November 10, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
Agencies seeking broadband stimulus money now have only one more opportunity to apply because the two remaining funding windows have been consolidated into one, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the two federal agencies tasked with distributing $7.2 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for broadband projects. This may surprise some, given the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the two agencies were being overwhelmed by the application process in late October.
The move will enable more money to be spent sooner, but agencies that planned to wait until the third funding window will be unexpectedly pressured for time. Competition for broadband stimulus money is intense. The first deadline generated nearly $28 billion in applications and will award a maximum of up to $4 billion. Rejected applicants from the first funding window can apply for the second. The agencies have yet to announce the second deadline, but officials hope to begin accepting applications after the new year, said Jessica Schafer, spokeswoman for the NTIA.
"Based on our experience with the first funding round, including the overwhelming response we've seen from applicants nationwide, we believe this consolidated approach brings a number of benefits," said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information and administrator of the NTIA in a statement.
Spending the money faster was the primary benefit articulated in the NTIA's statement.
"It makes no sense to try to do two funding rounds for smaller amounts when there's this kind of demand," commented Craig Settles, an Oakland, Calif.-based municipal broadband analyst. "Also, the administrative burden of preparing for, receiving and reviewing these applications is huge. Both agencies probably cut their admin time in half by consolidating the last two rounds."
The agencies also announced that they are seeking public commentary on how best to administer the second round of funding for the programs in order to "improve the applicant experience and maximize the ability of the programs to meet Recovery Act objectives." The NTIA and RUS released a request for information (RFI), which invites suggestions about the priorities of the remaining funds, among other concerns. Many local government IT leaders, like San Jose, Calif., CIO Steve Ferguson, objected to the first funding window's heavy emphasis on "un-served" and "underserved" areas. It had the effect of excluding most metropolitan areas from applying because few met either definition.
Settles praised the RFI's emphasis on the economic components of the proposed projects.
"It goes beyond just trying to accomplish a goal of getting people online, and gets to the heart of the ARRA's primary goal -- turning the economy around," Settles said.
Applicants faced technical obstacles trying to submit their applications electronically during the first funding window. Schafer said the NTIA hopes the server capacity it installed to respond to that problem will be sufficient to support the second deadline.
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