Broadband stimulus grant update: first round still under review, second round likely to slip a bit

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , , , , ,

Anna Gomez, deputy assistant secretary for communications and information at NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), spoke at today’s Tech Policy Summit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Anna Gomez, NTIA
 Secretary Gomez speaks to reporters
 at 2010 Consumer Electronics Show
She repeated previous agency comments about wanting to “get it done fast, get it done right and with the greatest effect possible.”

She described the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) as “unprecedented” at the NTIA.

Lessons learned in a difficult first round would be applied in the second round. Among those lessons is a better understanding of what sort of projects should take priority for BTOP funding.

Her comments regarding the program’s time line were:

  • The notice of funding availability (NOFA) for the second round will be released in a “few weeks”. She wouldn’t say if that means the previous target of mid-January would slip, although she left room for thinking it will.
  • The first round grants will be completed “on a rolling basis over the next two months.”
  • All grants will be made by Congress’ mandated deadline of 30 September 2010.
  • In separate comments, Karen Jackson from the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Technology Office, confirmed that there will be at least a 60 day window for second round applications, rather than the original 45 day deadline in the first round.

I spoke with Secretary Gomez afterward about some of the nuances of the application review time line and progress to date. She couldn’t provide much else in the way of details, although the inference was that the first review stage for the first round BTOP (broadband technology opportunities program) applications is still ongoing, and that not all of the projects that will advance to the second, due diligence stage of review have been selected.

She did say “our goal is to make sure people know their status in time to file in the second round.” Asked whether first round applicants could be in the position of having to simultaneously prepare a second round application and follow up on a first round application, she said “hopefully not.”

Connecting the dots, here’s my take:

  • The second round NOFA will be released around the end of January, maybe even as late as the first or second week of February.
  • If a first round application hasn’t advanced to the second stage of review by the end of the month, it won’t.
  • The second round NOFA will be more specific about program goals, be structured to encourage cooperation amongst applicants, and favor projects that include significant, shared middle mile infrastructure, with or without last mile facilities.
  • NTIA has a much better understanding now of how to run the program and what its goals should be. Don’t be surprised if the first round falls significantly short of its $4 billion target, with unspent funds redirected to specific program goals in the second round.

Secretary Gomez also announced a new program, available at match.broadbandusa.gov, called Broadband Match. It’s an online tool that is supposed to “facilitate partnerships among prospective applicants for a grant.” She said the idea is to further NTIA head Larry Strickling’s goal for the next round of favoring public/private partnerships that take a “comprehensive view” of communities.

She said that they want to ensure that key community members – meaning anchor institutions and government agencies – can access middle mile projects directly and that private companies can make use of it to create last mile services that reach consumers and businesses.

The emphasis in the second round will clearly be on middle mile projects. Gomez spotlighted the grant made to such a project in Georgia last month as an excellent example of what they’ll be looking for in the second round. The objective of the Broadband Match program is to ensure that public/private groups “can put together the most comprehensive application possible.”