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Getting Started on an NTIA Broadband Stimulus Application

LAKE FOREST, Ill., August 10, 2009 – Here’s a step by step guide to completing an National Telecommunications and Information Administration application in a bid to receive money for broadband projects. The guts of the application will consist of one or two page narratives in the following areas: project proposal, project benefits and innovation, awareness campaign, impact evaluation, technical strategy, project timeline, budget and budget narrative.

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Editor’s Note: The following guest commentary appears by special invitation of BroadbandCensus.com. BroadbandCensus.com does not necessary endorse the views in the commentary, but invites officials, experts and individuals interested in the state of broadband to offer commentaries of their own. To offer a commentary, please e-mail commentary@broadbandcensus.com. Not all commentaries may be published.

The staff of BroadbandCensus.com has produced a four-page report on the essentials of the Broadband Initiative Program-Broadband Technology Opportunities Program Notice of Funds Availability, which is available for purchase for $25.00, at http://broadbandcensus.com/special-reports.

By Don Samuelson, Guest Commentary, BroadbandCensus.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill., August 10, 2009 – Here’s a step by step guide to completing an National Telecommunications and Information Administration application in a bid to receive money for broadband projects.

The deadline for the first round of NTIA broadband submissions is August 14.  The first step is going to Broadband USA and clicking on the application link: http://broadbandusa.sc.egov.usda.gov/download_app.htm

You’ll find 47 topics, many of them essentially administrative.  However, the guts of the application will consist of one or two page narratives in the following areas:

  • Project Proposal: Problem, Solution and Outcomes
  • Project Benefits and Innovation: New Subscribers/Cost Per Subscriber
  • Awareness Campaign: Identifying and Capturing the Market
  • Impact Evaluation: What Real Differences Have Been Made
  • Technical Strategy and Organizational Capacity
  • Project Timeline and Challenges
  • The Budget and Budget Narrative

The evaluation scoring will be: Project Purpose (30%), Project Benefits (25%), Project Viability (25%) and Project Budget and Sustainability (20%).  The purpose of this short paper is to help Public Housing Authorities get started in thinking how they might develop a winning proposal that advances overall agency objectives.

Project Purpose

NTIA’s objective in providing adoption grants is to move vulnerable populations across the digital divide, to create new – and permanent – users of the Internet.  The assumption is that once public and Housing and Urban Development housing families and seniors experience the benefits of broadband and the Internet they will be motivated to be self-sufficient and shoulder more of the burden of their own well-being.  Costs can be reduced.  Access to services can be increased.  The overall quality of life will be improved.

An applicant will have to paint a “before” and “after” scenario.  Here is a description of the current status of computers, Internet access and use/adoption in the individual units.   The assumption is that the percentages will be very low.  Here is the intervention strategy to promote greater interest and use.  These are the projections of use adoption and use at the end of the intervention.  The percentages should be high. This data can be collected by surveys and performance updates.

But a key word is “sustainable.”  The use and adoption must continue.  Equally important, the use has to be paid for.  The major problem with the Housing and Urban Development Neighborhood Networks program was that while more than a thousand computer training centers were created under the program, there was no permanent funding to pay for program needs: instruction, maintenance, broadband connectivity and software and hardware upgrades.

It would be smart to think of this new program in terms of teaching residents to fish rather than being a permanent source of fish.  The use by seniors of the CTC in the building should be an initial step on the path to a permanent life on the Internet.  In two years the CTC can be shut down, all of the seniors will have computers and Internet in their units and a sustainable adoption will have been achieved.

Innovation

The innovation in the proposal is in using the on-site CTC as a collection point and launching pad, not as a permanent function.  It may well be that new applications and group discussions can take place in the CTC.  But the residents will have crossed the digital divide and the collaborations and life-long learning efforts of the future can take place in the individual units and not in the CTC.

