Broadband Opportunities Coalition Take Issue With Grants, Loan Issues

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Minority advocacy groups have taken issue with the guidelines for grant and loan money being handed out by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the Ag Department's Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

In a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce dated July 14,the Broadband Opportunities Coalition, including representatives of the NAACP, Urban League, among others, indicated that they contain "strutural deficiencies" that diminish their effectiveness in achieving universal broadband, chiefly that they do not provide sufficient broadband opportunities for small disadvantaged businesses (SDBs).

Among those deficiencies, they said: not enough attention to race, ethnicity and poverty in defining unserved and underserved areas and in coming up with the point system and eligibility requirements that includes speed and quality of service.

"The NOFA [notice of funds availability] discourages particiption of SDBs," they argued, and "does not address recommendations designed to ensure that minoprity groups have access to robust and affordablebroadband service."

They said the guidelines lack safeguards against unconscious bias in review and grant procedures.

The groups called for a host of changes to the guidelines, including changing the definition of underserved are to include 1)where prices are "prohibitive" or service offerings are "undesirable," which would include insufficent speeds; 2) making SDB status or partnership with an SDB or "established connections" with an SDB a requisite of eligibility for the funds, where possible; 3) giving equal weight to affordability and speed when giving extra points to bidders; 4) matching-fund waivers--bidders must put up some portion of the price of their project--should include for groups serving vulnerable population so long as they meet the hardship criteria; 5) loan and grant reviews should be conducted by as diverse a panel as possible; and 6) extra points should be given for infrastructure projects that are tied to "sustainable adoption projects."

The Broadband Opportunities Coalition comprises NAACP, National Urban League, National Council of La Raza, the Asian American Justice System, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

NTIA and RUS began accepting bids July 14, with those bids -- the first of three planned rounds of bidding on the $7.2 billion in funds -- due in by Aug. 14.