Public sector advocates fear fate of broadband stimulus funds

The first round of applications for over $7 billion in broadband stimulus funding is due this Friday, and although winners are not to be announced until later this fall, public sector advocates and officials have already tallied the list of losers. And the list is high.

“After the first round, there was a lot of surprise and disappointment,” Casey Lide, Principle at Baller Herbst Law Group, said during an Online forum held Wednesday by Governing. Mr. Lide’s employers, Baller and Herbst, have worked with hundreds of cities, counties, and public power utilities representing them in matters involving telecommunications, right-of-way management and most recently, helping interested governments with stimulus broadband applications.

“There was a perception that the structure focused too much on unserved and underserved markets,” Mr. Lide said. For many Baller Herbst clients, the “hope for second round [funding] is that it will be more friendly to local governments and municipalities.”

Mr. Lide and other panelists indicated that a second round of funding would be made available by the end of the year, with a third round possible sometime in 2010.

But as Jeff Arnold, Deputy Director for Legislative Affairs at the National Association of Counties (NACo), explained, rural counties are not likely to crowd the list of winning applicants, even if this round’s focus was on unserved and underserved areas.

“Counties want broadband. Even if it’s slow speed, it’s better than nothing,” Mr. Arnold said. But the list of obstacles facing rural communities and broadband is numerous.

Among some of the problems facing rural counties and smaller governments were the lack of expertise to write grants for projects as complex as these. “The application is very detailed and complicated…a lot of counties don’t have staff or resources to organize.” Mr. Arnold said.

Another issue was that very few “shovel ready” broadband initiatives exist in rural areas. Mr. Lide agreed saying, “There’s an interesting tension between the need to be shovel ready and a need to show that it wouldn’t have happened without federal funds.”

Even if some rural communities are able to get funding it is difficult to drive adoption, Mr. Arnold said. And it remains to be seen the kind of stress accountability rules will put on rural counties.

Brad Ramsay, General Counsel and Policy Department Supervisor/Director at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commission (NARUC) rounded out the panel, voicing similar concerns about the focus and participation of those seeking broadband stimulus funds.

“A lot of communities weren’t ready to act on this in meaningful ways,” Mr. Ramsay said. Instead, many states are only applying for mapping grants (needed to determine where unserved and underserved populations exsist) or they were merely “sitting on the sidelines,” waiting for the second round of funding when perhaps more guidance would be available, he said.

Perhaps the most indemic problem with the broadband stimulus funds for lower levels of government can be illustrated by an ancdote told during the forum: One county tried to apply for broadband funds, but was unable to submit the data-heavy application online, because they, in fact, had no broadband.

For an update to this story, read <a href=””>”Pending broadband applications have until August 20″</a>

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