The future I’ve postulated will need computers and Internet connections for all residents, not just for the limited number of devices in the CTC, connected by a wireless Local Area Network.  Where will they come from?  Ideally, the computers in the units should be refurbished computers and “thin clients.” The advantage of thin clients (or refurbished computers converted to think clients) is that they are inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to maintain. There are not many things to go wrong.  It can be a “plug and play” device. Donated and refurbished computers can count as the local “match” at NTIA.  The NTIA grant can fully subsidize Internet connections for a year, and at a 50 percent rate the second year.  The initial computers/thin clients can be paid for by NTIA.  The “sustainability” can be achieved by having residents fully pay for their Internet connection in year three along with upgrades, new computers and peripherals. The goal of the program is not to support on-site CTCs. The goal of the program is to use on-site CTCs for marketing the benefits of broadband and the Internet, and to prompt residents to cross the digital divide.

The Awareness Campaign

A short one-page survey should be the first step in the awareness campaign.  The survey should be oriented to current conditions (computer, dial-up or broadband Internet access, etc.), the current interests of the residents and their thoughts on how they intend to use broadband access.  The results of the survey will inform the basis for small focus-group meetings, to identify local Internet advocates/leaders and to build an outreach corps.  Inviting residents to illustrate their Internet activities on an electronic white board before larger groups of residents could demonstrate practical uses by peers.  It would be helpful to send e-mail to the children, grandchildren and friends of the residents to explain the Internet adoption program and to request support.  Once relevant content is developed and accessible over the Internet, a Web site can be developed to promote communications and collaborations among residents, and can provide access to the program to seniors on the building waiting list, and neighborhood seniors.

Impact Evaluation

Progress can be tracked throughout the entire two year program.  The survey will provide the base-line information.  Periodic interim reports can be generated related to: (1) filling out the survey; (2) participation in focus groups; (3) attendance at training sessions; and (4) the successful completion of training modules — not unlike the various progressions in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.  But thc key measurements will relate to the acquisition and use of a free computer and Internet access in the unit. Even more important will be the percentage of residents who will pay for Internet connectivity after the subsidy period is ended and the residents who will pay themselves for connectivity, hardware upgrades and software.  Other important measurements will relate to the uses made of the Internet connection and the amount of time spent on the Internet.

Technical Strategy

The on-site CTC should function like a 21st century classroom, with desktop terminals, a teacher’s station, an electronic whiteboard, a broadband connection and electronic curricula.  The CTC should have a color printer and other peripherals essential to the educational/training functions of the CTC.  It would be helpful to have webcasting capability in the CTC so that instructional programs. panel discussions and illustrations of resident work could be “broadcast” throughout the building creating virtual meetings for all of the building residents.  The all-building virtual meeting developed for Internet/computer training purposes can be used for many other uses as well.

How do we find affordable computers or thin clients for all of the building residents? First, the free refurnished computers or thin clients are “awarded” to residents who complete successfully a training course in the CTC.  So they are rolled out over a period of time.  Second, there is a ready pool of discarded computers everywhere in the United States – at least for the time being – resulting from the upgrading of personal computers in corporations, law and accounting firms and government.  The refurbishing process is relatively simple, easily done by middle and high-school students with little oversight.

The question remains how the broadband connectivity is distributed throughout the building – normally by a combination of hardwiring to the heavy Internet users (management office, CTC, maintenance office, etc.) on the main floor and wireless distributions throughout the building. This solution will have to be developed out of the specific circumstances of each location and the overall needs of the adoption program.

Project Timeline

Assuming that grant is awarded on October 1 and all of the detailed planning is done after you have survived the first cut, the first step will be surveys, focus groups and the “pre-selling” of the program. The second step will involve the preparation of the training curriculum, the program website and the recruitment of the site director.  A good start on this can be done before the actual award is made.  The whole system should be operational by the holidays and the first two four-week training program should have been completed.   The whole program can be completed in 2010. The whole program is three months of planning, three months of start-up and a year of operation.

Project Challenges

The biggest challenge will be to plan and implement the outreach in terms of generating benefits that are practical value to seniors, and to gently overcome the natural resistance to try something new.   This will have to be a fun learning experience, not unlike races for little kids, where everyone can feel good about their progress because it is advancing them along a path they have concluded will have value. The second challenge will be to find a program manager/instructor who has the collection of diverse training skills that can make this program happen.  The third challenge is to find a local source of refurbished computers that can fit the PC or thin client needs of the program in sufficient numbers to provide a computer for every resident. The fourth challenge is to identify affordable broadband connections for the residents. The fifth challenge is to find, review and arrange for on-line curricula that is responsive to the interests of residents that can provide a core “package” of applications that meet the interests and needs of seniors.

