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!

What? Volunteers to Approve $4.7 Billion in Broadband Grants?

Now there’s a headline that’ll give a broadband applicant pause – and the rest of the network project team terminal heartburn.

NTIA unveiled in Boston yesterday they intend to recruit an army of volunteers to make up the panels that do the first round of the review process. This legion of un-paid but patriotic souls will influence whose grant applications make the cut by meeting the basic requirements according to the NOFA rules.

As NTIA let that little one-slide tidbit hit the screen, I gather there was a collective gasp from a majority of the people attending this workshop. The reaction was swift, and it was not positive. RUS, by the way, quickly pointed out that they’re handling the impending application onslaught the old fashioned way by hiring more staff and contractors.

I try not to be overly critical of NTIA because they have an impossible job and most of us wouldn’t want it. On the other hand, this is a pretty surprising revelation that has potential to produce some bad consequences for broadband.  

Get on the horn (e-mail, the phone line they rarely answer, your newspaper) and make your voices heard if you feel this is definitely NOT the way to go. Harold Feld, a fellow broadband activist, said it well – “you want good policy? Then you roll up your sleeves and get ready to fight for it.” I believe we definitely need to ask probing questions about this policy because it raises some doubts for quite a few people.

What were they thinking

Congress authorized a sizeable chunk of money (in the many millions) for NTIA to pay for administrative/logistical tasks. If there is a greater need for quality logistics support, you won’t find it this side of the North Pole.

When last I checked, this is a stimulus bill for creating paying jobs. How the heck can you justify asking people in a crappy economy to work for nothing on a jobs-creation project that has money budgeted to pay for the work these volunteers are being asked to do? But set aside the perverse irony for a minute.

You’re about to enter a competitive bidding process with millions of dollars at stake for your community. I think you’d want the best people stimulus money can acquire influencing who the winners are. Did you read the job qualifications required? Jiminy Cricket! NTIA wants people with some serious brain power, which is a good thing. But I feel it’s a reach to expect the best people are going to volunteer for this gig.  

If you have these skills, you’re already working fulltime or you’re looking fulltime for a job that pays you to be this good. In either scenario, you’re likely hoping to cash in on one of these broadband projects that eventually gets funded. The confidentiality and conflict of interest clauses can work against you all around.

Where does this leave the grant-proposing world? Probably with gatekeepers who sorta meet the requirements, were selected on a first come, first served basis and maybe without a lot of serious screening, and are working mostly from home with (according to the impression some workshop attendees got) moderate supervision .

Another thing…

Backtracking to conflict of interest, another concern you want to express to the powers that be is that there appears to be a lack of clarity from NTIA on how they intend to police this. As a practical matter, can you really police this?

I’m at home (hypothetically) reviewing proposals from my state and I don’t particularly like Los Angeles. I could zap every L.A. proposal in random ways and you’d never know. If I gave favorable point awards to a proposal from a vendor or county my best friend works for, would I be in conflict? You betcha! Would NTIA find out, or if they did what are they going to do, withhold my last Attaboy? I’d like to think that paid contractors give you stronger legal recourse to respond to such a scenario.

With this volunteer admin army, are there enough incentives, training time, management skills and oversight capability within NTIA to make these troops sufficiently competent, efficient and reliable to recommend the “A Team” of grant proposals? Would you trust the integrity of the grant process with such an army in place if the answers to all of the above is “no”?

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.

Making Sense of the NOFA Rules (pt 1)

Update

Finally, the NOFA’s out (click here). It’s 121 flippin’ pages! Be patient while I grab breakfast and try to sort this bad boy out. I’ll post Part 2 of this NOFA assessment as soon as I can.  

 This NOFA is more than a tick list of items that grant proposals must contain, or requirements to which applicants must adhere. It’s the big step off on the long march toward a [hopefully] successful national broadband strategy. It creates a framework for what U.S. broadband looks like as the next decade begins, who benefits from the technology and how strong a foundation is created for Mr. G’s eventual strategy.   

As you plow though the pages, here are a few things to pay attention to so we determine just how good this first step is going to be. 

Definitions

What’s in a word? A lot.

How the NOFA defines “un-served” and “underserved” determines not only where the lion’s share of these networks are built, but also the competitive landscape for telcos, WISPs, cable companies and other service providers.

