July 20, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
CIOs of municipal governments are worried they won't have enough time to meet the Aug. 14 application deadline for the first round of grants set aside for broadband projects in the U.S. economic stimulus package.
Local governments had expected 60 to 90 days for preparation, based on what they heard in meetings with the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) -- the two agencies that are doling out the total $7.2 billion of stimulus money for broadband. Instead, the agencies released a notice of funds availability (NOFA) that gave governments little more than 30 days.
"There is extreme concern that there is not enough time to do a good job because there are a lot of pieces that still haven't been figured out," said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute (PTI), a peer industry organization that serves government IT departments.
One concern is how local governments will get the application's required signatures of endorsement from key players, like state officials, in time for the deadline.
"Some of the elements people are most frustrated by have been well known. It's just that people thought they could wait until the NOFA actually came out. Those who waited for the NOFA to come out are at a disadvantage," Shark said, later adding, "We have been telling our members for the last three months to start contacting people in their states."
Craig Settles, an Oakland, Calif.-based analyst of the municipal broadband industry, said getting an engineer's signatures also could be problematic.
"If the engineer comes back with questions, you have to resolve those before the engineer signs off on it," Settles said, later adding, "You have to get a lawyer to validate that the parties involved are legitimate companies and authorized to deliver the proposal. You also have to validate the affordability of your plan. Where is that going to come from?"
But Nevada County, Calif., CIO Steve Monaghan said he thought 30 days was generous compared to the two weeks' prep time given by the California Public Utilities Commission for submitting applications for matching funds that will go toward the broadband grants. The NTIA and the RUS will pay up to 80 percent of amounts requested in applications, so the utilities commission is distributing $80 million to California local governments and telecommunications companies for matching 10 percent of the project's total cost. Monaghan said the Public Utilities Commission program has its own set of confusing requirements to clarify, similar to the federal broadband NOFA, like establishing whether the area was "unserved" or "underserved" by broadband coverage.
"We'll know whether or not we were successful in a few weeks, but it has been really crazy," Monaghan said. His team has worked on its broadband plan for the past four months and already had two designated staffers who were focusing on the necessary research.
If a local government fails to secure funding during the first round, it can try for one of the two remaining deadlines, Shark said. He warned, however, that CIOs should expect those to be rapid-fire as well. The NTIA and the RUS have yet to announce the future deadlines for applications, but they must release all the money by Sept. 30, 2010.
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