Tag Archives: NTIA

It’s small ball, but at least U.S. congress is playing the broadband game

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Two broadband-related bills were passed by the U.S. house of representatives last week. Both focus on the federal broadband bureaucracy rather than infrastructure deployment or service upgrades, but at least there’s the hope that something will come of it.

House resolution 4881 was carried by representative Bob Latta (R – Ohio). It aims to promote “precision agriculture”, which seems to be just another way of saying “ag tech”. But it’s really about bringing modern broadband service to unserved rural areas. Sorta. It sets up a series of study groups, first within the federal bureaucracy, then including people from various aspects of the agriculture and telecoms industries. They’re charged with figuring out…

  1. The status of fixed and mobile broadband Internet access service coverage of agricultural land;
  2. The projected future connectivity needs of agricultural operations, farmers, and ranchers; and
  3. The steps being taken to accurately measure the availability of broadband Internet access service on agricultural land and the limitations of current, as of the date of the report, measurement processes.

HR 3994, by Paul Tonko (D – New York), would set up an Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth inside the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It would be responsible for doing pretty much the same thing: figuring out where broadband gaps are, and how to encourage other federal agencies to plug them.

It’s hard to get excited about either bill. At best, we can expect to see a lot of meetings over the next two or three year, capped by what I’m sure will be earnest reports. But there are a couple of encouraging things.

First, it’s good that federal lawmakers can move something, anything at all. And even better that broadband bills are moving ahead on a bipartisan basis – both passed by wide margins.

Second, there seems to be agreement that broadband responsibilities aren’t limited to the Federal Communications Commission, which is a regulator and not a developer, and the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service, which is stuck in a 1930s electric cooperative business model.

Another reason not to get excited is that neither bill is law yet. The U.S. senate has to act, which is usually not the way the bet, and the president has to sign it, which means all bets are off.

Federal broadband funding guide is mostly old news

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A new booklet published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration outlining ways to finance broadband projects contains no surprises. It’s a summary of federal programs that fund, or might fund, broadband infrastructure and it’s useful as a reference. But there’s no new money on the table, and many of the programs listed are either restricted in scope – Appalachia or tribal areas, for example – or are narrowly focused on specific users, such as libraries or public housing residents.

The list is also heavily weighted toward rural areas, which are served by federal programs that tend to ignore California. The best opportunities for urban infrastructure support comes from either the Economic Development Administration (EDA) or a few indirect money sources, such as the E-rate program for schools and libraries, which provide operating subsidies that might be spent with new service providers. As far as EDA is concerned, though, it’s good news that there’s a clear statement that broadband is moving up the priority list…

EDA’s mission is to lead the federal economic development agenda by promoting innovation and competitiveness, preparing American regions for growth and success in the worldwide economy. Given that broadband is an important ingredient in economic development strategies, EDA funding may be used to support broadband infrastructure projects under EDA’s Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance competitive grant programs, within certain parameters.

One troubling aspect is that the list of broadband-friendly federal programs in the booklet is shorter than the report published by the white house a couple of weeks ago. For example, it doesn’t list the agriculture department’s rural community facility program that was highlighted in that report and accounted for about a quarter of the $10 billion that the white house claimed was available for broadband infrastructure projects.

The booklet is a nice resource for beginners, but if you’re already actively involved in trying to develop broadband infrastructure, it’s not nearly as helpful as you probably want.

Map spam paints false picture of U.S. broadband service

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The national broadband map has been updated and it now includes coverage claims submitted by service providers as of the end of 2012. The map is supposed to a guide for federal and state policy makers as they try to manage, regulate, subsidise and, overall, encourage the development of broadband infrastructure and service. But unless you dig deep into the raw numbers and ignore the consumer (and politician) friendly interface, all it does is prove, once again, that garbage in, garbage out is a universal law.

Taken at face value, the map shows that remote mountain valleys and desert basins aside, there are relatively few areas in the country where broadband service of at least 768 Kbps download is not available. And the vast majority of the population can get download speeds of 6 Mbps or better, which is the Californian standard for acceptable broadband service.

Map on the right shows areas where wireline providers claim to provide download speeds of 6 Mbps or better. Map on the left shows the same claims made by wireless providers

A quick comparison of technologies pinpoints the problem: wireless service providers claim to provide high rates of speed over vast distances, without regard for terrain, capacity or user’s equipment, effectively spamming the national map with availability data that is, at best, aspirational and, frequently, fictional.