If a very heavy emphasis is placed (via points, prioritization, etc) just on reaching “un-served” constituents, and un-served is defined as areas currently with no broadband at all, then most of the networks likely will be built in rural areas. Tier 1, 2 and 3 cities may want to send their grant writers home. Tier 4 cities could have better odds if they’re isolated enough. What’s more, incumbents get to relax because they likely won’t see competitors where they currently are the only game in town.

Should the NOFA, however, give balanced weight to building in un- and underserved areas, and the “underserved” definition includes areas where there is existing service with crappy coverage and/or unaffordable rates, then life is good. Urban, small-town and rural America all get a shot at the pot, and the gods of true competition are appeased.

How “broadband” is defined as it pertains to speed (and whether wired and wireless broadband get their own definitions) determines who’s popping the champagne corks. Anything less than 1.5 mbps symmetrical hands a bonus to incumbent telcos and cable companies, and depresses the heck out of broadband advocates. Defining the speed anywhere above 5 mbps symmetric is problematic for incumbents and maybe mesh wireless providers. WiMAX, fiber and consumers in general are going to be loving it.

Benefits for exceeding definitions represent the wild card 

If the NOFA gives bonus points to proposals that exceed NTIA/RUS’ minimum definitions of broadband, there’ll be happier hearts in the Heartland. Given how many communities have shown that they and public utilities can build faster networks at cheaper subscription rates than incumbents, bonus points give these types of networks a boost in the grant game.  

Open access

This is one NOFA element that’ll be either a boon to the drive to get broadband that matters, or a bona fide bust. Either NTIA/RUS go to the heart of why our broadband position in the world sucks and help rectify it through mandated open access, they show no heart by punting to the big guys or they try to have it both ways with some wishy-washy rule. Either of the latter two options is not good for communities.

Be sure to scan through the verbiage to see if, in deference to the new FCC Chairman, the NOFA also takes a shot at cranking up the heat with a little net neutrality support. We see that, it’s Katy bar the door! Communities and smaller providers should make out quite well, but there’ll be bitterness in other quarters. 

Where are local governments in the pecking order 

In the broadband bill that left Congress, the list of who gets priority for receiving grants starts with local and state governments on top and private sector companies last. Dig into the NOFA and see how much it adheres to this prioritization– or not. To me, this ultimately gets to the core of broadband’s ability to be transformative in its impact.

If local government (caveat to follow) is the main recipient, that makes them the major drivers in what broadband looks like in the respective communities that win grants. The networks are more likely to meet the unique needs of their communities, both economic and societal. Unless mandated or incentivized to form public-private partnerships with government as equal partners, rules that favor private sector companies over public entities will produce a mixed bag of networks, with many falling short of broadband’s potential.

The caveat pertains to state governments. I believe project teams for county-wide or even regional efforts within a state can build networks that produce great results when local governments are in the lead. However, the thought of some state governments getting block grants and thus controlling network development gives me the willies. I worry private companies would have too much influence, better projects without “insider pull” will have less, and/or the funding process will take longer to complete.

For example, one state allegedly plans to bring 40 local and regional project teams into a room to do 3-minute presentations each. Best presentations win state backing to participate in a block grant. If true, my only thought is, WTF! That said, reality dictates state involvement, which means it’s another river you should plan to navigate. 

Sustainability

Pay attention to how the NOFA mandates or otherwise influences applicants to come to the table with a plan to financially sustain networks once they’re built. With luck, these rules will instill a widespread understanding that you must treat these networks like a viable business if you want to advance the public good.

Facing the Business Side of Community Broadband

It’s time for a discussion of a topic that gets hinted at, argued about and danced around. Do you run community broadband networks like a typical public service project or a business enterprise? And do advocates of the latter comprehend what a completely different mindset this requires? 

In my 2006 book on muni wireless, I argued that cities have to think like a business if they want to build a network that generates enough cost savings and revenues to sustain network operations. A conservative think tank critiqued my book with the counterargument that this is why governments shouldn’t build these networks; governments are incapable of thinking like a business.

Government administrators are quite capable of adopting a business mindset for broadband projects. But they do have to commit to assigning and hiring people to drive the project who can execute using business principles while achieving public policy and economic development objectives.

