Let's get to Work on Criteria for NTIA Grant Awards
By Charles Benton
The Recovery Act establishes several considerations for awarding grants under the national Telecommunications and Information Administration's new Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The NTIA is to consider whether an application to deploy infrastructure in an area --
1. will increase the affordability of, and subscribership to, service to the greatest population of users in the area;
2. will provide the greatest broadband speed possible to the greatest population of users in the area;
3. will enhance service for health care delivery, education, or children to the greatest population of users in the area; and
4. will not result in unjust enrichment as a result of support for non-recurring costs through another Federal program for service in the area;
The NTIA must also consider whether:
5. an applicant is a socially and economically disadvantaged small business.
Past these five considerations, the NTIA may consider other priorities in selecting competitive grants to which I offer some ideas.
The NTIA should not steer far from the historic, overarching purpose of US telecommunications law -- to make available to all people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.
I. Stay True to the Overarching Purpose of US Telecommunications Law
The NTIA should not steer far from the historic, overarching purpose of US telecommunications law (and reinforced by the goals of this section of the Recovery Act) -- to make available to all people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges. Parsing this out, it means ALL people in ALL areas of the U.S.; it means fast and efficient; connected to the entire world; wire and wireless; and affordable.
Yes, of course, applications, and the B-TOP overall, should be judged on whether they bring service to areas unserved or unserved before and if they make service more affordable for those who have not been able to subscribe in the past. But calls to "focus on the unserved" should in no way deter investment that could foster competition (a means to efficiency) or addressing the technology opportunities aspects of the Recovery Act. To couple broadband access with broadband use, the need for fiber networks and WiMax towers cannot crowd out the needs for computers, training, and outreach. Nor can NTIA ignore the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which instructed federal telecommunications policy to favor "diversity of media voices, vigorous economic competition, technological advancement, and promotion of the public interest, convenience, and necessity."
View Session 1 from NTIA BTOP Public Meeting, March 17, 2008, Las Vegas, NV. (blog continued below)
II. Don't Forget the Purposes of the Recovery Act
The NTIA should also keep in mind the overall purposes of the Recovery Act. Therefore, application criteria should include:
- the number of US jobs the project will create or preserve,
- the positive effect on the people most impacted by the recession
- projected technological advances in science and health
- the long-term economic benefits of the project
- relief for the project's state budget
III. Don't Read the BTOP Purposes too Narrowly
The Recovery Act outlines 5 broad purposes, but gives no indicator of rank, and it is dangerous for the NTIA to elevate "unserved" and "underserved" especially if in a narrow sense. The NTIA cannot forget the other three BTOP purposes:
(3) provide broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment, and support to—
(A) schools, libraries, medical and healthcare providers, community colleges and other institutions of higher education, and other community support organizations and entities to facilitate greater use of broadband service by or through these organizations;
(B) organizations and agencies that provide outreach, access, equipment, and support services to facilitate greater use of broadband service by low-income, unemployed, aged, and otherwise vulnerable populations; and
(C) job-creating strategic facilities located within a State-designated economic zone, Economic Development District designated by the Department of Commerce, Renewal Community or Empowerment Zone designated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or Enterprise Community designated by the Department of Agriculture;
(4) improve access to, and use of, broadband service by public safety agencies; and
(5) stimulate the demand for broadband, economic growth, and job creation.
There are also additional goals in the BTOP section of the Recovery Act that should be incorporated into the criteria:
- the increase in broadband demand, access, affordability, and subscribership in the area served by the project,
- the improvement of broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment and support for targeted community institutions and vulnerable communities,
- the increase in broadband access for low-income, unemployed, aged and otherwise vulnerable populations and corresponding increase in their educational and employment opportunities,
- the improved use of broadband by public safety organizations
NTIA should look to grants that maximize all five of BTOP's purposes, as well as the broader purposes of Recovery Act. This does not mean NTIA should only give consideration to grants that serve all five goals. But it should prioritize such requests. This prioritization will give a leg up to infrastructure projects that partner with technology opportunities groups, or have a strong digital inclusion element. It also addresses the broader, critical point: the value of broadband comes from how it improves people's lives.
IV. Favor Multi-Purpose Proposals
NTIA should seek and favor projects that maximize all five of BTOP's purposes, as well as the broader purposes of Recovery Act. I do not mean to suggest that NTIA should only give consideration to grants that serve all five goals, but it should prioritize such requests. This prioritization will give a leg up to infrastructure projects that partner with digital inclusion groups, or have a strong digital inclusion element. It also addresses the broader, critical point: the value of broadband comes from how it improves people's lives. Benton also sees here an opportunity to maximize the stimulus investment.
V. Serving Unserved and Underserved Areas
Keeping in mind there are five BTOP purposes, underserved and unserved cannot be made to be the dominant criteria, except in the broadest sense. However, when considering just projects that address these areas, the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service has its own specific goals, which are more focused on construction and, obviously, rural areas. [Specifically, the Secretary of Agriculture is to determine and direct grants, loans and/or loan guarantees to areas where "at least 75 percent of the area to be served by a project receiving funds ... shall be in a rural area without sufficient access to high speed broadband service to facilitate rural economic development."] NTIA should adopt a similar, elastic definition of underserved in non-rural areas: any area which does not have sufficient access to high speed broadband service to facilitate economic development. This would allow the NTIA to address the diverse needs of communities -- boosting relatively low speeds in some areas, while other areas would have the opportunity to build networks with speeds equivalent to those in Europe and Asia.
To properly coordinate awards in rural areas applications for purely rural builds should be directed to the RUS while BTOP grants should support RUS recipient partners who address technology opportunities aspects of an overall project.
For all buildout NTIA projects, the Conferees instruct the NTIA to seek to fund, to the extent practicable, projects that provide the highest possible, next-generation broadband speeds to consumers.
VI. Sustainable Adoption of Broadband
The NTIA asks what factors should be given priority in determining whether proposals will encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service. My experience tells me that people tend to adopt the tools and services that can positively change their lives. But don't just trust my experience. Take as an example, Apple's iPhone. Although seen as a luxury item by many, the strongest growth in users is coming from those earning less than the median household income. Why? When the device is used in lieu of multiple digital devices and services -- wire and wireless phones, and Internet service -- one can actually realize cost savings. What must broadband deliver to be sustainable? Localism. People care about their homes and home towns, their children and their schools, their health and well being. Sustainable adoption will occur when people see how it makes their lives better.
VII. Finding the right mix of tools
NTIA asks if it should consider the fact that different technologies can provide different service characteristics, such as speed and use of dedicated or shared links, while promoting technological neutrality (that is, not favoring one technology over another in the grant program). I don't see a tension here. Technology matters and tools matter. The goal should be to fit the right tool to the necessary job. That must inevitably consider whether the proposed technology is rational and fits with the proposed project.
VIII. Don't Forget Affordability
NTIA asks what role, if any, should retail price play in the grant program. It must weigh heavily. The Recovery Act follows 75 years of telecommunications policy in identifying affordability as a concern. Anyone submitting grants to provide service should include pricing information.