Stimulus Seekers and the Ides of March

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If you’re following developments
with the broadbandstimulus
program, you may have
caught the latest bone of contention
with the process that many
of us have, particularly those
working in the trenches actually
trying to get proposals out the
door: It’s time. There’s not nearly
enough time between Feb. 16,
when applications started to be
accepted, and the March 15 final
deadline for these applications.

There are several reasons why
this is causing major heartburn.
One of the biggest is that you
can’t win a grant in this second
round of funding if you propose
to deliver service in an area that
someone received money in
Round 1 to build out. Logical,
practical and fair. The problem,
though, is that we won’t see the
last of Round 1 money going out
until Feb. 28, giving people just
two weeks to adjust to areas of
conflict or jump into the game if
they’ve waited for final results.

A casualty of this tight turnaround
is the ability to create
an accurate picture of broadband
availability in the areas
where people hope to build
networks. Not only do applicants
lack enough time to execute
this task effectively, they
have to waste time providing
the agencies with data on incumbent
service providers’ advertised

It’s difficult to foresee with certainty
the outcome of this application
process, but it’s almost
certain that applicants would produce
stronger proposals with an
extra 30 days added to the deadline
plus broader transparency
from the agencies. They would
also produce better proposals if
the National Telecomunications
& Information Administration or
Rural Utilites Service gave clear
encouragement via better rules
that favor applicants who follow
best practices in accurately assessing
broadband need.

Here are four steps that can
help communities develop better
broadband strategy by gathering
better market intelligence.

First is the obvious work of
gathering numbers on who
doesn’t have any broadband
and where these individuals
and organizations are located.
It actually can be a painful and
expensive exercise, but there are
ways to make this less painful.

The second step is to pinpoint
who has broadband and
what type. Some folks don’t
place a high value on this, saying
we just need to focus on the
have-nots because they’re the
only ones who need broadband.

However, effective needs analysis
requires a more comprehensive
picture. To transform
local businesses into international
players and boost the local
economy, you need to know
what people have in order to
clearly understand what they
need. This includes knowing
exactly what broadband speeds
people actually get. In too many
places, advertised speeds are
borderline con jobs.

Third, determine what changes
are predicted to happen within
specific industries, constituent
groups, demographics, etc., that
broadband can facilitate or remediate.
Furthermore, what do
constituents expect to do with
broadband in three to five years? If
broadband strategy is to be effective,
it must be forward-looking. If
the agencies believe broadband is
supposed to impact economic development,
you must obtain some
data on future business needs so
you can build a network that’s capable
of addressing these needs.

Fourth, create an inventory of
existing broadband resources:
fiber lines owned by non-government
organizations, towers,
public hotspots, vertical assets
that can support wireless infrastructure.
Where are transportation
or public works projects
scheduled that you can leverage
to install fiber conduits? What
are the technology road maps
and planned enhancements for
current infrastructure that can
boost broadband coverage?

Given where we stand at this
phase of the broadband stimulus
process, the pressure of Congressionally-
imposed funding
deadlines is once again causing
best practices for technology deployment
to be sacrificed on the
altar of political necessity. A 30-
day delay of the filing deadline
isn’t enough time for many applicants
to adequately address all
four of the broadband assessment
steps listed here. But it would enable
applicants to do better than
what’s possible currently.

One of the benefits of the stimulus
is that it has spawned some
new tools to help in broadband
planning and execution. ID Insight,
the developer of Broad-
Band Scout, has developed a
national database that provides
broadband project teams with an
accurate picture of usage by relying
on numbers obtained directly
from subscribers. Other services
facilitate real-time broadband
data capture from subscribers.
With these tools, network planners
can expect to have an easier
time of it than some of the teams
pursing what a year ago appeared
to be “easy money.”