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Advocates Seek Accountability in Expenditure of Broadband Stimulus Funds

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2009 – At the final day of a six-day public forum about the federal government’s $7.2 billion broadband stimulus funding on Tuesday morning, the discussion made a sharp turn toward a focus on oversight and post-award compliance.

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News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 6, Session 1

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2009 – At the final day of a six-day public forum about the federal government’s $7.2 billion broadband stimulus funding on Tuesday morning, the discussion made a sharp turn toward a focus on oversight and post-award compliance.

The forums, sponsored by the Commerce Department’s National Technology and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, addressed the parameters of the program being put in place at the two agencies because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the fiscal stimulus package.

Beth McConnell, executive director of the Media and Democracy Coalition, a coalition of public interest media advocacy groups in the states and in Washington, said there was need to “ensure grantees are accountable to the congressional intent in the Recovery Act” and that “grantees are complying with the rules and agreements.”

“To address both, we need clear and concrete objectives in grant contracts, strong rules to hold them to, and good data to evaluate,” she said. Companies should not be able to evade these conditions by selling their contracts, she said.

Additionally, said McConnell, all funded projects should contain a component that will measurably increase adoption. She also said that the NTIA and RUS “should require that all grantees report their network management practices.”

She also said both NTIA and RUS should require that grantees report the actual speeds delivered, prices paid by customers, and adoption of services.

McConnell also said that funds should not be awarded to any entity that purports to map broadband services yet withhold critical information. Instead, agencies should consider grantee reporting a critical opportunity to gather data to inform broadband data-collection and mapping, and that consideration should be given to robust post-grant assessment of the impact of projects.

Eli Noam, director, Columbia Institute for Tele-Information and professor of finance and economics at Columbia University’s business school, said the selection process must be rigorous, with classification of the applications into four baskets: rural, metropolitan, community development and innovation baskets.

“Each of these baskets will have somewhat different criteria,” said Noam. “Within each basket, projects would be graded and ranked. The rural basket should be evaluated jointly by NTIA and RUS. All baskets should be evaluated in parallel by their state Public Utility Commissions or internet boards,” he said.

Noam also called for thresholds to govern operational viability and speeds in the market, before applications could be evaluated on network efficiency and employment effect.

Selection criteria for performance, he said, “must be clear rather than fuzzy, because otherwise the monitoring will be fuzzy, and the accountability will be fuzzy.”

Transparency, independent performance evaluation and government accountability will be helpful too, he said.

Amina Fazlullah, counsel for Media and Telecommunications Reform at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, asked that oversight be tailored for each program objective, with clear deliverables for grantees set at the beginning.

All participants, she said, should participate in oversight –  not just grantees. Interventions in the event of failures should be made early.

She also called for regional, quarterly, press briefings “to give the public information on grantee programs.”

Sunne Wright McPeak, president and CEO of California Emerging Technology Fund, called for the establishment of a framework and process before awards are made. She said there should be an agreement governing deliverables and outcomes beforehand.

Baselines should be established to guide supply, redeployment, demand and adoption across states.

She said immediate outcomes should be seen in jobs created and people connected, while long-term outcomes should be seen in an increase in deployment and adoption of broadband technology.

Chris Murray, senior counsel at Consumers Union, said judgment of the oversight process should be based on how many homes are served, what speeds are used up and down, and at what cost for the consumer.

He said the NTIA must be able to provide clear answers to the questions:

  • Who is the recipient of the grant?
  • What is the purpose of the grant?
  • What is the grant spent on (including specific equipment)?
  • What is the impact?

John Bunting, a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program Audit Manager in the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General, said his office would deploy dedicated staff, initiate targeted risk-based audit and expedited reporting, participate in departmental committee and working groups, and embark on fraud awareness training as well as timely response to citizen complaints.

Members of the public in attendance expressed concern over the need for rigorous compliance, comprehensive vetting prior to and during projects, clarification of performance criteria and generosity to all applicants, and an examination of financial capability before grant awards.

There was also concern for public life, health and property; the need for independent engineers at every stage; state-based solutions to existing and emerging needs as well as the need to increase resources for deployment in some parts of the country.

FCC

Eighty Civil Society Groups Ask for Swift Confirmation of FCC, NTIA Nominees

The groups sent a letter emphasizing the need for internet access expansion ahead of Wednesday confirmation hearings.

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Photo of Alan Davidson from New America

WASHINGTON, November 16, 2021 – Eighty civil-society groups have penned a letter to Senate leadership requesting a swift confirmation process for President Joe Biden’s nominees to the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Groups representing interests spanning civil rights, media justice, community media, workers’ rights and consumer advocacy highlighted to Senate leadership the need for the agencies to shepherd internet access expansion on the heels of newly signed bipartisan infrastructure legislation.

Biden last month nominated Jessica Rosenworcel as chairwoman and Gigi Sohn as a commissioner of the FCC, as well as Alan Davidson for director of the NTIA. Rosenworcel and Sohn’s confirmations would make a full slate of commissioners at the FCC, ending the potential for 2-2 deadlocks.

Key Senate Republicans have since expressed concern over the nomination of Sohn, citing her liberal views on communications policy.

