JULY 2, 2009 By Stephen Hardy -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced yesterday that applications for the first round of broadband stimulus money will be accepted starting at 8:00 AM EDT on July 14. The application period will close at 5:00 PM EDT on August 14. The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will make available $4 billion of the $7.2 billion earmarked for broadband stimulus during this round. Two additional rounds are expected to follow.
The NTIA and RUS also released a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) that describes application procedures and project evaluation processes as well as defines terms. (See accompanying story.) The document is available at the government's "Broadband USA" website. (Download the NOFA.) Application packages for paper and electronic submissions will be made available at the same website. Those seeking more than $1 million in funds will be required to file electronically, unless their authorized representatives are disabled.
The other two rounds, the dates of which were not announced, will have their own NOFAs and, potentially, a different set of rules and requirements.
The NOFA outlines how the $4 billion will be apportioned. The RUS will distribute $2.5 billion through its Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) in this round. Up to $1.2 billion of this will be available for last-mile projects. These projects may consist of remote area projects or non-remote projects. Up to $400 million will go to grants for remote-area projects, and as much as $800 million tor loans or loan/grant combinations for non-remote projects. Up to $800,000,000 has been earmarked for loans or loan/grant combinations for middle-mile projects. Up to $325,000,000 will be set aside as a national reserve.
All of the money in this round is expected to be granted by September 30, 2010.
The NOFA states that RUS BIP funds will go to projects in which 75 percent of the funded area is rural and "lacks sufficient access to high speed broadband service to facilitate economic development." RUS grants will fund applications that exclusively serve remote, unserved, rural areas. Loan and loan/grant combination will go to applications that serve non-remote and underserved rural areas. Projects that include both non-remote and remote areas will be funded by loans or loan/grant combinations. The NOFA says that the higher the percentage of proposed funding is in the form of a loan, the more favorably it will be viewed.
The NOFA also reiterates that the Recovery act charges RUS to give priority to projects that:
1) give end users a choice of providers
2) serve the highest proportion of rural residents that lack access to broadband service
3) are projects of current or former RUS borrowers (Title II borrowers)
4) are fully funded and ready to start once Recovery Act funding is received.
Meanwhile, the NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funds will go to three areas: broadband infrastructure, public computer centers, and sustainable broadband adoption. Both "last mile" and "middle mile" projects will receive funding within the context of the broadband infrastructure charge. The BTOP infrastructure projects will likely use a range of technologies, including fiber, the NOFA states.
The NTIA will distribute up to $1.6 billion in this initial round. Broadband infrastructure projects will be awarded no greater than $1.2 billion; public computer center projects will be awarded no greater than $50 million; and sustainable broadband adoption projects will be awarded no more than $150 million. Up to $200 million will be set aside in reserve.
The Recovery Act directs the Assistant Secretary to award at least one grant in each state "to the extent practical" by September 30, 2010. However, the NOFA states that "publication of this NOFA does not obligate NTIA to award any specific project or obligate all or any parts of any available funds."
The NOFA describes a rigorous process for evaluating proposals for NTIA funding. The process includes initial screening, three independent reviews, and a "due diligence" process wherein applicants whose proposals have survived the screening and independent reviews will be asked for more information for further examination by NTIA staff and supporting experts. State governments will also have the opportunity to weigh in on the merits of proposals at this stage. After this stage, the NTIA may ask the applicant to tweak the proposal. The staff will then give the proposal a score from 1 to 5 and forward it to the Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications (OTIA) Associate Administrator for review and approval -- and then to the Assistant Secretary of the NTIA for final selection.
Commerce and USDA officials will hold workshops in July to describe the funding availability and the application process. The workshops will be held in Boston; Charleston, WV; Minneapolis; Memphis; Lonoke, AR; Birmingham, AL; Billings, MT; Albuquerque, NM; and Los Angeles. Dates for these events have not been released as of this morning.