Some wireless providers are better than others, but technically defensible claims are washed out by the aggressive advertising of less capable or ethical WISPs.

There are bright spots. The map offers a dramatic look at the difference between advertising claims and speeds actually measured by the FCC, at least to the extent those measurements have been made. There are also tools you can use to sort the data by technology and make comparisons. The data itself is collected by states. Here in California we have better tools for analysis.

It’s possible to sift the raw data, as I did for the East Bay Broadband Consortium, and establish a reasonably sound basis for decision making. But taking the national map at face value does little except reinforce the incumbents’ mantra that all’s well and give policy makers a false sense of a job well done.

The broadband stimulus pool is nearly dry

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BTOP might have $442 million in the kitty, although almost certainly not. Or $257 million or $15 million or zilch. For BIP, I can’t even estimate what’s left, but my best guess is that money is already gone.

First, I want to give credit where credit is due. Fred Dyste, via his Digital West blog, has been the gold standard for tracking BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program) and BIP (Broadband Initiatives Program) stimulus grant applications and awards. He’s been delivering invaluable tracking and analysis of who’s asking for money and who’s getting it. Most of the numbers I’m using were provided by Fred.

Yesterday, about $482 million in BTOP grants were announced for several states, along with about $518 million in BIP grants and loans. On Friday, Hawaii received $35.9 million in BTOP grants. Adding those numbers to Fred’s tabulations for the first round of BTOP/BIP grants and his running total to 28 August 2010, the total for infrastructure, public computer center (PCC) and sustainable broadband adoption (SBA) BTOP awards is $3,791 million and $3,516 million for BIP awards (allowing for the cancellation of a $19 million BIP award).

The stimulus program originally gave $4,700 million to BTOP and $2,500 million to BIP. On that measure, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has given out an extra $1 billion. They can do that because they are giving out grants and loans, which are accounted for differently, and they have some separate funding for the loan program. Do they have any more money to give out? Maybe.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is only making grants and they don’t have deep pockets of their own to dip into. In fact, Congress has already pulled back $302 million from the program to spend on other things, leaving only $4,398 million. The math looks like this:

CategoryGrants Made
Infrastructure$3,506 million
Public computer center$127 million
Sustainable broadband adoption$159 million
Mapping allocation$350 million
Total$4,141 millon

So in theory, that leaves $271 million to spend on non-mapping BTOP projects. Fred has tracked $179 million in mapping grants, so maybe there’s another $171 million available, bringing the total to $442 million. But I doubt it. NTIA is saving a big chunk of the mapping work for itself, and there’s no reason to think they’ll let go of that money.

In fact, NTIA might be keeping a bit more for itself. Originally, NTIA said that only $2,600 million was available for infrastructure, PCC and SBA grants in the second round, and they’ve given out $2,585 million. On that basis, there’s only $15 million left, without even counting the $302 million Congress clawed back.

The original stimulus bill set aside $200 million for PCC grants and $250 million for SBA grants. However, in cutting money, Congress didn’t specify how to spread the cuts around. If you figure things, like Fred does, on a pro rata basis, that means subtracting $47 and $29 million from the PCC and SBA categories respectively, so those programs are tapped out. But NTIA has considerable discretion when it comes to running BTOP, so maybe not. If there is any remaining money, it could go anywhere.

Getting back to business with broadband investment

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The federal stimulus program overshadowed private sector funding for new broadband infrastructure for more than a year. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) threatened to wash out broadband venture opportunities with billions of dollars of grants and loans. Some projects will absorb federal money instead of private risk capital. Most won’t and the surviving opportunities will become evident over the next few months.

demand study
Price points, service benchmarks and likelihood
to buy are key data for revenue projections
Local agencies and economic development organizations still have the job of attracting that investment. Instead of telling tales of dire need, they’ll be back to the business of encouraging business by documenting unmet demand and offering the right incentives to tip decisions in their direction. I’ll have more to say about sweetening the pot later. The first job is to refocus on demand.

Need and demand are two very different things. Need is a general concept, and leans heavily on qualitative judgments. It’s a useful basis for public policy discussions, and marketers can use it to target services and products. Raw need, though, is not very helpful in making a core business case.

