Last week I tackled the role of the public CIO in the broadband stimulus grant program. The main theme was that, for a better shot at winning a grant, CIOs need to approach community networks as business ventures that must raise and/or save enough money so you can afford to use them to benefit currently unserved and underserved constituents.
I want to drop from that 30,000-foot view down to look at some of the nuts and bolts of conducting effective needs analysis, and forming good partnerships. These are particularly important given recent developments with the grant disbursement schedule.
Originally the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Rural Utilities Service (RUS) indicated they would begin the funding process in May or June of this year. Communities that had been planning a network for months geared up to jump on the first grant train leaving. However, bureaucratic reality set in and funds won't start flowing until the end of December.
This creates some major issues that need to be resolved. A December grant payout (assuming you win) means Northern and Midwestern states aren't breaking any ground on projects until the spring thaw -- say March, April next year. Even in Southern and Western states, there'll be added weeks for paperwork processing.
Had you applied for a grant in May and lost, at least you'd be able to put the project into your 2010 budgets or secure other funding to start the project before winter. If you don't win a grant in December, it's too late to budget it. And if you budget the project or find other funding now, you aren't eligible for stimulus grants since you can only get money if the network can't be funded any other way.
So, do you move now to launch a broadband project, or do you postpone for almost a year starting toward those economic benefits constituents have been demanding? The former is financially risky, while the latter means you'll likely fall even further behind the technology curve in a country already behind globally.
This is where needs analysis and partnering comes in. The only way to know if government and constituent stakeholders have enough needs to justify pursuing a network without a grant guaranteed is to do a lot of homework.
I recommend the ask-build-ask-again approach. Ask constituents what they want or need, how getting what they want will benefit them and how much they can pay for the service. Cast your feedback-gathering net wide within government agencies, to communities, and even to organizations you want to attract to your community.
Develop on paper a prototype of the network infrastructure and capabilities you think best meet the stated needs and go to stakeholders again. "This is what we think you asked for, but is it really what you want?" Even if you're talking to constituents who can't afford a lot for service, you still need to know that they'll be able to use what you build.
Patricia DeCarlo, a community leader from a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood, explained how in 2004, city representatives asked them about the proposed citywide wireless broadband network enabling people to sit in the park and use laptops. She told them, "Our folks do not have little laptops that they can take to the park. Listen to them. Otherwise you're just wasting people's time."
Through need assessment is also how you identify and recruit partner organizations that bring revenue and subscribers to the network. Your main selection criteria should be: Who can make you more appealing to federal agencies, and which stakeholders can help you financially sustain the network once it's built?
Nonprofits serving your communities that fit
NTIA/RUS' eventual definitions of unserved or underserved are ideal partners to help your agency-appeal. The business community may top your list of partners that can help financially sustain the network once it's built. Companies tend to need a lot of broadband and will pay for premium (but fairly priced) services.
Two powerful county government partners are public works and public safety. Meeting their needs opens your grant options to additional federal agencies such as Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation and Energy. Public works projects allow you to reduce the cost of broadband infrastructure build-outs. Every road, bridge and public building project is an opportunity to install broadband infrastructure at a reduced cost.
K-12 schools, colleges and universities are viable partners. They have a huge need for broadband, which opens them to various grant opportunities. Higher learning institutions with access to many megs or gigs of Internet speed are eligible for large research grants that bring huge economic benefits to your community.
Finally, your pursuit of key partnerships extends to the vendors and service providers who make network infrastructure and often services possible. "You have to make sure they can make money," observed Franklin County, Va., IT Director Sandie Terry. "Our [wireless Internet service provider] has just a two-year [return on investment] because they're receiving space on vertical assets such as government buildings in exchange for charging local government lower rates."