Delay In Naming Bid Winners

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Announcement of the winning bidders in the broadband-stimulus grant and loan program will be delayed by a month or so, according to heads of the relevant government agencies, with the first funding round pushed from year-end to February 2010.

That should be just fine with cable and telco operators, who have registered complaints about their ability to determine whether the unserved and underserved areas for which the government will underwrite broadband build-outs actually do lack broadband service.

The self-imposed deadline for announcing the winners had been early November, but National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Larry Strickling said at a Hill hearing last week: “We’re going to take a few more weeks here to get this right. … I will not fund a bad application.

“I’m confident that by expanding our first-round review period, we will maximize the significant and lasting improvements in America’s technological innovation and economic health promised by our program,” said Strickling.

The NTIA had been preparing in the next couple of weeks to announce the first winners in what will now be a two-step process of handing out billions in stimulus money for broadband mapping, adoption and service to unserved and underserved areas.

That will now be pushed to mid-December. Strickling cited the complexity of the program and the demands on the agencies, a point echoed by Mark Goldstein, who heads up infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office.

The NTIA will also put out a request for public comment to help improve the process.

That news came in a Senate Commerce Committee Communications Subcommittee oversight hearing on the NTIA and Rural Utilities Services broadband-stimulus grant and loan programs under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

The committee heard from Strickling and Goldstein, as well as RUS administrator and former Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he was not particularly happy with the way the two agencies had handled the programs to date. Rockefeller echoed concerns expressed in the House about how the remote areas eligible for money were defined. He noted that the current definition — that they be at least 50 miles from an urban area — excludes many mountainous regions of West Virginia; 98% of that state’s terrain is not flat.

There is a growing consensus that 50 miles might have been the wrong figure, said Adelstein, and that there are other ways to define “remote,” such as by population density or income.

Subcommittee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) also voiced concerns with the current definition and asked whether underserved blocks in urban areas would get government help. Strickling said they would.

Asked about the NTIA’s approach to anchor institutions, Strickling said those institutions may be where the government should be concentrating much of its money, particularly in the initial round of funding.

The process by which incumbents can check out would-be recipients’ claims that areas are unserved or underserved has been criticized by cable companies and telcos, including the 30-day deadline for weighing in. Even given those challenges, the cable and telco trade groups — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and US Telecom — said they have uncovered hundreds of bids for areas where their members already provide broadband service.

Comcast supplied supporting data for some of those overlaps last week, in accordance with an Oct. 28 deadline set by NTIA. The No. 1 U.S. MSO said it is not challenging bidders, simply providing information that the NTIA can use in its decision-making.

It was a busy week for oversight, with the House Small Business Committee also hearing from Strickling and Adelstein on the status of the program, as well as American Cable Association past chairman James Gleason.

Gleason, whose NewWave Communications has filed for $10.3 million in stimulus funds, said he was having trouble meeting the 30-day deadline as his company defended its service area from bidders proposing to overbuild his systems, spending $30,000 “simply telling the government where we already serve.”

Unlike the deadline for announcing the winners, an NTIA spokesperson said that the Oct. 28 deadline for incumbents could not be changed, per a statutory 30-day comment period.

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