Demand is a precisely defined, quantitative, microeconomic metric. It’s usually the one big missing piece when service providers, and their investors, are evaluating a network build outside of their existing footprint.

Demographics, geography and existing infrastructure are important too, but the first two are freely available and most people who are active in the broadband investment space have a good enough idea of what’s already out there. The state broadband mapping projects funded by the federal stimulus program are likely to be game changers, and that makes it even better.

A good demand study, with estimates of take rates over a range of services and price points, leads to supportable revenue projections. When it comes to attracting an investor, a statistically valid and methodologically sound revenue projection is gold. It’s a lot easier to persuade someone to invest in a project that promises revenue. Investors aren’t interested in much else.

Going forward, public broadband funding will follow private capital. The two big remaining pots of public money belong to state universal service programs such as the California Advanced Services Fund and RUS, both of which require substantial private sector co-investment, sustainable business plans that are well documented and, where RUS is concerned, the ability to take on considerable debt.

Need motivates local governments and organizations to compete for private broadband investment. They’ll win when they can put demand on the table.

The stimulus was fun while it lasted, now back to work

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It’s time to look past the stimulus program, and re-adjust community broadband planning assumptions. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) encouraged local groups to roll themselves up into regional alliances and propose magnificent projects that would meet any conceivable need and serve every user imaginable.

It made sense, because that’s where the money was. NTIA and RUS made some dreams real in the first round last year, and are on track to fulfill a few more fantasies in the second round. But even though BTOP is reopening for what amounts to a stunted, public-safety focused third round, the good times are over and we have to return to the old normal.

It’s a world where the free money is mostly gone. Once the BTOP money is spent, NTIA goes back to being a small agency running small programs. In rural areas, RUS and state programs, like the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), will provide grants and loans to organizations with a qualifying track record and, in some cases, enough cash to fund half or more of proposed projects themselves.

first round BIP funding funnel
 Adelstein and RUS general
 field representative Harry Hutson showed
 CETF conference attendees in Redding
 how the first round BIP money went
 down the spout
RUS won’t fund projects that compete with their existing loan portfolio, however. Speaking to the California Emerging Technologies Fund’s third annual Rural Connections workshop in Redding this week, RUS administrator Jonathan Adelstein made it clear that the agency will give priority to organizations that it already funds, and won’t subsidize competing projects.

CASF expects it will continue to fund new broadband projects in California, but only in areas where AT&T, Verizon and the cable companies fail to upgrade infrastructure. A few arguable urban pockets aside, it’s the remote rural regions that have a shot.

Elsewhere, community broadband advocates will have to go back to the basics. Tried and true economic development strategies, like public-private partnerships, tax breaks and other incentives, and old fashioned salesmanship, will be effective. But only where public agencies and community advocates can present a focused and well documented business case and be flexible enough to accept that private capital comes with its own priorities.

The old normal is a world where subscriber metrics, return on investment and anchor tenants trump grand visions, sad stories and political grease. Painstaking determination and hard work count again, though. That’s a world worth calling home.

Best Practices Highlight Wireless Broadband Feasibility Study for the City of Oakland

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Download the Oakland Wireless Feasibility Study

Like nearly every government agency in California, the City of Oakland was faced with increasing demand for public services and a decreasing budget. An evaluation was needed of the potential for wireless technology to make municipal staff more efficient and allow them to stay in the field longer, and to provide Internet service to residents, either directly in their homes and businesses or indirectly through community anchor institutions. This evaluation needed to focus specifically on Oakland’s diverse population, needs and terrain.

The City’s goals were:

  • Enhance economic development by enabling businesses to operate more effectively and by making Oakland a more attractive place to live, work, and visit.
  • Improve public safety by putting more police officers, fire fighters, inspectors and public works staff into the field, keeping them there longer and letting them work more efficiently.
  • Increase the effectiveness of public, private, and nonprofit organizations through improved access to state of the art broadband wireless technology.
  • Help overcome the digital divide.
  • Improve the quality of life for all Oaklanders.

Tellus Venture Associates was brought in to do a comprehensive feasibility study that would include public focus groups, workshops and a town hall meeting, close coordination with City departments and outside agencies, and a technical survey that included radio frequency modeling over the hills, canyons, flatlands and waterways within the city limits.

