US Agencies Announce New Broadband Funding Round

Two U.S. agencies tasked with distributing US$7.2 billion in grants and loans for broadband projects have announced the availability of a second round of funding, with each agency focusing on different areas.

The first funding round for the broadband money included in a huge economic stimulus package passed in early 2009 is ongoing, with $2 billion to be released by the end of February. On Friday, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) announced a second round, for $4.8 billion, with applications accepted between Feb. 16 and March 15.

The two agencies expect to announce all the second-round awards by the end of September, they said.

Fund applications in the new round will be streamlined and more "user-friendly," NTIA and RUS officials said. Some applicants had complained that the first round required large amounts of information and paperwork in a brief time frame.

The NTIA, distributing $2.6 billion in grants in the second round, will give top priority to middle-mile broadband projects that connect key community institutions, such as libraries, hospitals, colleges and public safety organizations, the agency said. Local communities can then piggyback on the middle-mile networks to bring broadband to consumers.

NTIA also plans to award $150 million to public computer center projects, and $100 million to projects that increase broadband demand through training and education, the NTIA said.

RUS, issuing a separate notice of funds availability (NOFA), will give priority to last-mile projects. All projects would receive 75 percent of their funding in grants and 25 percent in loans. In the first round, applicants focused on bringing broadband to remote rural areas had the option of receiving 100 percent of their funding in grants.

It was wise for the two agencies to issue separate funding notices, said Craig Settles, a community broadband consultant and president of Successful.com. "Many of the frustrations people have had with the NOFA, Round 1 stem from the rules being a quick blending of procedures from agencies with two different purposes and ways of doing business," he said. "That led to the rules contradicting each other in places, or otherwise breeding confusion."

Broadband groups interested in funding will have to act fast, Settles added. "You only have two months from today to get the complete NOFA rules, decipher them and prepare your application," he said via e-mail. "If you don't have a solid broadband plan, have identified potential partners in these past few months and people willing to work 24/7 for a month from February on, you have to ask yourself 'how badly do we really want that money,' and be brutally honest in your assessment of your ability to complete the gauntlet."

The Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, a group focused on bringing broadband to community institutions, is "extremely pleased" that the NTIA is focused on those facilities, said John Windhausen, the group's coordinator.

"Libraries, schools, health care providers, colleges and universities provide essential services to millions of people every day, and this funding will help build infrastructure that will create jobs, kick-start economic growth and ultimately benefit residential and business consumers all across America," he said.

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