We’re a month from the filing deadline for the first (could it be the only?) funding round for broadband grant proposals, and the feds are currently on a national tour to answer questions, clarify points, etc. Like the cool rock bands, this tour should have a theme.
Borrowing from the Clash would be spot on: The Broadband Stimulus “Should I Stay or Should I Go” Tour. Fess up. As the reality and rhetoric of hundreds of pages NOFA, mapping NOFA and “NOFA explained” documents PLUS the not-too-skinny grant application itself sinks in, this question bounces around the back of your brain.
Good consultants pose the right questions that encourage (sometimes force) clients to find their own best answers rather than us trying to give them the right answers. So, in that spirit, let’s tackle this issue of do you ride out the grant process, or just head for the beach.
What are we really looking to do here?
If your main concern is getting affordable broadband at speeds that makes your community a bona fide player in the 21st century economy, be honest about whether winning this grant with all its baggage gets you from here to there. If there’s no way without the stimulus to get broadband to your community, you may as well stay the course. Others are having second thoughts.
Doug Bergren, an Alderman in Mt. Carroll, IL, feels “my small town is attempting to go it alone. There is some thought here in Mt. Carroll, IL that it can actually cost LESS to do it ourselves than become part of a big scheme. It’s our objective to get at least the downtown portion serviced by broadband by the end of the year.”
Many, though, have come too far to turn back, so the rest of this exercise is really about handicapping your odds in this game and figuring out how to cover your bets.
Do we carry a big enough stick?
A panelist at a Calif. Public Utility Commission (CPUC) workshop past Friday said she thinks it’s possible RUS/NTIA will only deal with the really large projects and set the smaller ones aside for funding rounds 2 and 3. A recent Wall St. Journal article reported that the Department of Education, under intense pressure from the White House to disburse money faster, changed its plan to have two funding rounds and will only have one.
Don’t be surprised if RUS/NTIA goes this latter route because the overwhelming number of applications it gets collectively represents a dollar amount far above the $7 billion available. And if only the huge proposals are considered, well, I guess fairness gets skewed.
Have we sufficiently kissed the governor’s ring?
If you’re read through the NOFA at least once, you realize the governor’s office holds a lot of sway in the final award decision because they get to comment on the priority list of applicants that RUS/NTIA creates. If you’re one of the gov’s favorites, life’s looking good if you make the list. For the rest of you, well, there’s about 45 – 60 days to do some serious ring-kissing, within legal bounds of course.
Is the state our friend?
Your relationship with the governor’s office aside, are state politics in your favor? In California, the CPUC has a funding program that defines broadband as over 1 mbps symmetrical, and has more favorable definitions of un- and underserved. What’s more, they’re offering to fund 10% of the NOFA-required 20% project costs communities must match and CPUC promised to fight for our communities’ proposals.
In N. Carolina, conversely, their legislature likely sold that state’s broadband hopes down the river into bondage by endorsing Connected Nation, while throwing eNC (a state agency internationally recognized for broadband advancement) under the bus.
From now right up to the final award notice, you’d better work together tirelessly with your state political apparatus because it’s going to influence the grant award process. And work twice as hard to counter those politicos friendly only to broadband that favors the incumbents.
Are we committed to fighting the “hidden” Fall campaign?
Maybe you missed the NOFA’s two “You Snooze, You Lose” clauses.
One is the rule that gives existing service providers 30 days to protest any proposal that wants to cover an un- or underserved area that a provider feels they already have covered. This means a community’s effort to bring real broadband can be challenged with an incumbent’s dog & pony show. Likewise, there’s a NOFA rule that gives communities 30 days to challenge proposals on the final awards that they think are getting too much money. Well, you know who’s going to line up to harp on that note.
If you’re not vigilant and prepared to fight in DC like rabid dogs against these challenges, you will be blindsided, and it will not be pretty. Having watched this grant process since the stimulus bill was signed in February, I feel the possibilities for a slew of tricks and shenanigans, both in D.C. and in the state houses, is huge.
So if you’re committed to stay with this stimulus game to the bitter end, better keep your eyes wide open because this broadband game never really ends.
Should you stay or should you go?