Arizona Broadband Forum Probes 20 Percent Match to Obtain Federal Funds

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA March 20th, 2009

, Former Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 3, Session 3

March 20, 2009 – At the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Rural Utilities Services’ Wednesday joint public meeting in Flagstaff, Ariz., tension surfaced over how much of the money for local broadband projects should come from the federal government.

The panel topic – on the “selection criteria and weighting priorities” for evaluating broadband grants – was a repeat of an identical topic at Tuesday’s meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada. The public meetings are part of six-day collection of sessions designed to solicit public input on how the Commerce Department’s NTIA and the Agriculture Department’s RUS should spend the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus.

Some on the third panel of Wednesday’s public meeting called for a simple application process. Others called for rigorous qualification criteria for grant applications, including a well-documented business plan .

The broadband stimulus legislation, which allocated $4.7 billion to the NTIA and $2.5 billion to RUS for broadband grants, generally requires applications to match federal funds with 20 percent of project funds raised by the state government, local government, or private sector. NTIA has the ability to waive that provision, though.

Tension surfaced when Seifert put the implications of accountability, innovation, and wide distribution of funds under the spotlight. Many wanted the 20 percent match provision waived as a matter of course. Some called for acceptance of “in-kind” contributions – like state deeds to the rights of way for telecommunications wires – as constituting a match .

Seifert’s pushing back in his questions may indicate that the agency is more inclined to stretch the public dollar by staying with a requirement for a cash match in most cases.

Echoing his call at the same panel in Las Vegas for carriers to put some “skin in the game,” Seifert addressed a credible proposal, and said that there would need to be a relationship between “assertions and proof.”

A better proposal would show that “people have thought this through”. He also characterized a need to create projects that support a “test-bed” model.

Seifert also pleaded for ideas that would allow NTIA to sort out a pending deluge of grant applications. He posed plausible scenarios and asked people to choose; would “this” get higher priority than “that”?

For the second time in two days, it was starkly clear that there is more of a need for broadband deployment than is available through the broadband stimulus funds.

Betty Buckley, director of the Communities Connect Network in Washington state, recalled a simple model for understanding the enormity of the “broadband problem.” She said access is required to obtain internet service, equipment, and content. She advocated demand side proliferation by increasing up-take by “statistically proven low adopters”.

Tuesday’s panel in Las Vegas on the selection criteria was weighted with “middle mile” providers; the similar panel in Flagstaff was populated by providers of emergency services and tribal interests.

By and large, the presenters in Flagstaff read from their prepared texts. By and large, the presentations came off as a recitation of past accomplishments and putting the panelists’ positions “into the record”.

Lacking was the more free-flowing public debate evident on Tuesday in Las Vegas. The Flagstaff panel’s focus was more about mentioning a wide variety of praiseworthy causes.

Right-of-way and speed-to-market issues were both discussed. The vast majority of underserved people live in sparsely populated areas. Panelists and public comments addressed how relatively simple and urgent requirements are constrained by environmental impact studies and approval by a host of U.S. federal, state, and tribal agencies.

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