Lawmakers Want Stimulus Funds Getting To Rural America; 'Remoteness' Definition Raises Concerns

Broadband Stimulus, NTIA October 27th, 2009

, Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, October 27, 2009 – Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation raised concerns Tuesday about getting broadband stimulus funds out to remote areas and how these areas should be defined.

The discussion took place during an oversight hearing on the process of awarding out the $7.2 billion provided to the federal government by Congress to expand broadband deployment and adoption.

The agencies responsible for administering the stimulus funds are the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. John “Jay” Rockefeller, D-W.V., both raised concerns about defining remote areas and making sure the funding is getting to the underserved areas in need. Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the Rural Utilities Service at the Department of Agriculture, outlined the problem in his prepared testimony.

“[W]e have seen applicants struggle to comply with the requirements of the “remote” definition for last-mile rural remote programs,” Adelstein said.“We are contemplating major revisions that will continue to target highly-rural areas that are difficult to serve while making it easier for applicants to comply with any new definition we may establish.”

He added that they have seen “some applicants encounter challenges with our program’s rural definition” and “some applicants have found it difficult to comply with the loan requirement for middle mile and last mile non-remote projects.”

Adelstein responded to frustration expressed by Kerry and Rockefeller by saying that “we have everything on the table” and RUS is actively looking at new ways to define remoteness to get out funds to those in need.

“We do need to think about this,” said Adelstein. “I hope you just take note of what I’ve said,” responded Kerry.

The problem of defining remoteness and getting funds out to underserved areas was not the only issue raised during the hearing.

“NTIA and RUS face scheduling, staffing, and data challenges in evaluating applications and awarding funds. The agencies have taken steps to meet these challenges, such as adopting a two-step evaluation process, utilizing nongovernmental personnel, and publishing information on the application’s proposed service area,” said Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office.

Still, “the agencies lack the needed time to apply lessons learned from the first funding round and face a compressed schedule to review new applications” so may “risk awarding funds to projects that are not sustainable or do not meet the priorities of the Recovery Act,” said Goldstein.

Adelstein said “concerns have prompted us to consider alternative approaches for the second round of funding that would simplify the application process and support our efforts to fund high-quality projects.”

NTIA Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling said the agency’s goal is to improve the application experience. He added that the agency will have the time to “adjust those aspects of the process that need to be improved.” Strickling said NTIA going forward will enhance its auditing and monitoring responsibilities.

“I believe that to be fair to applicants, we need to find a way to simplify the process going to forward,” said Rockefeller.

Going forward, Adelstein said “It continues to be our belief that we should move to compress the planned-for second and third [funding] rounds [to applicants] into a single round in order to give applicants additional time to create strong proposals and to ensure that we are able to meet the goal of obligating all funds by Sept. 20, 2010.”

RUS and NTIA plan to seek formal written comments on ways to better meet the requirements of the Recovery Act and will be releasing a request for information soon, he added. “We will make necessary changes based on these suggestions and our experience.”

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