The Budget and Budget Narrative – Program Eligible and Matching Costs

There are certain eligible program costs that can be paid for by the NTIA grant. In general, they related to computers, furniture, equipment, training, connectivity and maintenance. They are costs directly related to the development of the adoption program.  The cost of space would normally not be covered unless it was to be devoted exclusively to the function of the CTC.  Once a cost has been determined to be “eligible,” 80 percent of the program costs can be paid for by the NTIA grant, and 20 percent needs to be covered by separate matching funds.  The Budget Narrative needs to document and explain each cost element with respect to hourly rates, unit costs, projected quantities and the reasonableness of the projected cost.  The budget needs to tie in to the overall program.

Donald S. Samuelson has more than 30 years of experience in government-assisted housing and real estate development. He has a passion for applying broadband to provide solutions in the fields of education and training. E-mail him at DSSA310@aol.com, or contact him by phone at 847-420-1732.

Expert Opinion

Kate Forscey: Mobile Broadband Gap Needs to Be Remedied, Too

A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to bring mobile coverage up to speed nationwide.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute

It’s no longer a question: Whether it’s launching a new business, keeping up with friends, or finding the cheapest gas station nearby, the Internet is quintessential to the extent we don’t even think twice—until we don’t have it.

While Internet in America’s cities and suburbs weathered COVID’s storm, rural and low-income Americans have struggled to get any Internet access for decades.  The well-known stories of parents taking their kids to McDonald’s parking lots to do their homework haven’t ended—far too many Americans still lack access to the broadband they need.

The federal government, however, is taking steps to change the story.  The FCC’s Universal Service Fund has awarded billion dollars to deploy fiber and fixed wireless service to unserved areas through an alphabet soup of programs like the ACAM, the CAF, the HCLS, and the CAF BLS.  The most prominent of these is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that auctioned off $9.2 billion in federal support to connect 5.2 million unserved homes with high-speed broadband.

Congress has stepped up, too, with the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act.  That legislation sent $42.45 billion for states to build out fixed, high-speed broadband.  In addition, Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program, allocating $14.2 billion to reduce the cost of broadband for low-income households.

Policymakers recognize the problem and their responsibility to do something, and they are taking action on a bipartisan basis.  This is good.  But it’s not enough.  All of this funding is directed at one broadband gap—fixed connections to the home.

Mobile connectivity gap remains unresolved

There is another broadband gap—mobile connectivity—that’s unresolved.  A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to bring mobile coverage up to speed nationwide.

Mobile broadband is central to the daily goings-on of families and businesses as we leave our houses with the fading of the pandemic.  That’s especially true for rural communities where commutes are longer, educational opportunities are sparse, and precision agriculture is necessary to stay in business.

To be fair, work is underway.  The FCC allocated $9 billion in 2020 for its 5G Fund, a support program to bring high-speed mobile connectivity to unserved Americans.  But that’s only a fraction of the funding needed to close the mobile gap.  And the FCC cannot move forward with the 5G Fund until it finishes updating its broadband coverage maps, which it’s been working on since 2019 and should be ready this fall.

So what to do?  Well, the FCC can move forward with its 5G Fund.  The auction model for that fund, as the Commission has proposed, would work—the RDOF used a similar model, costing the federal government $6.8 billion less than the FCC originally estimated.  And that $6.8 billion in savings could be redirected to the 5G Fund now that Congress is working to close the fixed-broadband gap.  The only downside is that the 5G Fund is a long-term solution—it will likely take several years before the funding is awarded.

Private companies are bringing new solutions to bear

In the interim, private companies are bringing innovative solutions to bear.  For example, AST SpaceMobile is building the first space-based cellular broadband network, allowing existing mobile phones to jump seamlessly from their terrestrial service to the company’s satellites and back again.  If the FCC were to fully authorize the service, it could expand the reach of existing towers and lower the cost of building out 5G to the far reaches of America.

Following in AST’s footsteps, SpaceX’s Starlink just announced a technology partnership with T-Mobile to enable connectivity to mobile phones in areas that don’t currently have access. Amazon’s Project Kuiper has similarly partnered with Verizon to extend the reach of mobile networks.

