Coordination Between NTIA and RUS Spurs Talk of Common Broadband Application

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA March 17th, 2009

, Reporter-Researcher, BroadbandBreakfast.com

News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 1, Session 2

WASHINGTON, March 17, 2009 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service should keep the application process for broadband stimulus dollars as simple as possible, a group of panelists said on Monday.

Speaking at the second panel of the March 16 public meeting, “Coordination between NTIA and RUS on Broadband Initiatives,” the message imparted was simple: coordination ought “not be buried in detail,” as expressed by J. Bradford Ramsey, general counsel of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Ramsey was one of five panelists discussing the intricacies of the way in which the Commerce Department’s NTIA’s $4.7 billion for broadband will interact with the $2.5 billion that will flow through the Agriculture Department’s RUS.

Monday marked the first day of a six-day series of joint hearings between the agencies.

The $7.2 billion total in broadband stimulus funds was allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which authorized $787 billion in total spending in an effort to boost the economy.

“Let us keep the application process simple,” said Ramsey. “Let us broaden our definitions of what we are doing too,” he said.

Echoing a theme also expressed by the other four panelists, he said there ought to be a common application for everyone interested in the funds, and that details of the process and outcomes be made available in a public database.

Jeff Arnold, legislative director at the National Association of Counties, warned that major challenges exist in applying for the grants at the local level.

“Let us have a standardized process and database cutting across both NTIA and RUS,” he said. He also urged a standardized application.

Derrick Owens, director of government affairs at Western Telecommunications Alliance, and a former NTIA official, also urged coordination between NTIA and RUS. But a single application procedure may not be viable because of institutional differences between the two agencies.

Additionally, RUS has the authority to stretch its $2.5 billion in funding into more resources by turning a portion of the funds into loans, instead of grants. Over the past half-decade, RUS has primarily given loans, and not grants, for broadband projects.

The differences between an application for a loan, versus an application for grant, may frustrate the quest for a common application.

Simplicity is also going to be vital to deal with an expected on-rush of applications for broadband stimulus funds.

Arnold, Owens and Mark DeFalco, a member of the board of the Appalachian Regional Commission, all surmised that the two agencies will be flooded with “thousands” of applications for the federal dollars.

“There will also be need to develop a notification system so that applicants know the status of their grant or loan applications,” said Owens, adding that the applications should processed in a “rapid and efficient manner.”

One debate among the panelists emerged over whether broadband stimulus funds should be driven primarily to expand coverage over a wider area, or to spend more to ensure higher-speed connections.

Mark Cooper, director of research at Consumer Federation of America, said there is need to establish “overreaching principles” to coordinate stimulus spending across agencies.

“Let us also set threshholds and standards to meet basic connecting needs,” said Cooper. “Let us also target maximum coverage rather than maximum functionality.”

DeFalco stressed that building “good coverage in all rural areas” should not take the place of ensuring that super-fast fiber or coaxial connections are built out more widely. Otherwise, he said, “these rural areas are again left behind.”

Arnold also warned against being satisfied with a definition of broadband speeds that were too low. “We need to be careful that we don’t design broadband needs based on residential users.”

During the question and answer session, Ramsey said that states should play a coordinating role among their own applicants on where broadband funding decisions stand.

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