Rural Broadband : All There is to Know About RUS and NTIA

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Rural Broadband : All There is to Know About RUS and NTIA

Just last week, the Obama Administration published some of the criteria for its broadband stimulus money-doling.  This event followed President Obama's signage of the  of 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act(ARRA), which allocated $7.2 billion to the US Departments of Agriculture and Commerce to improve broadband development in rural and remote areas of the US.  The Rural Utilities Service (RUS)-a subsidiary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-and the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA)-a subsidiary of the US Department of Commerce (USDC)-were entrusted with the responsibility of handing out the money to appropriate applicants.  Here is a simple, yet comprehensive guide to the who, what, and where of this major government windfall.

The ARRA provides over $28 million toward Rural Community Development.  The USDA's RUS received $2.5 million and will administer it via the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP).  However, the USDA will invest an additional $7 billion into the rural cause.  The USDC's NTIA received $4.7 billion and will administer it via the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Combined, the $7.2 billion is meant for the general betterment of technology in the US.  In the words of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the funding "will bring high-speed Internet service to communities across the country, create thousands of jobs, and improve economic, health care, and educational opportunites available in rural communities.  This funding is a down payment on the President's commitment to bring the educational economic benfits of the Internet to all communities."

However, the BIP and the BTOP do have their specified roles.  The BIP will use $2 billion of the government funding for grants and an additional $7 billion for loans to provide more advanced broadband in rural communities.  The grants will be awarded to un-served, remote areas, and the grant or grant/loan combinations will be awarded to non-remote yet underserved rural areas.  The USDA essentially extends the power of the BIP by allowing it to make loans and gives it new authoriy by letting it give grants.

The BTOP will use the $4.7 billion of government funding to deploy broadband infrastructure in underserved regions, expand public computer center capacity, and encourage sustainable adoption of broadband service in educational, societal, and economic organizations.  The subtle difference between the roles of the BIP and BTOP is that the former will focus on existing telecom firms while the latter will focus on creating the telecom infrastructure.

The Departments of Agriculture and Commerce will not throw the billions of stimulus dollars into the eager arms of the first rural broadband provider that comes their way.  Both the BIP and the BTOP have their standards.

The BIP will favor applicants with a high percentage of loan funds, projects that are quick yet feasible, projects that give end-users a choice of providers, and applicants that are current or former RUS borrowers.

The BTOP will favor applications that promise to increase affordability and subscribership, provide the highest broadband speed possible, and enhance service for health care delivery, education, or children to the greatest population of users in the area.

There are certain points that remain the same across all the specifications of the BIP and BTOP programs.  They include: an effort to work in tandem with RUS, NTIA, and FCC regulations; a motto of total transparency; and a goal of providing the most underserved users with the latest broadband technology in the shortest amount of time possible.  In addition, both the BIP and BTOP schedules have the same application timeline-from July 14, 2009 to August 14, 2009 at EDT 5:00 p.m.-and the same deadline for awards, which is September 30, 2009.

Only one Notice of Fund Availability (NOFA) was published by the Federal Register to date, which Vice President Joe Biden announced last week.  Two more NOFAs are expected.  In the interim, the US Departments of Agriculture and Commerce will host a series of seminars for prospective applicants about available funding and the application process-just in case they be confused about the details.  The seminars will take place from July 7- 24 in Boston, MA; Charleston, W. Va.; Minneapolis, MN; Memphis, TN; Lonoke, AK; Birmingham, AL; Billings, MO; Albuquerque, NM; and Los Angeles, CA.

(The information above was taken from the Broadband Initiatives Program Fact Sheet, a Notice published by the USDA and USDC in March 2009, the published criteria of the newly-available governement funds, and the USDA's official website)

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