Streamlined Broadband Grant Process Promised

WASHINGTONThe Obama administration said Tuesday it will streamline the application process for $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus grants in response to criticism from applicants and lawmakers that the program isn’t getting money out quickly enough.

Officials at the Commerce and Agriculture Departments outlined plans to consolidate into a single round a grant process originally projected to go for two more rounds. The first round of grants is scheduled to be made in December. The departments asked for comments on how the program could be changed to make it easier for companies to apply.

“This will get the funds out the door faster to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” said Jonathan Adelstein, the Agriculture Department official overseeing the program in a statement. The Agriculture Department oversees a program to build broadband lines in rural areas and will distribute loans as part of the stimulus program.

Administration officials said they’re looking at whether they should devote more of the roughly $3 billion that will be handed out in the second round to high-volume Internet lines in rural areas that could be shared by private companies, libraries and others instead of “last-mile” projects that would be used by a single company to offer broadband service to the home.

The moves come amid broader concern in Congress and the administration about unemployment, which hit 10.2% in October. Republicans have criticized the administration’s $787 billion stimulus program, saying it has moved too slowly and generated too few jobs.

The largest U.S. Internet providers, including Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp., opted against applying for the broadband stimulus funds. All of the companies voiced reservations about some of the conditions that grant recipients would face, namely provisions that would require the providers to abide by open Internet, or net neutrality, rules that might hinder some future efforts to offer pricier Internet services.

Would-be applicants for the broadband grants have roughly two weeks to make suggestions for how grant requirements might be changed, administration officials said. In particular, the agencies want to make it easier for more suburban and semi-rural areas to qualify for broadband stimulus grants or loans.

“The things they’re asking about capture the most common things that people have complained about,” said Craig Settles, founder of, a broadband business consulting firm. “There appears to be logic and some attempt to get to consistency and making life easier for the applicant.”

Several members of Congress, including Rep. Rick Boucher (D., VA) who heads the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Internet subcommittee, have complained that the rules were originally written so that some towns without fast Internet service inside their districts didn’t qualify.

“I believe that to be fair to applicants, we need to find a way to simplify the process going forward,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, at a recent oversight hearing on the program.

Obama administration officials spent much of the summer crafting rules for the grant program and holding workshops across the country designed to answer applicants’ questions about filling out the voluminous forms.

Those meetings did little to answer questions raised by applicants who were required to provide highly technical information about broadband availability in their areas.

The government ultimately received about 2,200 applications for the first round of broadband stimulus funding asking for about $28 billion in funds, far more than the $4 billion that was available. Grants were originally supposed to be awarded this month, but administration officials recently said they needed more time to sift through the applications and would begin awarding money in December.


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