Policy

Feds Advise Seekers of Stimulus Money

5/03/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

The American Cable Association, which represents 900-plus smaller and midsized cable operators, got right down to business at its annual Summit last Tuesday, providing insight on how to tap into billions in stimulus dollars even before ACA president Matt Polka welcomed the attendees.

By definition — or, more accurately, the lack of one — representatives of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, could only provide broad strokes. That is because the agencies have yet to decide on just how — and to whom — they will hand out the $7.2 billion in potential economic-stimulus grants and loans they are overseeing. The money breaks down to $4.7 billion for the Commerce Department’s NTIA and $2.5 billion for the RUS.

Officials did say that they hoped to have the details hammered out and the first notice of funding availability ready by June — and at least some of the money handed out by fall.

The RUS will only give applicants 60 days after that notice to come back with their proposals, according to agency outreach coordinator Mary Campanola, who said she recognized that was not much notice and that there would probably be time to respond to the second and third notices.

Tom Power, a former Federal Communications Commission staffer three weeks into his posting as a senior adviser at the NTIA, said he hoped to have some of the money out by fall. He acknowledged it might be frustrating for operators to not yet have the details on how the grants will be given out.

Still to be determined are definitions of “unserved” and “underserved” areas, both of which the stimulus bill talks about as needing help with to facilitate broadband deployment. Even the definition of broadband has not yet been set.

Campanola did offer some tips on how to frame the grant requests, suggesting economic stimulus, as in sustainable infrastructure and jobs, were a top priority for her program.

She said applicants might get extra points for helping out with public safety, but the key was to demonstrate how plans would stimulate the economy.

NewWave Communications executive vice president Tom Gleason asked Campanola whether she thought some of the money could be used to buy and upgrade systems where it would not be economical to start from scratch. She said yes, so long as that doesn’t take five years. “It doesn’t take us five years to do anything,” Gleason said, given swift changes in the broadband business.

Power said those who can move swiftly on a smaller scale could be in good shape. He said after the session that the NTIA was still working on how grants might be applied across disciplines. Stimulus money earmarked for telemedicine and energy also could have broadband components.

Campanola also said that although only 75% of the grant and loan money in the RUS program must be allotted to rural areas, she expected 100% of the $2.5 billion it can dole out would go there.

Power pointed out that the NTIA’s $4.7 billion figure is actually $3.75 billion after money is taken out for broadband mapping, community computer centers, administration and other costs.

Campanola advised companies interesting in tapping the stimulus funds to partner with others, including state and local authorities, and prepare a business plan, budget and system design. Start preparing now, even though it’s too early to know who might qualify, she said.

She also told operators they might want to seek both RUS and NTIA grants: RUS funds are aimed at rural areas, but NTIA’s mandate includes rural, urban and suburban areas. Applicants should make it clear if dual applications are in the mix, as the programs would not be paying twice for the same projects, she said.

Campanola also suggested that, given the 60-day turnaround for the first notice of funding availability, money would be concentrated on shovel-ready projects and likely on established companies ready to dig in, though she said those could be of any size.

Power did say that the FCC’s four basic principles of Internet access would be the baseline, but that is already in the statute.

He noted that anyone who gets NTIA grant cash must demonstrate that the project would not have been done without the stimulus funds: It can’t be used for ongoing operations. The NTIA must also take into account whether an applicant is a disadvantaged small business and how the project affects anchor institutions like hospitals and schools.

Power and Campanola said they would learn from the first notice of funding availability and apply that knowledge to later rounds, conceding there was some experimentation involved.

June