I interviewed Michael Johnston, VP of IT and Broadband at Jackson Energy Authority, a public utility in Tennessee, for my last Snapshot Report. The City of Jackson has a population of 75,000. Their fiber network is currently a success story with 16,000 subscribers, but it had a rocky start. Johnston gives a straightforward assessment of why “you need to do a gut check before you go after stimulus money. You can’t be a nice fluffy business person.”

Take this simple example. Your stimulus proposal (any proposal, for that matter) has to prove you can financially sustain the network after it’s built. But have you adequately planned for business success?

“Let’s say we just borrowed $10 million with the assumption we’ll get 100 new subscribers every month for a year. But what about the price of success? If you get 200 subscribers a month, what do you do? You need more customer service people, more technicians. Beating your ‘take plan’ is counterproductive if you can’t get any more ‘free’ government money and you have to go to the bank for real money.”

Recently I commented on the value of partnering, the staple of any business venture. With community stakeholders, these partners are likely on the same page as you in terms of what they want. But the public/private partnership that has become a community broadband orthodoxy also can be the source of great heartburn.

“Partnering with a telco does help because you have to be ready for the different world of telecom operations. The difficulty, however, is that regardless of which telco you partner with you can have completely different goals that are at cross-purposes. The city wants to deliver services in places where it’s currently not offered. The partner needs to make money. There’s a reason that partner isn’t already delivering service in your area.”

Though easier said than done, I suggest you spend a lot of time in frank conversation so both parties thoroughly understand how the other’s business works. Such a discussion opens your eyes to where potential troubles lie that could lead to irreconcilable differences.    

You have to think about your business model as relates to partners. UTOPIA, the municipal network in Utah, took on debt and didn’t provide anything but the Internet pipe. Providers deliver services directly to consumers. UTOPIA makes money on fees from providers based on how many of their customers use the network.

“This kind of arrangement should be a winner, but it doesn’t always work. ‘My plan says if I add 100 customers/month, I pay off the bond.’ But what if the partner doesn’t add that many customers. The city has no leverage because partners want the least number of customers for most profit. Acquiring more customers costs money that cuts into profits. If the city insist on getting their fee anyway, the partner leaves, so obviously the city can’t raise fees.”

As the broadband stimulus grant process appears to be unfolding, it’s going to be smaller local service providers stepping up to partner with municipalities to build networks, and these providers are limited on what costs they can carry. So you need additional revenue options than monthly subscriptions from individual consumers.

Business strategy includes how you’re going to price services. The school district wants to be a customer. The city wants to ensure all citizens get the best education. So you offer the district service 10 times faster and at a price 70% lower than the incumbent’s bid. Perhaps you can do this and still cover network operations costs. Should you? Heavens no! Don’t gouge them, but institutional customers expect – and budget – to pay more for premium service that delivers better value. Trust me, one day you’ll need the money.    

And speaking of competition, does your grant proposal reflect the future competitive landscape? What, you think that incumbents won’t jump in just because they initially refused to build the network?  Put your business hat back on!

“People are assuming their competitors are going to stand still. They think ‘we’re going to go in and take 60% of the market away.’ Take away 60%, the competition doesn’t sit there and say ‘oh well.’ They fight back. ‘I’ll give you free cable for a year, Mr/Ms Muni Customer, if you just come back.’ Municipalities have to match these kinds of offers or lose customers, and typically they don’t think about this.”

This leads to the battle of churn. You have a couple of options. One is to play this game, but that requires an aggressive marketing mindset and sizeable monetary resources. From years of marketing experience, I recommend *not* playing that battle. I suggest creating services that incumbents can’t easily match, or can’t match at all for several years, and sell them to institutional customers at premium prices.

I also suggest reading my column on sustainability.

NTIA Grant Schedule: The Crapshoot and the Catch–22

Last week the Dept. of Commerce’s NTIA came out with a schedule that was a little off in the date when grants will be awarded, and their oft-quoted March 10 commitment to start handing out the big bucks in June. Though NTIA told inquiring reporters that they weren’t late (a mere technical quibble), the reality is the first grant checks aren’t coming out until December.

Though this means money starts to flow just in time for the holidays, the practical realities of this are a little challenging. And before going on, let me say that NTIA is to be lauded for giving themselves more room to work with since this whole stimulus timeline they’ve inherited is pretty insane, and the weight of conflicting expectations threatens to drag their boat down.

