Broadband Stimulus Opens With Rural Emphasis

The agencies administering the broadband stimulus programs took a big step toward getting that money flowing today, announcing the application guidelines for the first tranche of funding.

The secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce joined Vice President Joe Biden in Erie, Penn., today to kick off what the White House is billing as the National Rural Tour, a whistle-stop junket with future sessions to focus on issues like health care and education.

The long-awaited notice of funding availability (NOFA) released today establishes the application process for $4 billion of the $7.2 billion set aside for broadband projects in the stimulus package, a more aggressive deployment schedule than officials indicated when they announced their roadmap for the stimulus programs in March.

“Today’s announcement is a first step toward realizing President Obama’s vision of a nationwide 21st century communications infrastructure — one that encourages economic growth, enhances America’s global competitiveness and helps address many of America’s most pressing challenges,” Biden said.

The programs are being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the Commerce Department, and Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). The statute allocated $4.7 billion to NTIA and $2.5 billion to RUS, but the agencies said today that they will review applications submitted through a common form.

The first round of funding is heavily weighted toward rural connectivity, with RUS making available about $2.4 billion of grants and loans, and NTIA offering just $1.6 billion, leaving the bulk of its share available for future application periods.

Advocacy groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge rushed to praise the guidelines for their apparent commitment to Net neutrality. Programs using funds from either NTIA or RUS will be required to adhere to the non-discrimination principles the Federal Communications Commission promulgated in 2005.

The rules also require grant recipients to establish interconnection capabilities where “technically feasible,” and to post their network management practices in a “prominent location on the service provider’s Web page and provide notice to customers of changes to these policies.”

The NOFA defines “broadband” as a connection with a downstream speed of 768 Kbps and 200 Kbps up.

The application window opens July 14, running through Aug. 14.

The agencies expect to have the first wave of funding awarded by the end of the year. Two more rounds of funding will follow. By statute, they are required to award all of the funding by Sept. 30, 2010.

“Rapid disbursement of the funds available under this program is important because of the short time frames imposed by the Recovery Act,” the agencies wrote in the 121-page NOFA (PDF). “Additionally, a commitment to transparency in the award process and rigorous reporting requirements will help ensure accountability.”

RUS is planning to review the applications in a two-stage process, first winnowing down the general pool of applications to discard projects that don’t meet the requirements, and then making its final decision after receiving more information from the applicant. NTIA also plans to weed out the first wave of unqualified applications before taking a closer look at the remaining candidates, a process that will include independent expert reviews and a period of due diligence to ensure the project is viable. The agencies cautioned that the application rules could change in future rounds of funding.

Commerce and Agriculture officials are planning to host public workshops in nine cities around the country to help explain the grant-application process throughout the month of July.

The agencies set up a Web site, Broadband USA, where interested parties will be able to download an application and learn more about the programs.

The agencies are accepting applications both electronically and by mail. In the interest of efficiency, however, they are requiring any application requesting more than $1 million in funding to be filed online.

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