Lots of questions, not a lot of answers as agencies gear up broadband funding programs

As we previously observed, the newly-enacted-but-still-to-be-implemented Stimulus Package leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Having earmarked billions of dollars for expansion of the country’s broadband Internet facilities and services, Congress dumped into the laps of various agencies the chore of building the Federal systems – essentially, a bureaucratic ATM – necessary to dole out the Big Bucks. But Congress didn’t bother to include any helpful assembly instructions.  

On March 10, in their first joint public appearance to address the issues, the agencies in charge confirmed the existence of questions, but provided precious few answers – which is not surprising, given the inchoate and largely undefined responsibility which Congress handed to them.  The agencies are, of course, doing their diligent best to tackle that responsibility by raising all of these questions as early as possible. But the fact remains that at this point, the questions far outnumber the answers.

The agencies in question are the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), and our pals at the FCC. The Stimulus Package assigns NTIA and RUS – in consultation with the FCC – the task of devising detailed regulations for the funding of proposals to construct and provide broadband service in “unserved”, “underserved” and “rural” areas. So far we’ve seen two steps taken in that process.

First, the three agencies held their March 10 joint meeting. This blogger attempted to attend in person, but upon arrival found that the meeting room had already long filled up. It was like they were giving money away or something – oh, wait, that’s exactly what they’re doing. This blogger then beat a quick retreat back to his computer to watch a webcast of the event (thank goodness for my broadband!). The video archive of the meeting is available here, if you’re interested. 

After a few de rigueur platitudes about the importance of broadband by  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Department honcho Rick Wade, and Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps –  agency staffers shed a little interesting light on a couple of points:

  • The NTIA will likely do three rounds of funding, each probably with one-third of the total available funds, and each announced by a Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA).  The first NOFA is likely to be published between April and June of this year, the second between October and December, 2009, and the third between April and June, 2010.  The RUS may get its first NOFA out sooner and will also likely do three rounds of funding. Thus, while the agencies may move quickly to establish funding procedures, potential grantees may have some time to work on developing their proposals for filing in later rounds of funding.
  • It was noted that NTIA funding is supposed to go to “Unserved” and “Underserved” areas, while RUS funding is supposed to go to “Rural” areas.  The three agencies are looking to see if they can somehow unify these definitions.

Curious audience members asked a number of interesting questions, and in self-esteem-building style, the agency staff folks duly acknowledged that they were, indeed, good questions. But the agencies declined to answer any of them.

The second step, taken in conjunction with the press conference, was the release of a public notice in which the agencies: (a) announced four “public meetings” in Washington and two “field hearings” (in Las Vegas and Flagstaff ; and (b) posed 20 questions about how the funding program should be implemented. 

The public meetings are scheduled for March 16, 19, 23 and 24; the field hearings are set for March 17 and 18. Other meetings may be scheduled later. (Check the NTIA website for updates on locations and schedule changes.) The agendas of the meetings and hearings have not been provided in detail. All we know is that the meetings will be “about the new [Stimulus] programs.” 

The public is also invited to submit written answers to the 20 questions posed in the public notice.   Those answers may be submitted within 30 days of publication of the public notice in the Federal Register. (Check back here periodically for updates on that.) Anyone thinking about whipping off some quick responses to the 20 questions should beware.   First, it’s not really just 20 questions. While the public notice included 20 numbered questions, most of those questions had sub-parts – as many as 10! – so the total number questions is closer to 50 or 60.

And these are not your simple yes/no questions. Rather, they are extraordinarily broad inquiries relating to fundamental design and implementation issues. (Sample: “2(b): What is the appropriate role for States in selecting projects for funding?” Or how about 9(c): “What showing should be necessary to demonstrate that the proposal would not have been implemented without Federal assistance.” ) You get the idea.

Of particular note are Question 13 (on the NTIA list) and Question 2 (on the RUS list), which seek definitions of “unserved”, “underserved”, “rural” and “broadband.” These terms are obviously crucial to the threshold question of funding eligibility. Expect much heated debate over these definitions.

So, stay tuned. Everyone agrees that in order to meet the demands of the Stimulus legislation, the agencies will have to move very quickly. You wouldn’t want to be caught underfunded now, would you?