Signees of the letter emphasized that an ongoing global pandemic and “worsening climate crisis” raise the stakes for FCC and NTIA action, and that connectivity access issues are even further exacerbated among poor families and people of color.

Organizations on the letter included the American Library Association, Color of Change, the Communications Workers of America, Greenpeace USA and the Mozilla Foundation, among others.

The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for Rosenworcel on Wednesday.

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National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Minority Community Grant Applications

The more detail, the better, NTIA officials said of program.

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Scott Woods, senior broadband program specialist and team lead for NTIA's Connecting Minority Communities, speaking at Broadband Communities in Houston

WASHINGTON, October 24, 2021–Lack of eligibility or proper planning or documentation errors are frequent grounds for disqualification of applicants for the United States’ Commerce Department’s Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, agency officials said Wednesday and Thursday.

Speaking at webinars for individuals considering applying for the grants – which are being made by the National Telecommunications and Information Association of the Commerce Department – officials shared the most commons mistakes made by applicants when applying for the grants.

Among the officials speaking during the two presentations were Scott Woods, senior broadband program specialist and team lead for the Connecting Minority Communities program, Management and Program Analyst Pandora Beasley-Timpson, Broadband Program Specialist Janice Wilkins, Telecommunications Policy Analyst Francine Alkisswani, and Broadband Program Specialists Cameron Lewis and Kevin Hughes.

Among the biggest mistakes is eligibility. “Only historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, or minority serving institutions can apply,” said NTIA’s Michelle Morton.

Making a Successful Application

Morton and other leaders of the program also shared traits of a successful grant application.

“Good applicants provide a business and execution plan,” they said. “[Applicants] should demonstrate there is a core staff that is dedicated to the proposed project and knowledgeable about the process, as well as an editor, preferably one not connected to the project, to encourage non-biased review of the grant to see how it reads.”

Project Implementation and Evaluation

When describing their project implementation and planning process, applicants should have a clear project narrative that “identifies specific tasks, measurable milestones, and performance outcomes resulting from the proposed project activity,” the officials said.

Importantly, the NTIA stressed that all applicants must comply with Commerce Department regulations for the protection of human subjects during all research conducted or supported with grant funds.

This is important because the NTIA is required to determine whether or not a project’s evaluation plan “meets the definition of human subject research.” Thus, no work can be taken for research involving human subject until a federal grants officer approves of the research.

Consortiums

NTIA leaders also addressed questions about consortium-based applicants. “The lead application is the entity entering into the grant agreement with the NTIA and assumes primary operational and financial responsibility for the project.”

A consortium allows Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities and minority-serving institutions to partner with local governments on their application. Each consortium partner must provide a letter of a commitment to the project, including the detailed role of each member of the project and the specific commitment of each member of the project.

Finances and Budgeting

Applicants are also required to include financial documentation that details how the funds will be used and how the funding plans to meet the projects’ intended goals.

Additionally, applicants’ budget narrative should serve to explain how the costs were estimated and justify how the budget items are necessary to implement project goals and objectives and accomplished applicant’s proposed outcomes.

“We encourage out of the box thinking with regard to applicants putting together their projects,” said Hughes.

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NTIA

Senate Advances Legislation Creating Office of Internet Connectivity Within Commerce Department’s NTIA

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Photo of Sen. Maria Cantwell by Lance Cheung of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2020 – The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday voted to advance a version of legislation creating a new office with the Commerce Department, and  re-authorizing the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to protect consumers from deceptive internet marketing.

One bill would establish an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration of the Commerce Department.

While senators approved both the reauthorization of the US SAFEWEB Act and the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand Act by voice vote.

The ACCESS BROADBAND Act requires the administrator of NTIA to establish a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth within 180 days of the bill’s enacting date, with the aim of coordinating and streamlining the process of applying for various federal broadband support programs.

However, the amended version of the bill includes language authored by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., which specifically excludes the Universal Service Fund’s programs from the office’s mandate.

The bill would also require the new office to create a single application for the various federal programs under its auspices, as well as a website which would be a one-stop shop for individuals and institutions seeking to learn more about federal programs for expanding broadband access.

In her opening remarks before the committee began consideration of the bill, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member, praised the “good bipartisan work” that went into drafting it.

“Closing the digital divide that so many communities particularly in our rural communities face is a priority for many members on this committee, and this bill is an important step in addressing that challenge,” she said.

“And I would I would say that this coronavirus is also a very strong learning lesson for us, as it relates to the gaps in broadband because you certainly need it as it relates to so many aspects of delivering on education and healthcare during this time period.”

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., later added that the bill, which she co-sponsored, will be helpful to Arizonans living in rural areas who may need help accessing better broadband services.

“Nearly 25 million Arizonans living in rural areas do not have access to high speed internet, so it’s crucial for Arizona that rural communities are afforded the same opportunity to stay connected as our urban areas, and the ACCESS BROADBAND Act moves us in the right direction,” she said. “It’s an essential step to help us close the digital divide and ensure everyone in my state and across our country can access quality, high speed internet and the opportunities that come with it.”

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