States Want NTIA and RUS to 'Outsource' Broadband Stimulus Grant-Vetting

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA March 23rd, 2009

, Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 5, Session 2

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2009 – The complexities of relationships between federal, state, and local governments, the private sector and sovereign Indian tribes emerged during a Monday afternoon round table on the role of states in the NTIA-RUS grant process.

While state utility commissions and governments cite expertise and knowledge of local players as a reason for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service to delegate authority, representatives of small business interests and Native American tribal governments saw the same factors as possible roadblocks to allowing stimulus funds to achieving program goals.

With the transition to digital television looming over NTIA, and with the RUS occupied with existing programs, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners general counsel Brad Ramsay suggested that the best efforts of both agencies would not be enough distribute stimulus grants and loans within the statutory 18 month timeline. It is “an impossible task,” he said.

Instead of needing to “scramble” in supplementing an already overworked staff, Ramsay suggested NTIA and RUS choose to enlist the help of state governments in vetting applications.

“We don’t have time to figure out the perfect solution,” he said. Ramsay suggested “outsourcing” some work to the states “gives the best possible outcome, given the time available.”

The states have the knowledge and expertise to properly handle the job, and already know already where the problems are, Ramsay said. NTIA and RUS should let the states help in ranking grant applicants and monitoring the progress of their implementation. Ramsey said states would use national standards.

States have a natural “gatekeeper” role to play during the grant process when “time is of the essence,” said National Governors Association Legislative Counsel David Parkhurst.

Not only can states best identify stakeholders and partners as well as identify and aggregate demand, but Parkhurst suggested that the first “wave” of grants should be reserved for states with existing broadband plans in place.

Such state groups would provide needed “evaluation benchmarks,” he said. State governments could certify to NTIA and RUS that grantees proposals’ are “consistent” with a state plan, Parkhurst said. This kind of federal-state collaboration will be “neccessary” to prevent wasted and duplicate efforts going forward, he said.

Others envisioned a more modest, consultative role for the states. Drawing on his own experience working with both federal and state governmental officials, Bristol Virginia Utilities president Wes Rosenbaum suggested that NTIA develop criteria and simply consult with states on funding recommendations.

Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, saw the need for a nationally-coordinated network of community-based organizations to best address the needs of aging populations. Markwood cited successes working with NTIA on DTV transition issues as evidence that the agency is more than up to the job.

And if states are going to have a role in the process, Markwood said it must be a “transparent” one that brings all stakeholders to the table “in an equal and broad-based manner.” All projects that receive funding should be focused on the goals intended for the stimulus package, she said.

But the idea of the states as a gatekeeper was troubling to Diana Bob, an attorney representing the National Congress of American Indians. While Bob acknowledged NTIA has had a state-tribal relations project and recognizes the value of partnering with state and local government, she was skeptical of allowing the states to speak for the tribes before RUS or NTIA.

“Tribes are not political subdivisions,” Bob explained. “States don’t have a vested interest in making sure tribes receive federal funds.” Bob noted that states often receive very little in terms of state funding. And states rarely “go to bat” for the tribes with the federal government, she said.

The congressionally mandated national broadband plan “must include Indian country,” she said. The states, which may do much of the actual mapping, must include Indian country in their maps and have “meaningful consultation” with tribal governments, Bob said. Such a relationship could be ordered by NTIA and RUS in grantmaking criteria.

Bob feared that a lack of a mandate to include Indian country would only lead to a repeat of past failures of efforts that lacked “meaningful inclusion.”

Bob noted that many tribal lands still lack a modern electrical or telephone grid because states simply “skirted around” reservations when mapping out transmission lines. “Some [tribal lands] don’t have electricity or analog access” today, she said.

But past failures are not predictors of the future if the federal government incentivizes cooperation with the tribes, Bob said. However, she carefully pointed out such successful partnerships “don’t happen on their own.” Rather, they are predicated on incentives to states. Tribal governments aren’t opposed to states taking a role, Bob said. But “there are many bad models out there: don’t go in that direction.”

When NARUC’s Ramsay was asked how states would resolve tribal dissatisfaction with any state ranking system, Bob quickly interjected that the tribes “aren’t asking for different or fast-track access, just a consistent application of federal trust responsibility.”

The relationship between the federal government and tribes is a unique one, she said, and would not lengthen anyone else’s grant approval process. “This is not a slippery slope,” She said.

Some questions from the assembled crowd called into question the ability of the states to remain objective in “ranking” projects when the state itself may be an applicant.

Ramsay was adamant that nothing in the stimulus bill’s legislative history prevents NTIA or RUS from consulting with the states while retaining final decision-making capability.

Markwood suggested that reliable data would be the key to successful grantmaking. Applications should be measured by how many individuals will be served, she said. “Reliable data becomes the transparent measure.”

But some worried that states would still favor applications from incumbents in any “ranking” process. Bob noted that the RUS actually requires incumbents to have priority. “But [some] Indian country isn’t even served by incumbents,” she said. Tribal governments might want to see some written agreements to guarantee access to networks, she said.

Ramsey wasn’t sure the states would automatically favor incumbent carriers. While the statute requires “ongoing, sustainable projects,” did not think that would automatically translate to incumbents.

And another questioner asked how the states could provide better oversight than RUS and NTIA when the states themselves have fewer regulations or resources for oversight: “This is a federal government project…. NTIA needs to retain control.”

Ramsay replied that submitting proposals electronically in a common application would remove the need for many of the resources some say would be needed.

But even as the session drew to a close, the state-as-gatekeeper idea remained under scrutiny. When asked what would happen if a project crossed state lines, Ramsay said it could get two separate rankings.

A strong state role was essential, said Ramsay. ”This is the best we can do with the time available.”

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