and weather factors demand some quick, thoughtful decision making. There are two main paths you can take.

For communities that want to build and maintain reasonable control of a blazing fast network that delivers maximum economic and societal benefits for constituents, stakeholders and partners, and start this effort before the winter winds, forget the stimulus. Look no further than Wilson and Salisbury, NC for two communities building networks to deliver 10 mbps [up and down], plus faster speeds for businesses, yet bypassed the stimulus. 

Doug Bergren, an Alderman in Mt. Carroll, IL, said over the weekend “my small town is attempting to go it alone. There is some thought here in Mt. Carroll, IL that it can actually cost LESS to do it ourselves than become part of a big scheme. It’s our objective to get at least the downtown portion serviced by broadband by the end of the year.”

 Chasing the stimulus effectively

 The other path is to do the stimulus dance. Here’s a highlight the practical issues and action steps to give you a strong chance at winning (actually, some of the points here are good for everyone).

First, if you have been planning your network competently since before 2009 and yours is a county or regional effort, you’re practically the only ones with a good shot at first-round stimulus funding. Your biggest task is probably to find the mandated professional engineering firm to sign off on your technology plan, and tweak your proposal to conform to the many NOFA requirements. Though not mandated, still consider getting a similar professional to sign off on your business case and your financials.

Cities and towns pursuing projects solo may want to sit this dance out and wait for Round 2 stimulus funding. Ditto anyone who started planning in March, hasn’t done much partnership development, and doesn’t have a sound business/financial plan completed that’s certifiable by a credible professional services firm.

For this latter group, you have effectively five weeks to fund and secure an engineering firm’s sign off, financial verifications, legal certifications, and other similar tasks, which likely means re-writing or speedwriting chunks of your proposal. That assumes you have a plan capable of meeting the 101 other NOFA tick points. For the soloists, the cards in this first funding round are truly stacked against you. A lot. 

Become the Tom Brown of backtrackers

Second, you better get to backtracking some key elements of your proposal ASAP. If, for example, you heeded hints to create relationships with other Federal agencies to complement funding with their grants for activities such as using transportation projects to lay fiber conduits, you win extra points. But only if you prove these deals are real.

Likewise, if your financial sustainability case rides on community stakeholder support, you have to provide letters or other proof of said support. The NOFA references anchor institutions (anchor tenants for us muni wireless veterans), nonprofits and public safety. You can claim these partnerships, but the devil’s in documenting the details.

Your backtracking had better include verifying who owns what and the rights to what, particularly if your project involves multiple town and county jurisdictions. In many muni wireless projects, network contractors sat with city officials who swore they owned this or that vertical asset. But once projects started, the real owners would be pop up to derail or delay them. You don’t want NTIS/RUS or the governor’s office to discover these things post-submission because your proposal’s chances could sink like a stone.

The catch-22’s 

Third, you have 45 days to solve the following digital inclusion (DI) conundrum. One component of most DI plans is the use of community centers, libraries, churches, etc. as what NOFA calls Public Computer Centers. If you plan to pursue stimulus funding for these, are you ready to dash through the hoops such as providing data on the demographics of people who’ll use the centers, how the centers will market their services, the equipment to be used, etc?

If you find the time limit too overwhelming to write what in essence is a somewhat meaty business plan for each center or the centers collectively, are you ready to show how you plan to fund these resources otherwise? The people creating the NOFA, by virtue of making computer centers a distinct funding area, must believe centers are important. You can’t ignore the centers and how you plan to create, fund and sustain them as well as other DI efforts.

A similar conundrum concerns demand generation (DG). Simply stated, DG is the marketing campaign you need to run to have enough people and organizations use the network to affect economic development, DI and network sustainability. The NOFA asks for innovation, market size, sales projections, cost projections, how the project will create sustainable adoption and how will the program sustain itself.

If your project team finds it to be too daunting – and even too foreign a concept – to complete a full-scale marketing strategy plan as a separate proposal within five weeks so you can get it grant funded, how will your proposal address the execution and financing of DG so your entire network proposal gets funded? Few, if any, proposals without a strong DG plan will fly because DG is the crux of sustainability. Having done plenty marketing plans, I know this is a steep hill to climb. 

I haven’t given you an inclusive list of action items for those wanting to move on their broadband efforts ASAP and worry about the failings of NOFA later. But it’s enough work to keep you busy for the next few days.

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