First, December paydays means April/May 2010 project launch dates. For communities in the northeast and midwest, groundbreaking on networks isn’t going to happen until said ground thaws. What about all those towns, cities and counties that have completed needs assessments, planning, partner development and everything else but writing the applications?

They folks are ready to roll and have economic impacts they could be seeing by next April rather than just getting started. Do they wait? Let’s face it, this grant process is a crapshoot for almost everyone involved. There’ll be more people asking for money than will come away with the brass rings. Do you delay the broadband benefits for nearly a year, and if you don’t get the money, start casting about anew in January for money? Or do you lift anchor on your project now?

Then there’s the catch-22. You can’t get grant money unless you prove there’s no other way you can afford to move your network forward. So you obviously can’t have a 2010 municipal budget item for the 80% CapEx you want from Uncle Sam. But when your fiscal year ends and the new budget kicks in without this line item and if you discover shortly after that you’re not a lucky winner, you’re pretty much up that smelly creek without a paddle.

I’ve been telling people for a few months that the best approach is to research and identify key stakeholder organizations and constituents with the needs and the budgets to buy enough services to underwrite network costs, then scope out an appropriate broadband plan. Work from the stance that stimulus money is only one option of many, not the one and only option for a successful project. From this position of strength, you better resolve with the catch-22.

One of what should be several options is to move things forward now, even if it means scaling back the scope of your project. It’s probably better to take the plans you have now, figure out some alternative funding sources and look to grant money as a way to expand whatever you start. If you win a grant, bump the project into overdrive. If you don’t, you already have plan B.

There are other options and strategies to attack this issue. What are some of your thoughts? (Check out the NTIA schedule)

Broadband Financing, Financial Services for My Blog Readers

The one thing everyone with broadband dreams is looking for today is money, so here you go.

Four elements are key to successfully pursuing broadband stimulus grant money: a solid business case, financing for the network buildout, financial network operations and a credible financial modeling. Our Broadband Success Partnership provides all four.

You can get all the details now on my Web site –  www.successful.com/services/stimulus.html. Or e-mail me – craig@successful.com.


Tips for the Broadband Dash for Dollars

It’s been a pretty busy week, and a lot of my writing has been directed to other blogs instead of mine. Here’s a roundup of excerpts and links to a few to help your broadband stimulus grant prep work. 

Double victory in N. Carolina (implications for broadband stimulus)

 Within a 24-hour period last week, the Senate and House sent both bills to committees for study, effectively killing that line of attack for a year.

Instead of spending all that money on lobbyists and public campaigns to stifle community efforts, Time Warner, et. al., should be flying their designers into these rural areas to find out how they’re pulling this off. The argument that you need to legislate a level playing field is ridiculous. You don’t have a 100 Mbps product to compete with and it’s not clear when you will. These towns with far fewer resources than private sector companies are delivering the service with satisfied customers now. Don’t kill these projects, figure out how to clone them! Or partner with them.

 Who’s your partner in the stimulus dash for dollars

 After sitting through and reading about the numerous public comment meetings on the broadband stimulus bill, it’s clear to me that partnerships are all the rage right now. Rugged individualism is not a winning trait at the moment. Even if yours is the poster child for unserved communities, there’s too little money and too few federal agency staff facing too many entities wanting and needing a piece of the stimulus pie to realistically deal with oodles of small applications.

How are you going to sustain your network once it’s built?

If the heart of your broadband network’s sustainability plan is selling subscriptions to individual residents, you should re-think your plan. Were the network a house, this is similar to fixating on making a classy roof while ignoring the strength of your foundation. 

Smart cities go after financially superior alternatives. Towns such as Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada bring the largest local businesses into a room and have everyone chip in to underwrite the network operating costs. Each business gets broadband superior service for a cheaper price. Or like Santa Monica, CA, you focus on selling fiber services to local businesses. This helped generate ver $2 million in operating capital for their network.

WiMAX or WiFi? A familiar question 

Not a post, but a recent article on the question in Christian Science Monitor

N. Carolina’s Fight for Broadband is the U.S.’ Fight

Much of America, including North Carolina, is at vital crossroads with broadband technology. $7 billion in stimulus money will start us down the right path – unless, of course, those incumbent telcos and cable companies throw a monkey wrench into the works like they’re trying to do in N. Carolina.

