Cities Concerned About Broadband Stimulus

This from the League of Minnesota Cities.  The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are holding a workshop in St. Paul tomorrow (21 July 09).  Plus other pointers for cities.

Additional details on ARRA broadband programs now available
Published:
July 15, 2009
 The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) included funding for two programs aimed at promoting broadband technologies in rural, unserved, and underserved communities: the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP), administered by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP), administered through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). Both of these programs are described in the League of Minnesota Cities’ (LMC) online ARRA Guide, available on the League web site.

The official Notice of Funding Availability for $4.7 billion in funding for both BTOP and BIP was published in early July after NTIA held several public hearings and accepted written comments on the funding opportunities. Applications for this initial funding round will be accepted from July 14 through Aug. 14, 2009, with awards expected to be announced in early November. Later rounds of funding are expected to be completed by September 2010. Application packages are available at broadbandusa.sc.egov.usda.gov…..

There are several opportunities for cities to learn more information about the application process. National League of Cities TV has produced several webcasts on the ARRA broadband initiatives. These webcasts are archived and available for viewing at any time at www.nlctv.org. NTIA and RUS will host a public workshop on the BTOP-BIP application process in downtown St. Paul on July 21 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information and to register, visit  broadbandusa.sc.egov.usda.gov/workshop.htm. The workshop will include an overview of BTOP-BIP, a review of the application process for NTIA and RUS grants and loans, and remarks from public officials. The day’s complete schedule and copies of the workshop presentations are available on the information and registration web site.

Cities should pay particular attention to the definitions of unserved and underserved areas [emphasis added], to which several national associations representing municipal interests have strongly objected. In summary, broadband planning and legal experts on a recent e-conference sponsored by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), which represents local cable franchise administrators and cable commissions, concurred that the initial funding round may result in fewer funding opportunities for community-based infrastructure projects. 

Efforts are underway to strongly recommend to the NTIA that these definitions be modified to address municipal concerns. NTIA will revise rules for the second and third rounds of BTOP funding, according to the information provided on the e-conference conducted last week by NATOA.

In this first funding round, up to $1.2 billion is available for such projects, but the rules may put urban, metropolitan, and perhaps even some rural community projects at a disadvantage. The rules do not address networks focused on community institutions as the anchor network, and the definitions do not fully recognize issues of low service penetration, affordability, and low bandwidth in many communities within urban centers and metropolitan areas. Comments by the participants in the NATOA e-conference concurred that the impact of these two factors may limit eligibility for some projects to apply for infrastructure funding during the initial round of funding.

From their perspective, the NTIA initial rules have effectively recast the focus of the BTOP program now only on rural areas where neither DSL nor cable modem service is being advertized. This appears to be the result of efforts at the federal level to prevent private sector providers from proposing projects for BTOP funding that benefit only more profitable locations and markets.

The rules do support eligibility for community and anchor-focused applications for non-infrastructure funding. Up to $50 million is available in the first round of funding for public computer center projects; up to $150 million is available for broadband adoption. Comments on the e-conference conducted by NATOA suggested that projects in least-served areas are strongly supported in this round and may provide such projects with a competitive advantage.

Another perspective that has been voiced is that projects that meet the rule requirements for BTOP funding in this initial around may have a strong chance for funding if applicants can make a case for their project. The presenter indicated that there may be somewhat less competition for funding due to the fact that the rules in place now are narrowly drafted. Among the elements that project applicants may want to keep in mind is that the two-step review process for funding means that every claim stated in applications will be tested; the definition of unserved and under-served are effectively prerequisites for eligibility for all project applications submitted in this round, meaning that it is important to consider whether cities and community-based projects can refocus on or limit proposals to meet those criteria. Other advice is to address end-user service delivery rather than focusing on an anchor institution in the application. 

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