The advantage of these immediate solutions is they don’t require granular mapping or government funding to get started—they just need the FCC’s okay.  And while they don’t solve the problem entirely (satellite service works much better in Kansas cornfields than in the forested hills and hollers of West Virginia), they can quickly close the mobile gap where they do work well.

I remain hopeful that we can and will close the mobile gap.  Just as Congress and the FCC have relied on a variety of solutions to connect every household, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach to bring mobile connectivity to every American.  That means moving forward on government solutions like the 5G Fund as well as private solutions that give companies the flexibility to serve new customers.

Connectivity is having a bipartisan moment—let’s make it last.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Kirsten Compitello: The Need for a Digital Equity Focus on Broadband Mapping

Incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Kirsten Compitello, National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International

Broadband for all is in the spotlight right now, and closing the digital divide is recognized as a national priority. The divide goes far beyond access and touches issues of costs, ownership, culture, awareness, skills, and more. As we enter into a period of major statewide planning and deployment efforts, incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities in access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital equity is not just a value statement: it’s a commitment to inclusive and equitable decision making at every stage of broadband deployment, from planning to service delivery.

Ensuring equitable representation at the table

Embedding digital equity analysis into mapping is especially critical at this moment in time as we prepare for historic broadband funding. This funding is an opportunity to rebalance systemic patterns of exclusion and ensure rapidly deployed planning and implementation funds are fairly dispersed.

The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion, including the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, a $60 million grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans. In creating these Statewide Digital Equity Plans, extensive outreach to and collaboration with underserved, unserved and historically marginalized populations will prove critical. These discussions will be much more informative and effective in guiding successful policies, programs and projects if they are rooted in clear understanding of social, economic and environmental patterns alongside broadband access maps.

Documenting the effects of digital exclusion

Access is not an equal term: reducing it simply to speed of service available neglects the social and economic complexities that determine how and where users are affected by a lack of broadband. In short, mapping where the infrastructure exists only tells part of the story. Data analysis needs to layer in demographic and economic information in order to reveal patterns of exclusion and identify root causes.

To better understand community impacts, our team at Michael Baker developed data visualization tools such as a Digital Equity Atlas which takes the next step toward analyzing how broadband gaps disproportionately impact segments of the population. The methodology looks at Title VI and Environmental Justice data to reveal where poor connectivity correlates to social factors including low income, senior populations, English as a Second Language, households without a vehicle and more. As an example, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission leveraged the Digital Equity Atlas to prioritize new broadband expansion projects that stand to benefit the greatest number of at-risk or marginalized households. These households should not be last in line to see broadband investment finally bringing greater connectivity and opportunities to their doorsteps.

Fulfilling Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program requirements

Federal reporting requirements for upcoming Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act funding call for a proven and documented understanding and analysis of digital equity needs, from planning to projects in the ground.

The IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program provides $42.45 billion to expand broadband access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs across the country. Statewide Five-Year Action Plans, funded through this program, will require government agencies and their partners to take an integrated digital equity approach.

From planning through the ensuing reporting requirements, establishing digital equity strategies and a clear rubric for measuring success in achieving digital equity goals is a must for agencies. These entities must demonstrate how projects funded through BEAD improve digital equity. A strong data-driven baseline – such as the Digital Equity Atlas – will be a necessary starting point for agencies to track and monitor the effect of each new deployment on surrounding households. These data-driven metrics will also be a win for state and local governments to tell the story of their successes with clear data to back it up.

Setting a goal for sustainable inclusivity

As the consumption of internet content continues to rise and as broadband for all projects bring connectivity to the unserved, baseline expectations for broadband service and speed will only continue to grow. If we aren’t careful, new categories of have-nots will emerge: for example, those who pay high fees for minimum speeds versus those with lower fees for premier plans and Gig speeds. The currently unserved will gain access to service, but many will continue to struggle with basic internet skills, navigating through complex terms of service, or even simply finding time to schedule installation without missing a day of work.

To create a truly equitable society, everyone – no matter age, ability, location or status – needs access to affordable and reliable broadband; internet-connected devices; education on digital technology and best use practices; tech support and online resources that help users participate, collaborate and work independently.

