Let's Get to Work on the Role of the States in the NTIA Broadband Grant Program
By Charles Benton
This blog became the basis for a Benton filing
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are holding a series public meetings asking for interested parties -- that means all of us -- to comment on how to run and evaluate new broadband programs required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). In addition to the information received about the new programs during the public meetings, written comments will be accepted through April 13. Today we look at the NTIA's second question on the role of the States.
From Congress, there is a recognition that States have resources and a familiarity with local economic, demographic, and market conditions that could contribute to the success of the broadband grant program.
The Recovery Act requires that, to the extent practical, the NTIA award at least one broadband grant in every State. I find this requirement to be brilliant. As the NTIA grants should really be viewed as funding demonstrations of our digital, broadband future, every citizen should be able to point to a project that has improved lives in their own state. The NTIA should do whatever is necessary to ensure that outreach is done to potential applicants and that at least one high-quality, innovative project is supported in each state.
The Recovery Act also allows the NTIA to consult a State, the District of Columbia, or territory or possession of the United States with respect to —
- the identification of unserved or underserved areas; and
- the allocation of grant funds within that State for projects in or affecting the State.
From Congress, there is a recognition that States have resources and a familiarity with local economic, demographic, and market conditions that could contribute to the success of the broadband grant program. The language in the law is meant to encourage States to coalesce stakeholders and partners, assess community needs, aggregate demand for services, and evaluate demand for technical assistance. Congress expects the NTIA to seek advice and assistance from the States in reviewing grant applications, as long as the NTIA retains the sole authority to approve the awards. Congress also intended the NTIA to assist the States in post-grant monitoring to ensure that recipients comply fully with the terms and conditions of their grants.
NTIA asks four questions:
a. How should the grant program consider State priorities in awarding grants?
b. What is the appropriate role for States in selecting projects for funding?
c. How should NTIA resolve differences among groups or constituencies within a State in establishing priorities for funding?
d. How should NTIA ensure that projects proposed by States are well-executed and produce worthwhile and measurable results?
My feeling is that the NTIA should move -- swiftly -- to define the parameters of the NTIA-State consultations.
First off, I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau's quote from Walden: "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
Although the Recovery Act allows for consultation with the states, I assume the States have an option here. The NTIA should make sure that each State wants to have a role. Let's contact every governor and have her identify the lead state agency or office for consultation -- and name a contact person. The lead agency or office should be asked to articulate the State's broadband priorities. This information should be published on the NTIA's website before the first round of applications is due. The information would aid both applicants and transparency.
If State is active in the creation, endorsement or certification of an application, the State should be required to demonstrate how the project's goals address the State's current broadband priorities.
Past this initial threshold, there seems to a possible range of State involvement. Question d above recognizes that Congress was looking for State proposals for grants. Some States may want to endorse proposals or certify that proposals address State priorities.
Here's what I would ask: If a State takes an active role in coalescing stakeholders or aggregating demand, if the State, in short, is active in the creation, endorsement or certification of an application, the State should be required to demonstrate how the project's goals address the State's current broadband priorities.
I would hope that the NTIA would also reach out to every state utility regulatory agency and determine if applicants have ever had complaints filed against them and how those complaints were resolved. Our stimulus dollars should not flow to bad actors in the telecommunications sector.
Finally, in identifying unserved or underserved areas, a State's assessment of need could be most helpful if it is data driven. This data should be publicly available for all to evaluate; it should demonstrate which carriers are serving where, with what service, at what price; and it should have been collected by entities that do not have a conflict of interest (i.e. telecommunications carriers, organizations with board members from the telecommunications industry or receiving contributions or memberships from the telecom industry).
The States' role in the broadband program may be just another hint of what may be called "cooperative federalism" in which Washington will look to the states for new ideas and even a measure of guidance. After many years of federal pre-emption, this shift could allow states to "serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country" as Justice Louis Brandeis put it in 1932.
Add your comment below.
On Monday we'll look at who -- past States -- can apply for NTIA broadband grants.
Earlier posts in this series: