The states will be “really important partners” for the federal government in meeting the Obama administration goals of expanding broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the country, a federal telecommunications official said Monday.
“I have long held the belief that you folks know what’s going on on the ground,” Mark Seifert, senior adviser to the assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration—the NTIA, told state technology directors Monday. He spoke this week at the National Association of State Technology Directors South summer seminar in Louisville, Ky.
Seifert told state technology directors they should become very familiar with the federal Recovery Act pertaining to broadband. The stimulus package includes $7.2 billion for broadband, including $4.7 billion for competitive grants to reach those unserved and underserved populations.
While that seems like a lot of money, Seifert said the projects being touted throughout the country make it clear that money—which represents just 1 percent of stimulus dollars—is just a drop in the bucket. For that reason, he said, the grant process will be intensely competitive.
“We want to set up a process where the cream rises; the applicant has kicked the tires; they’ve looked at the stimulus’ purposes,” Seifert said.
That means applicants—which can include local communities, states and private industry, as well as public private partnerships—need to ensure their proposals meet the goals of the Recovery Act, part of which is creating jobs so the projects should be ready to go, he said. But projects also need to provide broadband Internet service to areas that don’t have it. And that will likely take an investment from the private sector.
“We need to figure out as a country, as you do as a state … how far we can get the private markets to invest in building out broadband,” Seifert said.
So projects funded by the stimulus package should be profitable, he said. When that happens, private investment will come much easier, he said.
“Success will be if we can show private industry there are suitable business models to spread service in the areas that don’t have it,” he said. “We’re not just looking for those that are profitable, but we are looking for those that are sustainable.”
Broadband will be important for so many reasons, Seifert said. Not only will it be a communications network, it will also be a services delivery network.
“We all know this is where communications is headed,” Seifert said. “If communities don’t know that, they are going to be left behind and be isolated.” States need to make sure those communities don’t get left behind, he said.
The broadband grants will be distributed in three phases, so states that don’t have “shovel-ready” projects—with a license and proposal in hand—in the initial phase will have two subsequent time frames to apply, he said.
Vice President Joe Biden was among administration officials releasing guidelines for the program—the Notice of Funds Availability or NOFA—in Erie, Pa., Wednesday. There, Biden joined Agriculture Commerce Department officials on the Obama Administration’s Rural Tour to announce the guidelines for the stimulus broadband funding program. The Commerce Department will provide $4.7 billion for broadband, while the Agriculture Department will provide $2.5 billion in grants or loans, according to the Recovery Act.
“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 in a statement.
While Seifert couldn’t provide details to the technology directors early, he did offer some broad guidance.
Seifert said applicants may want to leverage other areas of stimulus investment to get more bang for the buck. For instance, if work is being done on a road to an area that also needs broadband service, Seifert said a state could “dig once and lay twice” in the area—the road and broadband projects could be done simultaneously.
In addition, matching funds will need to be available at the front of the project. “Beware of projects that say we’ll give our money at the end of the project,” Seifert said
Also, while mapping is important, he said, the statute will allow mapping to be done on a parallel tract with the projects—states can map progress as projects are ongoing. “You don’t have to do mapping before folks in your states submit grants,” Seifert said.
Once the rules and application criteria are released, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will conduct workshops around the country as well as webcasts. Seifert said the agency will do a rolling set of updates to information. In addition, Seifert expects another round of comments to find out what went right or wrong with the initial process.