Sel-te’s Inferno – Where Winning Broadband Stimulus $$ Can Be Its Own Special Hell

Welcome to Sel-te’s Inferno. A short take on the recently concluded broadband stimulus awards. Ye award winners who enter this post need not abandon all hope, but you might want to brace yourself because winning the big bucks isn’t all happy days and peaceful nights that you might expect.

Each round of awards brought with them the popping of champagne corks or wailing and gnashing of teeth, depending on where your application fell. But what about those winners? What awaits them? Come walk with me, Virgil, and you’ll see. From these lessons on unexpected (unprepared for) outcomes, I’ll pluck out some broadband tips for the rest of us.

Number Crunch Hell

People who survived to actually win an award often speak of the process’ endless nightmare of number crunching as they would get calls at night, during weekends, at the crack of dawn demanding numbers, more numbers and more justification of assumptions. Applicants constantly had to run to some office or other to face hellacious grilling.

So after all of that, what kind of hell faces you if one day, little seeds of doubt start to blossom as you worry, “Do we really know that all those customers we claim we’ll get will actually sign up? Did we survey enough people to have statistically valid numbers to ensure we meet the sales projections that are now locked in contractual concrete? Will market conditions really evolve as we outlined them in our financials? What’s this new budget report they’re asking for?

Just when your accounting folks thought the worst was over, are they in for an extended hell as the drip, drip, drip of doubts and questions start seeping in around the edges?

The Friendly Fires of Hell

Most winners are going through this particular level of hell usually reserved for big time lottery winners and overnight media sensations. A plague of new “friends” descends upon your Web site, e-mail servers and telephone lines. Hundreds, yea, thousands of people come calling, writing, wanting to sell you – everything! I’ve heard stories of winners who can’t work for all the inbound e-mail traffic, their home phones are not safe. Project team leaders become as evasive in the streets as paparazzi-besieged media stars.

The real hell, though, is that at the point you win an award is when you quickly need a squad of consultants and experts for those parts of the project where you don’t have expertise on staff. But trying to sift through the deluge of incoming noise can paralyze decision-making. That leaves you vulnerable to 1) selecting incompetent hacks because you’re short on time and just want the madness to end, or 2) bringing on several large suppliers because you recognize the name, only to find out later they don’t have your best interests at heart or in stock.

The Haste-Makes-Waste Hell

This is the level where some winners already have given up the ghost – and given back the money – before even leaving the starting gate. Somehow, in their rush to complete the NOFA application these folks didn’t take time to either read or to fully comprehend the time and money implications of all those pesky government reporting requirements. They’re a nightmare, a death of a 1000 paper[work] cuts that slice into your winnings and destroy hours. There’s no escaping this level, you can only find ways to minimize the misery. If you’re lucky.

The Beer Goggles Hell

Most you remember some point in your college days, uh nights, when you or someone dear to you fell victim to momentary partnerships that never ever would have come to be without assistance from the demon alcohol. The lights were low, beer consumption high when Mr. (or Ms) Right sauntered into the bar. Only by the dawn’s early light do you recognize it’s way past time to find an AA meeting.

When the heady days of broadband stimulus and the lure of the $7 billion gold rush caused some people to lose touch with reality, the public private partnerships became much coveted relationships. This led to some hasty overnight unions that some may eventually regret, if not for who partnered with whom, definitely for the lack of due diligence on how these relationships can max the value each party brings and minimize potential friction.

Governments and private sector entities can be polar opposites in their needs, and unions to jointly deploy and manage complex technologies to meet complicated needs of diverse constituencies are not easy to make work. I’m guessing the morning light is not going to be too kind for some partners, and Federal contracts make shotgun weddings difficult to annul.

Competitive Apocalypse

This is a particularly cruel level of hell because it rewards naïveté with fire and brimstone as communities come to grips with how much of a bastard the opposition can be.

In some un-served communities that received stimulus money, private and particularly public entities are expecting to have very little, if any competition because the big incumbents refused to provide any service in these proposed coverage areas. Oh foolish mortals. As soon as you break ground, these jokers are going to come bustin’ through like storm troopers with lowball prices, full service packages and serious trash talkin’ about your project. Shock & Awe just mildly describes the hell that awaits everyone who isn’t prepared. Truth will out for a community only if those truths are backed with a kick-ass marketing campaign that brings its own fire and brimstone.

Bait & Switch Hell – the community broadband that wasn’t

Stimulus winners are not the only ones who have to traverse the halls of hell. Many of us who care about meeting community needs have to endure the misery of seeing a program that was Congressionally mandated to support local government and nonprofits first fail in that mission. A lot of money went into private-only projects. Some of these entities will give communities what they need. But as one respondent to my recent survey of economic development professionals said, “I’m so very disappointed with BroadBand Stimulus grant award outcomes in our area. The main winner was existing provider charging 4 times the rate of other areas, and now they will probably be the only game in town.”

<sigh>

Peter Pratt, of StimulatingBroadband.com, sends this list (in no particular order) of some of the big corporate winners of broadband stimulus money:

  • TDS (hard to track as awardees have separate subsidiary names)
  • Windstream
  • Motorola
  • Level3 EON
  • Utopian Wireless
  • Hughes Satellite
  • DeltaCom
  • VTel

Stay tuned. I’ll have a followup blog post in a couple of days with some tips and takeaways from this disco infernal that everyone pursuing community broadband can use. In the meantime, tomorrow (10/21) check out the video of yesterday’s Broadband Breakfast panel session that examines the effectiveness of the broadband stimulus program and where we go from here.

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