Want Better NOFA Rules? Here’s Your Chance.

Yesterday NTIA and RUS announced the release of their Request for Information (RFI) to get feedback on the rules that will govern this last funding round(that’s right, only one funding round). This RFI is actually a straightforward, logical document. That’s good. If you’re short on time you can get to those points that concern you most.

Ok, here’s my first recommendation to overarch all the rest I have. The next NOFA should be as concise and clearly presented as this RFI. Seriously. That’s the one takeaway from most people’s complaints. Simplify! Do that and a lot of folks around the country might nominate Strickling (responsible for NTIA) and Adelstein (heads RUS) for sainthood.

I’m going to run through many of the RFI points in order (sort of), and give you a couple of thoughts on where I feel we should go with these. Some of the questions here are so logical or obviously rhetorical they speak for themselves. 

I. The Application and Review Process

A. Streamlining the Applications

  • RUS and NTIA need to create criteria for what kind of projects they want to fund, or not fund, describe the funding options (grants, loans, both) and tell people to apply to one agency or the other. Period.
  • Create, in editable PDF file, format one application form in four parts, one for each category of broadband project: middle mile infrastructure, last mile infrastructure, public computing center and broadband adoption. People reviewing all four categories of projects need the same data: 
  1. background info on the applicant to prove they are a viable (i.e. not fly-by-night) fiscally solvent and responsible public, commercial or nonprofit entity;
  2. demonstration of constituent need;
  3. demonstration of ability to meet constituent need;
  4. what do applicants plan to do with the grant money; and
  5. how to applicants plan to financially sustain the project after the grant money runs out. For the infrastructure projects, you probably want a section to address the technological viability of the proposed project.
  • Regarding new entities, consortia and public-private partnerships, yes you want different information from a nonprofit consortium than a telecom company. But you can gather this in how you word or assign questions in the form (e.g. in lieu of P & L statements for prior three years, ask for specific details on how a new nonprofit’s management team  has proven in the past an ability to run successful projects). 
  • Good luck on the specifications of what is a Service Area. It’s tricky meeting the need to have some uniform delineation of an area where you plan to deliver service that makes everyone happy, particularly when you talk about wireless. However, the specifications NTIA/RUS use should be applied to incumbent carriers that provide data for broadband maps, submit challenges to proposals, etc. If an applicant has to bust their chops presenting data down to the census block or city block, so should anyone who challenges their proposal.

B. Transparency

  • Details on an applicant’s proposal should all be out there for the public to read, including some level of breakdown of the proposed costs, though it makes sense to present it in a “drill down” fashion starting with the executive summary. 
  • Details on the organizations’tech patents/secrets should not be out there.
  • Exposing finances is a tricky issue. Private companies don’t have to disclose a lot of that information in general, but in this case they’re taking public money. I’m going to punt on this one.
  • Where I’m most concerned about transparency is with the procedures used by the agencies in managing the grant process. Volunteers who are reviewing these grants should not be anonymous. This incumbent challenge process needs to be spelled out in detail when the NOFA first comes out. Everyone should be able to follow – and comment on – an incumbent’s challenge from initiation to final determination to grant or deny the challenge. Applicants should be able to easily find out where they stand as the NoFA process moves along.

D. Expert review process  Kill it. Follow RUS’ lead and contract with a company that can get the job done with a maximum of efficiency.

II. Policy issues

A. Funding Priorities and Objectives

This reflects one of the biggest problems with the broadband stimulus program: NTIA and RUS are caught between the competing forces of politics, good public policy and sound technology implementation process. The politics demand quick money distribution and signs that expenditures equal feet on the street working. Sound public policy demands attention to long-term results. Sound tech procedure was turned on its head from the get go, so accept that this is relegated to the backseat.

You should probably accept that the number of jobs created to building these networks is not going to be overwhelming in the big picture, nor will many of them get into full swing before March or April, so pay lip service to the political forces and move on. That leaves you with the good public policy approach.

Broadband’s biggest economic impact is its ability to accelerate the economic development of a community. Therefore NTIA/RUS should structure its NOFA  policies to reflect this. Set the rules so applicants have to present broadband proposals in any of the four categories suggested above in the context of how their respective proposals enable economic development goals. How will proposals:

  1. improve local businesses’ability to generate new business and new jobs,
  2. increase the number of new businesses that move to an area,
  3. improve current and/or future workers’ ability to contribute to their personal and their community’s economic development, and
  4. impact the overall economic viability of the community.

This is a more opened-ended approach than government types may be used to dealing with, and it makes strict numerical calculations of a proposal’s worthiness difficult. But put the right people on the job of reviewing these applications and you can make this work. Also, in the application form, demand that applicants present a detailed cost-benefit analysis that independent economic development or community development groups chosen by the agencies can verify. I’ll come back to this further down.

B. Program definitions

The use of the term “remote” needs to go. By the amount of criticism the agencies have received on this, it’s apparent that using it is a no-win situation.

Un-served, underserved and broadband need to be consolidated into a criteria that embodies the concept “either a community has enough broadband coverage at a speed sufficient to improve personal and community economic development, or it doesn’t.” A community doing its needs analysis correctly will determine what constituents need to accomplish with broadband to impact economic development (e.g. distance learning, job hunting for unemployed workers, telemedicine applications for seniors). They should likewise be able to prove there is enough broadband available or there isn’t.

To say that having the bare minimum amount of speed is better than having nothing is a false argument. For any network to be able to have a meaningful impact on many of the economic development goals I mentioned, the bare minimum is nothing.

If the agencies require applicants to tie speed to need and balance cost with impact, you will address the truly underserved areas. Un-served, if you’re going to keep this category, needs to include in its definition actual speeds received – or not. Allowing advertised speeds to count is a travesty. 

E. Sale of Project Assets

The question posed here, should NTIA/RUS be more flexible in determine whether an applicant can sell or merge their business, is so obvious, I have to comment. Hell yes, be more flexible!! Jiminy Cricket on a crutch, this is the high tech industry! Stuff happens, usually as an insane and totally unpredictable pace. You don’t want applicants using grant money as a wildcat investment fund, but you also have to be real about the nature of the data communication business.

F. Cost Effectiveness

If you want to know if a project application presents reasonable costs, this is where a panel of experts makes sense. Get a handful of people on a panel who are in the business of building networks, but don’t have proposals in the queue, and have them review the basic information regarding a questionable application’s proposed features and costs. The panel needs to be diverse in terms of the type of organizations they work for, and should include people who’ve specifically built community broadband networks.

Trying to establish standard criteria to measure cost effectiveness when there are so many variables that affect cost is difficult. Getting people who’ve done this type of work directly, or were involved with managing companies that built these types of networks, gives you the best ability to make accurate assessments.

There are some elements not covered in the RFI that have caused everyone involved heartburn, such as the question of open access and net neutrality requirements. In my next post I’ll suggest a few things to add when you file your comments that aren’t addressed in the RFI .

Planning for Round 2 NOFA Funding?

If you’re considering taking a shot at broadband stimulus funding in Round 2, I can help you put your best proposal forward. Contact me today to get your plan in the winner’s circle!

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