Got a call the other day with an inside scoop about an upcoming FCC funding opportunity that’s a promising way to distribute money from the oft maligned Connect America Fund (CAF). This likely will lead to a feeding frenzy not seen since the days when the NTIA and RUS broadband stimulus programs launched.
Community stakeholders, public utilities, ISPs and “nontraditional” potential providers of Internet services want to know: 1) will we even qualify given the restrictive nature of past CAF funding, 2) how much money are we taking here and 3) most importantly, how do we get our hands on it?
It’s hinted that any entity is eligible, but time will tell. Total dollars available – unknown Check out the details, what few there are, on my Gigabit Nation radio show interview from last week. My job here today is to tell you how to prep to get a piece of the pie.
CAF is the Universal Service Fund (USF) reformed with a new set of clothes. A $4.x billion stash of money collected from every U.S. telephone customer’s monthly bill. A main mission of reform was to make more of that money available for broadband projects. Alas, the first iteration of this reform to distribute $300 million didn’t go particularly well.
The Fiber to the Home Council got busy and, according to their press release, “the FTTH Council asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fund experiments in rural locations where entities would compete to build FTTH networks…all kinds of providers – telcos, utilities, small cable operators and even communities – would be eligible to deploy FTTH to serve community anchor institutions and other customers.”
Thanks to their prodding and the prodding of others, this is what we got. Maybe. Nothing’s written in stone or even sheetrock yet by the FCC, so anything can change.
On January 30, an FCC committee will present to the five Commissioners recommendations for a program to fund pilot projects (the FCC seems to not like to use the word “pilot,” but that’s what they are). If the Commissioners approve the idea, there will be a public notice asking for Expressions of Interests (EOI). Based on the amount of EOIs, the FCC will determine how much money to set aside initially for the program.
Once a program’s in place, a group of worker bees will come up with parameters, guidelines, deadlines, timelines, worry lines etc. for applying for the funds. And then it’s game on, baby!
And your game plan is…
Regardless of how the FCC order for EOIs reads or what the requirements are for the subsequent request for proposals, here’s what you need to be doing.
First, understand that when it comes to communities and other entities responding to this process (I’m leaving out big companies and incumbents), there are three basic camps who’ll get caught up in the next gold rush: those with a plan for a pilot, those who have a broadband plan but haven’t thought about a pilot, and gold diggers people with no plan who view this is kind of a Federal lottery.
Second, the race is not always to the swift, but the fastest people out of the gate with a complete pilot plan will have a decided edge in the long run. Good news for the first camp, and hopeful news for the second camp if they get their act together quickly. Sadly, the third camp will contain the expected army of b.s. artists who could trump a lot of good proposals with Fantasy Island candidates, so your proposal needs a few extra coats of polish.
Third, plan to file an EOI, even if you haven’t fully have your pilot scoped out. I get the impression that the total amount of CAF dollars to be set aside initially depends heavily on the number of EOIs. There’ll be some amount of time between the EOI and the formal proposal deadline for your to plan your pilot.
Fourth, learn how to write a two-page summary that tells a compelling, accurate, complete and realistic. Buy a copy of “How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds” by Milo Frank. It’ll help you. Really. I read summaries for a good chunk of the few thousand broadband stimulus proposals, and there was a mountain of god-awful noise without substance. Some of these probably sunk proposals that were better than a few of the ones that actually got funding.
Fifth, conduct a good needs assessment. If you haven’t walked the streets, attended town meetings, surveyed businesses coordinated focus groups and the like, how can you know with some degree of certainty which constituents and stakeholder groups will financially sustain the network? (this article’s a little dated, but many of its points are still valid) This is a one-time grant, and the FCC wants to fund broadband projects that are financially sustainable.
Bringing it home
Sixth, understand what the purpose of pilot is. In IT circles, pilots in large part are to verify that the technology performs as advertised and people can figure out how to use it. Community broadband projects are less about that and more about business issues, including:
- fine tuning deployment time and costs for the complete buildout
- validating assumptions about potential subscribers
- generating pre-sales and marketing momentum within the rest of the community
- enticing conventional and nontraditional financing
- building political support for the project
Your pilot plan, and subsequently your grant proposal, needs to reflect this broader scope of what a pilot is.
Seventh, be sure you can defend the need of your broadband network 10 ways from Sunday. In showing the value/need of the pilot, don’t forget that FCC is concerned about getting broadband into the homes and businesses that need it. There’s no telling what the FCC’s means testing will be for proposals to prove their worthiness, and broadband maps probably aren’t going to be helpful for a lot of communities.
Eighth, urban communities have to force a seat at the table to make sure they get the same privilege in this program as rural folks. One of the travesties with the broadband discussion is that incumbents have conned the public into thinking that our urban areas have all the broadband they need. In reality, inner-city have big needs and they have to be forceful in making their case through this pilot proposals.
Ninth, put skin in the game. If the FCC watched their NTIA/RUS comrades closely, they know the best bets are with communities that can raise money to match the Fed’s bucks. Even if there’s a match requirement for 20%, look for 30% of 40%. I’m a harried worker bee looking at too proposals that look similar. One offers a match required in the proposal guidelines, the other offers a 35% match. Which one do you think the I’m gonna pick?
Tenth, remember that there’s a reason I left incumbents and large ISPs off to the side earlier. History tells us that pretty much anything coming out the government that looks like it might facilitate competition is going to be fought, sabotaged, sandbagged and otherwise obstructed. So there needs to be an concurrent citizen lobbying effort that puts counter pressure on the FCC to give communities the latitude they need to be their own providers and pick their own business partners to get the broadband job done.
Stay tuned. There’s a lot more coming down the pike. When I know, you’ll know.
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