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.

What We Can Learn From Canada’s Broadband Stimulus

Canada has a federal broadband stimulus program going on as well as the U.S. There are some elements of their broadband effort we in the U.S. should take note of as we get the long awaited rules this week. 

Last week I had the honor of chairing the Broadband Strategies for Cities conference in Toronto. Don’t let the title fool you. It was mainly about getting broadband to rural areas, though many of the presenters addressed a cross section of urban, small town and rural issues. I’ll pull out a few points that struck me as being items to note.

The first shocker was the dollar amount of Canada’s stimulus – $225 million. Not a lot compared to $7 billion, you say? True, but then look at how far they don’t have left to travel to get broadband adoption.

Canada vs US in BB adoption

Last week there were some shouts of joy about a PEW report that sites a significant increase in U.S. broadband adoption. In the general population we moved from 55% to 63% of households with broadband, while just looking at the rural US population, we’ve move from 38% adoption in 2008 to 46% in 2009.

In Canada, 93% of their total households have access to broadband, with virtually all of their urban households covered. Mainly it’s the rural areas that fall short with just 81% penetration in these households. So $225 mil isn’t a lot of money, but Canadians definitely a shorter row to hoe. We definitely want to applaud our progress in the U.S., but don’t lose sight of how far we still have to go.

Mapping before disbursement

Industry Canada, the agency handling the stimulus program, has determined that it doesn’t make much sense to hand out money without good maps, so they won’t. Gotta have maps before you get money. Provinces (similar to our states) are being tasked to take care of this as the main drivers with help from the feds.

If it weren’t for the fact that Connected Nation seems poised to do much of this in the U.S., I’d be more adamant that where appropriate we hold up grants until mapping is done where currently there is none. At least in the U.S. some states (e.g. Virginia, California, Arizona) are doing mapping on their own, and appear to be getting it done before their proposals go to D.C. As it is, I think money spent on C N is of limited value and we may as well throw the money out the door first.

The match game

Instead of paying for 80% of the broadband buildout projects, Industry Canada is doing a 50-50 split for funding. What’s more, the money’s only going to private sector companies. Since everyone admits $225 million is not enough stimulus money to get the whole job done, IC is leaning on provincial and local governments to both provide additional funds and advocating (heavily, I gather) for public private partnerships. IC is also setting zones based on size of geographic area and populations so as to induce competition.

An interesting way to tackle the fact that you believe in the private sector’s role, and you also believe local government has to have a strong hand in the process. Furthermore, the feds also believe that free market competition needs a helping hand since IC is basically saying “we’re going to make sure an area is large enough so there’s incentive for  more than one player. And to ensure this outcome…

Open access

Because there’s a lot of pressure from the public for open access and because, to quote the IC Director General giving the presentation, “this is the people’s money we’re giving away,” the IC is leaning toward an open access requirement for receiving grants. Supporting this are the provincial and local governments that set precedent by mandating open access for broadband projects already in motion.

Wow. Take all of these pro-competition rules, and if the net neutrality bill introduced last month in Canada actually becomes law on this its third introduction, Canadian consumers stand to get a pretty good shake from their broadband stimulus. Will we in the U.S. be as fortunate?

Broadband and un-served defined

IC defines broadband as technology neutral networks having a minimum speed of 1.5 mbps. The province of Nova Scotia came up with a solid definition of an un-served residential or business constituent: “an inhabited civic address with a reliable power source, accessible by road that unable to get broadband connections at prices, quality and level of service comparable to urban areas of Nova Scotia.

Hmmm, that’s good. The minimum speed requirement that IC set is, by itself, a debatable option for some folks who want a higher minimum. But coupled with mandated open access and zoning to ensure competition, 1.5 mbps allows you to raise people up way beyond where they are now, and also expect a competitive environment that forces speeds up and prices down. Then you add a definition of un-served that ties rural speeds to speeds of high-population, probably wealthier cities that you know will always get the best service, you further induce faster networks.

The role of local governments

Tim Scott, the speaker from open access network provider Axia NetMedia, stated that “local government is the primary customer of community networks. Without them there is no business case” Other speakers echoed his assessment.

I wonder how many proposals for U.S. stimulus grants will reflect this reality in their network sustainability models?

My next post looks at a pretty awesome analysis of the five most prominent business models for community broadband networks. Everyone, be sure to read this before you submit your proposals for stimulus money. Subscribe to my RSS feed.

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