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Was broadband stimulus really delayed? Perception may be reality

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A recent report from the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), which triggered speculation that the federal broadband stimulus program has been delayed, is open to interpretation. But whether the schedule provided by the NTIA this month represents a delay or simply a clarification, it could drive service providers that hoped to obtain funds to push out their deployment plans even further than might be expected.

When the stimulus program kicked off with a public meeting in March, Bernadette McGuire-Rivera of the NTIA said, “We are expecting to have the first notice of availability of funds out somewhere in the April to June period of this year.” She also pointed to two additional grant rounds, one with a time frame of October to December of 2009 and the other with a time frame of “around April or June of 2010.” Did she mean the notice of funds for each round would come out during those time intervals or that proposals would be accepted at those times or that money would be awarded at those times? It’s unclear.

The schedule released by the NTIA this month in a quarterly Broadband Technology Opportunities Program status report offers more clarity. That schedule shows the first Notice of Funds Availability occurring in “early summer 2009,” which is still within the notification guidelines originally indicated by McGuire-Rivera. That schedule also shows the NTIA awarding first-round grants in “fourth quarter 2009.”

The site, which tracks all elements of the broader economic stimulus program, is even more precise. According to it, the NTIA will process and review first-round broadband stimulus proposals between September and December of 2009, and will issue decisions in December. That site also shows a second solicitation for proposals occurring between October and December of this year and a third solicitation period between April and June of 2010.

Some stimulus fund seekers hoped to receive a decision sooner than December. And as Craig Settles, president of consulting firm, points out, a December award date is problematic for several reasons. “The practical impact is that if you have plans queued up and if you don’t start in the next couple of months in New England or the Midwest, nothing will start until April of the following year,” said Settles. “No one is digging up trenches in January in Minnesota.”

And for those who are not successful in their funding bids, a December decision point could complicate the ability to find other sources of funding. “If you don’t get a grant, it’s kind of late to put costs into the city budget,” he said.

Settles’ advice for organizations seeking broadband stimulus funding is to try to line up alternative funding sources. That way, he said, “If you get funding, you can move ahead faster.” If not, the project can still happen--it just may take longer.

Geoff Burke, director of field marketing for Calix, noted another consequence of the change in expectations about program dates. Calix, an equipment vendor that supplies many rural telcos, has periodically polled its customer base about how soon they plan to apply for broadband stimulus funding—and, noted Burke, “the number that are planning to submit in Round 1 has been rising.”

One thing that shouldn’t change is the September 30, 2010 date by which all broadband funds must be awarded. The later initial funds are awarded, the more compressed the award period will be. And that also could cause some problems, Burke said. “If everyone is building out at the same time, there could be some supply chain issues,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rural Utilities Service, the other government agency charged with awarding broadband stimulus funds, has provided even fewer details about its timeline. At the time of this story’s filing, the web site shows two different dates for when the RUS will make decisions about the first round of funding. One section of the pertinent page shows a December 2009 date, while another entry on the same page indicates “end of first quarter of fiscal year 2010.” The RUS did not respond to an email requesting clarification.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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