When we analysed the research data, the trends that emerged tracked closely with the best practices we’ve developed during seven years of municipal and community broadband experience. The result was a more refined list of those principles:

  1. No matter what the manufacturer says, the laws of physics still apply. No matter what the special interests say, sound business principles still apply. Don’t underestimate the public’s appreciation of physics and sound business principles, or overestimate its regard for manufacturers and special interests.
  2. City-owned and operated metropolitan area networks are a cost effective means of extending information technology infrastructure and resources to local government facilities and employees.
  3. Providing broadband connectivity to targeted community anchor institutions can be financially and technically feasible for cities, and is supported by public opinion.
  4. Providing universal, consumer-grade wireless Interet access is not financially or technically feasible for cities, and is not supported by public opinion.
  5. Cities can better promote digital inclusion by enabling and supporting a competitive broadband environment.
  6. Widespread public awareness and support precedes deployment of a successful municipal broadband system.
  7. Fiber optic and wireless technologies can be effective choices for network backbone segments, depending on capital and operating cost, timing, right-of-way, capacity and other considerations.
  8. Fiber optic and other landline technologies provide orders of magnitude more bandwidth and many more years of useful service life, with lower operating costs.
  9. Wireless technologies can be deployed faster and at much lower capital expense, and provide greater flexibility to change network topologies and service models to meet future needs.
  10. Wireless technologies have the unique ability to support municipal staff in the field, particularly public safety personnel, but should only be deployed after an independent evaluation of technology, terrain and available spectrum.

With these principles in mind, we assessed the Oakland public’s needs and priorities, designed a reference architecture that could meet those needs, and developed a business model that quantified the benefits, demonstrated the value proposition and identified the money to pay for it all.

Our findings were:

  • A point-to-point wireless broadband system serving specific community and institutional needs is financially and technically sustainable for the City of Oakland.
  • The cost of building and operating such a system can be met through identifiable cost savings, efficiency gains and budgetary choices based on the economic value of the benefits produced.
  • Public Internet access by way of community anchor institutions is financially and technically feasible, and universally supported by a diverse range of Oakland residents, organizations, agencies and businesses if it is implemented in a fiscally sound manner.
  • Enabling entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses on a pay-as-you-go, public-private partnership basis is also backed by Oakland stakeholders and supported by the financial and technical analysis conducted for this study.
  • Providing wireless Internet service to residences or individual consumers is not financially sustainable or technically feasible for the City of Oakland, and is opposed by nearly all stakeholders, who cite the widespread technical and financial failure of such systems in other cities.

The next step was to secure the funding. Some of it came from the cost savings created by replacing a large number of low capacity, leased land lines with a comprehensive wireless backbone, comprised of high capacity point-to-point links using licensed spectrum. Some of it came from money budgeted for expensive cellular data service. In other cases, savings in man-hours and increased productivity, including more and better field audits by tax officers, offset operating costs.

Finding the money to pay for the capital expense was a different problem. Bonds were not an option, given the uncertainty of future budgets. Some of the funding could be raised locally, through public-private partnerships, but not all of it.

Fortunately, the conclusion of the study coincided with the establishment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the federal economic stimulus program, which included $7.2 billion for broadband projects. With its emphasis on public safety, community anchor institutions and economic development, the broadband infrastructure plan created by Tellus Venture Associates for the City of Oakland was ideally suited to meet the program’s requirements.

The stimulus grant application had to wait until the second round of funding, because the first round emphasized rural projects and all but excluded urban areas from eligibility for broadband infrastructure funding. At the same time Google announced its own broadband grant program, which likewise tracked with the best practices we incorporated into the study. Both applications are now pending.

The final step will be to move ahead with construction of the system. Tellus Venture Associates prepared a draft Request for Proposal, which sets out the specifications for a municipal broadband system that would serve the City of Oakland. In some cases, such as providing broadband connectivity to public safety personnel in the field, the technology that would be employed is necessarily wireless. But in other cases, for example the core network backbone, wireless, fiber optic or other technologies are all possibilities. Those determinations, as well as any decision to release an RFP, will be made by City staff, once funding is secured.

