TMCnews Featured Article

August 03, 2009

Incumbent Telcos Endangering Community-Based Broadband Stimulus Projects?

By Craig Settles, Founder and President,

It’s going to be hard moving from where broadband is today to where these stimulus grants promise to (hopefully) take us, unless communities respond vigorously to several threats to the success of this grant program.
It may require 10 or 15 minutes to take a little action, but it’s worthwhile insurance to protect your investment in your grant application.
There are troubling signs that incumbent telcos could end up gloating over the torpedoing of many community-beneficial broadband projects, not all of which will require any effort on incumbents’ parts. Let’s take the issue of a 30-day extension to the NOFA deadline for this first round of funding.
What, haven’t heard about anyone asking for a 30-day extension? Could be because, according to a reporter who talked to RUS staff last week, no one’s asked about an extension. This is pretty surprising considering the scores of people laboring feverishly and for whom more time would be a tremendous help.
The NOFA rules’ complexity, confusion and contradiction are wearing out project teams that feel they may not make the deadline. We were originally told we’d have 30 days to review and comment on these rules, but NTIA/RUS nixed this. The odds for making technical errors that disqualify otherwise winning proposals are high in this pressure cooker. I spoke to some who’ve given up altogether for this funding round with the largest amount of money.
You can read more here on why taking a few minutes to push NTIA/RUS for a deadline extension benefits communities, local governments and their private sector partners, but the gist of it is this. You reduce the chance of good projects being deep-sixed due to lack of time. NTIA has more time to train, and put management systems in place for, volunteer panelists who’ll influence which proposals make the first cuts in the approval process. And some of the community-unfriendly rules can be challenged.
Speaking of community-unfriendly, probably the biggest potential for bad things to happen to good proposals is the backdoor clause that allows incumbents to challenge proposals by claiming to cover areas that the proposals determine to be un-served. NTIA head Strickling has struck a blow for communities last week. Incumbents that seek to challenge broadband applicants who argue that their areas are “underserved” will have to make such information public – and in the same format as the broadband data collection efforts underway nationwide.
Unfortunately, the incumbent lobbyist sharks have circled NTIA staff, attempting to undermine key mapping and data reporting requirements. Nothing good for consumers can come of this. These lobbyists are going to ratchet up the letter campaigns and other pressures on NTIA, so there needs to be a counter push demanding NTIA to maintain those rules that favor communities over telecom shareholders. Lead this pushback with a demand that the proposal applicant can counter-challenge any incumbent challenge to their proposal.
Finally, there is a mapping exercise. Unfortunately, fighting the bane of broadband mapping’s existence that is Connected Nation (News - Alert) is an uphill battle, and communities across the nation will suffer because of it. But there is still an avenue to make a stand. Two, actually.
The fact we’re putting the cart (broadband proposals) before the horse (broadband mapping data) is a necessary evil for which history likely will judge us harshly. However, the least you can do, if by some miracle we get a 30-day extension, is to capture as much good mapping data as possible to strengthen your proposal. Even without the extension, it’s still a valuable exercise to execute in case your proposal is challenged.
I sat through a demonstration of a service from RidgeviewTel  and a couple of meetings with Broadband Census that prove there is a better, faster and less expensive way to capture more reliable broadband demand data. Their methods not only show where broadband is missing, but also areas where the broadband that is “available” doesn’t have capacity to meet constituent demand nor is it affordable for many constituents.
Your second line of attack is to try to influence your state’s application for broadband mapping funds. If your state hasn’t been co-opted yet, lobby the right people to have a state entity apply for broadband mapping grants, then that entity can partner with a qualified private sector company or do the work itself if the agency is qualified.
Here’s the catch in all of these proposed activities: You have to be willing to spend 10 or 15 minutes writing a letter to NTIA/RUS, and convincing your constituents and others who truly believe in real broadband to join the campaign. Yeah, you’re busier than all get out with your application. But your application won’t mean a thing if it gets chopped down by the forces aligned against meaningful broadband.
Listed below are the people to contact. Do what you can. But do something.
The Honorable Larry Strickling
Assistance Secretary of Commerce
National Telecommunications & Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constituion Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20230

Craig Settles helps organizations use broadband technologies to improve government and stakeholders' operating efficiency, as well as local economic development.

Edited by Michael Dinan