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High interest in broadband stimulus spurs public meetings

The agencies in charge of doling out more than $7 billion for broadband are seeking the public's help in shaping the grant and loan programs.

WASHINGTON--Two government agencies have 19 months to distribute $7.2 billion in stimulus funds for broadband deployment projects in all 50 states--and already thousands of potential grant recipients are knocking at their doors.

President Obama's economic stimulus package dictated that all of the money set aside for broadband will have to be allocated to worthy projects by September 30, 2010. To meet that goal, the federal government will need the help of "the best and the brightest," Mark Seifert, one of the people responsible for the broadband funds, said Tuesday.

"I invite you to work very hard--and very fast--to reach our goals," said Seifert, a senior adviser to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency responsible for distributing $4.7 billion in grants for broadband.

The NTIA on Tuesday, in conjunction with the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Agriculture Department, held the first in a series of meetings to engage the public in a discussion about ways to distribute the broadband grants and loans. The agencies decided on this format to solicit public input after receiving more than 2,000 requests for individual meetings from states and other groups interested in the funding.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps on Tuesday addressed hundreds of potential applicants for broadband stimulus funds. Stephanie Condon/CNET

"It's going to have to happen very fast," said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, an NTIA administrator. "Everyone needs to work together to make sure we do this and we get it right."

Before a crowd of hundreds packed into an auditorium at the U.S. Commerce Department, the agencies announced they are holding six more public meetings--four in Washington, one in Las Vegas, and one in Flagstaff, Ariz.--between March 16 and March 24 to give the public a chance to influence how the broadband grant and loan programs are shaped. The agencies also released on Tuesday a formal request for information (PDF) soliciting input on a range of topics including the role of the states in the grant programs, selection criteria for grant awards, financial contributions from grant applicants, broadband mapping, and benchmarks to evaluate the success of the programs.

The FCC, which is charged with formulating a strategy for nationwide broadband deployment within one year, will also kick off a process of public inquiry for that project at its next public meeting on April 8.

"This will be a truly inclusive process," acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said at the meeting. "The goal of our national strategy must be to bring value-laden, high-speed broadband to all our citizens, no matter who they are or where they live...'All' must mean everyone."

The officials at Tuesday's meeting acknowledged that numerous issues that will impact the grant awarding process remain unclear. For instance, the broadband stimulus funds were expressly approved for "unserved" and "underserved" locations, but those terms remain undefined.

McGuire-Rivera said that these are the sorts of issues the request for information and the public meetings are intended to resolve. In the meantime, the stimulus bill was prescriptive enough that prospective grant recipients "can start working on your grant application as soon as you walk out the door," she said.

The NTIA plans to make grants available in three rounds. The first notice of availability will be published sometime between April and June, with subsequent grant application rounds taking place around October of this year, and then between April and June of 2010. The agency is required by the stimulus bill to award at least one grant per state.

The Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service, which is responsible for distributing $2.5 billion in grants, loans, and loan guarantees for broadband, plans to start making its funds available within the next 60 days. After that first notice of availability, the RUS will have at least two more grant application periods.

As the agencies configure the grant and loan programs, they will be obligated to consult with the states, establish open-access principles, and create a database of all the grant applications. The stimulus bill also set aside $10 million specifically for audits and oversight of the broadband programs.

"It's sort of unusual for (Congress) to set aside money like that," McGuire-Rivera said. "We will be watching these grants very carefully."