Oakland Wireless Feasibility Study

Printable, high resolution version

City of Oakland staff report

Study presentation to Oakland City Council

City of Oakland wireless reference architecture

Oakland townhall meeting presentation

Follow the money, from the first to the second round of broadband stimulus grants

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More than a thousand first round hopefuls are still staring into the black hole that swallowed their applications. The second round notifications of funding availability (NOFAs) issued by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for the broadband stimulus program do not explicitly address the status of first round applications.

The stimulus bill gave RUS $2.5 billion and NTIA $4.7 billion for broadband project funding. In the first round, RUS said it would give out up to $2.4 billion. Now its saying it’ll give out a total $2.2 billion in the second round. The target budget is:

CategorySecond Round
Last mile projects$1.7 billion
Middle mile projects$300 million
Satellite projects$100 million
Libraries, tech assist$5 million
Reserve$95 million
Total$2.2 billion

That leaves $300 million, which presumably goes to first round grants and, presumably, overhead. So far, RUS has only announced $54 million in first round grants. It still has first round applications in the due diligence stage of review, so any applicant that’s made it that far has a plausible hope of winning funding. The lion’s share of RUS’s money is shifting to the second round, so if you haven’t heard back about first round review yet, I suggest you start thinking about round two.

Unless you also put in a joint bid to NTIA. Including broadband mapping grants, NTIA allocated nearly $2 billion to first round projects. It’s allocating a total of $2.6 billion for the second round:

CategoryTotal TargetedFirst RoundSecond Round
Infrastructure$3.55 billion$1.2 billion$2.35 billion
Public computer centers$200 million$50 million$150 million
Sustainable adoption$250 million$150 million$100 million
Mapping$350 million$350 million-0-
Reserve$200 million$200 million-0-
Total$4.55 billion$1.95 billion$2.6 billion

The two NTIA rounds match up pretty closely with the targeted totals. There’s $150 million unaccounted for, but that’s a believable overhead number for a federal operation.

The inference is that the two rounds will be processed, considered and funded separately. As it lays out now, if you have a first round NTIA application that’s disappeared into the process, it’s possible that you might yet advance to the due diligence stage. But that possibility diminishes as time goes on, particularly if NTIA sticks to its end-of-February target for closing out the first round and its 30-day due diligence period.

The second round workshops start next week, and more information should be available by then. My advice to first round applicants who haven’t heard from NTIA yet is to spend this week beginning to form the community alliances that it advocates so enthusiastically. It won’t be wasted effort, even if you slide into the first round under the wire.

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

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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.”

First dribble of broadband stimulus funding announced

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The feds today announced they were giving $182.7 million of broadband stimulus money to 18 projects scattered across the U.S. (but nothing so far for California). 18 projects funded out of 2,200 applications, representing less than 3% of the $7.2 billion allocated.

Not much detail but a few worrisome hints.

The infrastructure grants announced today all appear to be for RUS/BIP-type projects. Even the ones that were funded through NTIA/BTOP. That’s consistent with what we heard back in September: a select few RUS projects were fastracked into the second stage of review.

RUS is going down a familiar path – giving money to rural clients. Unlike NTIA, RUS has the staff and experience to do this work, they didn’t have to start from scratch. Even so, it took four months to process a handful of grants.

From the Associated Press:

The administration plans to award a total of $2 billion in grants and loans on a rolling basis over the next 75 days as it starts doling out the first round of stimulus funding for broadband.

Nice, but the first round was supposed to total $4 billion. Are they cutting the first round in half? Dragging it out past the end of February? Or did someone get the number wrong? Let’s hope it’s a typo. $2 billion is about what RUS was supposed to give out. Maybe they’re only referring to NTIA. Or maybe only RUS has its act sufficiently together to get anything done in the next two or three months.

From StimulatingBroadband.com:

NTIA head Lawrence Strickling “yesterday stated that “300 to 400″ project applications for broadband stimulus funding are now being reviewed…in the due diligence phase.”

What’s not clear is whether the other 1,800 or 1,900 applications are still in the queue, or have been rejected. If 1,800 apps are still sitting in someone’s in-box, we’re in for a long wait. If some or all have already been rejected, we need to know.

NTIA and RUS also just posted the comments they received regarding Round 2. It’s a lot of reading.

This process might take a lot longer than anyone ever thought.