By grounding our planning in equitable practices from the very first step, we can help to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from Internet for All.

Kirsten Compitello, AICP, is the National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband's Impact

Dianne Crocker: Recession Fears Have Real Estate Market Forecasters Hitting the Reset Button

Growing fears of recession trigger pullback on previous rosy forecasts.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Dianne Crocker, Principal Analyst for LightBox

The lyrics to “Same As It Ever Was” by the Talking Heads certainly don’t apply to how 2022 is playing out in the commercial real estate market. Two quarters of negative economic growth has put a damper on market sentiment and triggered fears that the U.S. economy is heading for a recession. By midyear, market analysts were taking a good, hard look at their rosy forecasts from the start of the New Year and redrawing the lines.

Once upon a time…

At the start of 2022, forecasters were bullishly predicting that commercial real estate investment and lending levels would be nearly as good as 2021. This was significant, considering that 2021 set new records for deal-making and lending volume as the debt and equity capital amassed during the pandemic while looking for a home in U.S. commercial real estate.

What a difference a few quarters have made. Virtually, all the predictions that started the New Year were obsolete by mid-summer. The abrupt shift in market conditions is palpable and surprised just about everyone. Now, markets are reaching an inflection point that is in sharp contrast with the strong rebound of last year.

The two I’s: Inflation and interest rates

At the core of the recent upset in market sentiment is the persistence of high inflation, which seems to be ignoring all attempts by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and bring prices down. Higher inflation is having a ripple effect throughout the economy, pushing up the costs of construction materials, energy, and consumer goods. Among the notable economic indicators showing stress at mid-year was the GDP, which fell for the second consecutive quarter, and the Consumer Price Index, which jumped 9.1% year-over-year in June – the highest increase in about four decades.

In July, the CPI fell to 8.5%, an encouraging sign that inflation was beginning to stabilize. By the latest August report from LightBox, however, hopes were dashed when the CPI showed little improvement, holding firm at a still high of 8.3%.

The market is responding to a higher cost of capital as lenders tap the brakes. As the cost of capital rises with each interest rate hike and concerns of a recession intensify, many large U.S. financial institutions are pulling back on their loan originations for the rest of 2022 and into 2023. This change in tenor is a significant shift, given that 2021 was a record-breaking year for commercial real estate lending. Many lenders have already shifted to a more defensive underwriting position as they look to mitigate risks.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, which had previously predicted that lending levels in 2022 would break the $1 trillion mark for the first time revised their forecast downward in mid-July. By year-end, the MBA now expects volume to be a significant 18% below 2021 levels—and one-third lower than the bullish forecast made in February. Now, investment activity is cooling as higher borrowing costs drive some buyers from the market.

In the investment world, transactions were down by 29% at midyear due to a thinning buyer pool as higher rates impact access to debt capital. Market volatility is causing investors, lenders, and owners to rethink strategies, reconsider assumptions, and prepare for possible disruption.

Looking ahead to year-end and 2023

The rapid and diverse shifts in the market make for an uncertain forecast and certainly a more cautious investment environment. The battle between inflation and interest rates will continue over the near term. As LightBox’s investor, lender, valuation, and environmental due diligence clients move toward the 4th quarter—typically the busiest quarter of the year–unprecedented volatility is driving them to recalibrate and reforecast given recent market developments.

Continued softness in transaction volume is likely to continue as rates and valuations establish a new equilibrium. If property prices begin to level out, there will be more pressure on buyers to consider how to improve a property to get their return on investment. The next chapter of the commercial real estate market will be defined by how long inflation sticks around, how high interest rates go, and whether the economy slips into a recession (and how deeply). The greatest areas of opportunity will be found in asset classes like office and retail that are evolving away from traditional uses and morphing to meet the needs of today’s market. Until barometers stabilize, it’s important to rethink assumptions, watch developments, and recalibrate as necessary.

Dianne Crocker is the Principal Analyst for LightBox, delivering strategic analytics, best practices in risk management, market intelligence reports, educational seminars, and customized research for stakeholders in commercial real estate deals. She is a highly respected expert on commercial real estate market trends. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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