The grants and awards available in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are attractive, but competition is fierce.
In late January 2010, 1,400 stimulus grant applicants received rejection letters after they applied for funds during the first window for broadband financing. They got the bad news from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency is awarding some of the $7.2 billion in stimulus funds reserved for broadband projects.
North Carolina applicants hope they'll be lucky in subsequent chances. The city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have united to create a comprehensive broadband network for their governments, and officials think stimulus money is an ideal way to help pay for it.
They've acted quickly. The jurisdictions sent their grant application during the second application window, from Feb. 16 to March 15. Those awards won't be given until sometime between June and September.
"We think we have a great story for our application, but I realize we'll be competing against a lot of other applications. So this is not a foregone conclusion that our idea is the best," said Dennis Baucom, director of Charlotte's Network Technology Services (NTS) Division.
Baucom oversees a robust city/county public radio system that's distributed across more than 10 sites and supports 17,000 subscriber radios. It's an analog Motorola wireless voice platform that serves not only departments in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, but also those in neighboring jurisdictions.
"It's worked out well for the city and county - and all the other participants - because all the towns in the community, as well as other entities, have used the system," said Jerry Pinkard, the director of Mecklenburg's Information Services and Technology Department. "It's also provided a level of service that we couldn't have otherwise provided."
But NTS wants to change the current network substantially. The department is implementing a digital overlay project to migrate the analog users to a digital system, and it wants to enhance the system so it can transmit wireless data at higher speeds.
"In the modern era, there's obviously a need for higher-bandwidth transactions, and we think a wireless data network will provide that," Pinkard said. "It's evolving toward a broadband network."
Pinkard, Baucom and their colleagues plan to get done no matter what, but they say stimulus dollars will help them accomplish their goals.
"We're applying for stimulus funding because it will speed up the process," Baucom said. "If we don't get stimulus money, then we fully expect to discuss funding it ourselves. It just means probably an additional two or three years before we could put the network in place."
It won't be easy convincing the NTIA to give millions to a single project when there could be thousands of others trying to do the same.
They could've filed a grant application during the first round funding window in early 2009, but weren't prepared.
"We talked about whether or not to try," Baucom said. "The time frame was just a little short for all of us to get our legwork done, so we ignored the first round and said we'd try for the second round."
In summer 2009, representatives from various entities signed a consortium agreement. If all goes as planned, they'll represent a significant portion of the new broadband system's users and will also play roles in decision-making. Members include the city, county, higher education, public schools, public safety and the housing authority.
"I'm looking at those groups to be the core users who help set the parameters and how this thing's going to operate once we turn it on," Baucom said. "So they will make up the governing body at some point."
Round No. 2 parameters include crucial changes for broadband stimulus funding. Previously the NTIA and the Department of
Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) issued a joint Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) to promote coordination between the two programs in round one. But this time, they require separate applications for each program. The NTIA will offer funds from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and the RUS will offer funds from the Broadband Initiatives Program. The NTIA also requires applicants to contribute at least 30 percent in matching funds toward a project's proposed costs.
The NTS applied for the NTIA program, and its project may qualify as a middle-mile endeavor that satisfies one or more of the NTIA's community-oriented priorities. According to the NOFA released on Jan. 22, middle mile refers to components of a new or upgraded community infrastructure project that provide broadband service from one or more centralized locations to access points. The NTS project is designed to do that more efficiently and also serve citizens who typically have less access to broadband.
"One thing we've found is that the segment of the population we're trying to get may be larger than we thought. That coincides with the reason for this money being available at all," Baucom said. "A significant segment of the population is now unemployed, and access to this kind of network at a highly reduced rate could go a long way to allowing them to do job searches and, in some cases, develop skills to get a new job."
Baucom said the NTS is looking at providing access for the unemployed at public access points, but has yet to determine where these will be or the rules of the arrangement. The department also seeks to provide broadband access to, but it needs guidance from schools to iron out those details.
Although the payment specifics have yet to be fleshed out, all participating agencies will be subject to charges of some kind.
"One thing that I think early experiments with local government Wi-Fi proved was that free isn't always good because you become victims of your success," Pinkard said. "Everybody wants to jump on it, and you can't support the volume that you get out of that."
Too many users could slow down or overload the network, and if they're not paying, the NTS couldn't afford necessary upgrades.
The NTS will also seek private-sector partners to help build the network. Baucom hopes to solicit bidders to build the network or to build and manage it. That means the NTS is seeking assistance on two fronts - federal aid in the form of grant money, and private-sector contributions as well.
"Our goal right now is to get the network designed and built so that we own it," Baucom said, "and then find somebody in the private sector to do the operation and maintenance for us."