Through disinformation and proposing a state anti-local government laws, Time Warner (TWC) is trying to subvert N. Carolina communities’ right to select the best broadband solutions to meet their needs. TWC wants no government-driven broadband stimulus projects and no requirement to partner with local government for projects. If TWC wins here, this could be bad news for broadband in other states as incumbents try to repeat this performance.

Community broadband supporters in NC and across the U.S. need to join in the counterattack. Lay out the facts for state legislators. The winning strategy for many communities is municipal involvement in these networks, either through partnering with vendors and service providers, ownership by public utilities and nonprofits, or direct government ownership. History supports this position (see the cities in this report).

Municipal broadband became popular because incumbents refused to provide adequate service in rural and urban communities that want and need them. These same incumbents then attacked like rabid beasts the communities that created their own broadband solutions. Neither the community need nor the incumbent retaliatory threat has changed.

Opponents of municipal broadband fall over with the vapors claiming that taxpayer dollars will pay for kids to download YouTube videos. Several in-depth analysis reports I’ve done show a very different reality. Muni broadband attracts new companies, creates hundreds of jobs, spawns home-based businesses and otherwise transforms communities’ economic landscape. Basically, everything the stimulus bill is supposed to do. Casual Web surfing is a minor side benefit of these greater outcomes.

Incumbents try to scare us by saying municipalities shouldn’t get stimulus money for broadband networks because muni wireless networks failed and cities lost money. In reality, the failures incumbents talk about were networks that private companies owned, NOT the cities. Cities had very few cash dollars tied up in these deals. What’s more, those private companies used an incredibly bad business model: they would build networks for free AND give away many of the access services. Talk about failure of the free market!

Municipal broadband, on the other hand, has quite a few stellar successes in North Carolina and elsewhere to recommend it.

Wilson is  small town in eastern NC that got mad as hell at the high price of pitiful service TWC offers and decided they weren’t going to take it any more. They built their own network and its success has become the lightening rod for TWC’s legislative bid to kill muni broadband in the state. 

Pangaea, the community nonprofit network in Rutherford and Polk Counties, NC, is successful in critical areas targeted by the stimulus bill. In healthcare, they link hospitals, remote medical centers, pharmacies and doctors offices to increase efficiencies, instantly share data and enable doctors to devote more time to patients. Pangaea transformed education by connecting the libraries, public schools and community college to improve education delivery, start online curricula, and enable students to get associate degrees while still in high school so they have more and better career opportunities.

Craven County’s government-owned network is saving schools $275,000 a year in leased lines, while local government saves $50,000 annually in similar savings. Training, and distance learning are done at schools where people before had to spend time and money traveling to the school district’s central office, or miss out on the opportunities altogether.

In Madison County, NC the Mountain Area Information Network was key to saving the National Climatic Data Center that, because of the nature of its research, will draw huge amounts of money from around the world. The network keeps businesses and jobs in Madison and surrounding counties, attracts telecommuters and enables people to start new businesses that sell to worldwide markets.

There are hundreds of similar success stories waiting to happen, many courtesy of the broadband stimulus bill. Beating down this latest anti-muni broadband bill in the legislature also is key. Wilson’s success represents the future of broadband in America. If you want to see that future unfold, help NC communities fight the next good fight. You can bet your bottom stimulus dollar that a win for locals here will neutralize potential battles in other state legislatures.

New Report Preps You for Broadband Grant Gauntlet

I’ve been nose-to-the-grindstone the past couple of weeks writing my next Muni Broadband Snapshot Report. While you’re waiting, biting your fingernails wondering what the final NTIW/RUS guidelines will be for the broadband grant app process, there’s a lot you should be doing. This report lays it out for you.

Check it out – Fighting the Next Good Fight: A planning guide.

Rather than try to create an insider’s cheat sheet on what the rules will be and how to beat them, this report gives you a solid foundation for writing a strong grant proposal once we know what the rules are.

Ten representatives from rural and urban areas share their experiences and insights as to what significant impacts you should expect a funded network to achieve, as well as how you can sustain a network after it’s built. They address the importance of partnerships to network success, and offer advice on ways to tackle the grant applications process.

Based on this feedback and insights from the many public meetings on implementing the broadband stimulus bill, I offer recommendations for developing your broadband strategy and the business plan that should shape your grant application. To round things out, I present some useful tips from a couple of Washington, D.C. insiders.

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