NTIA Grant Schedule: The Crapshoot and the Catch–22

Last week the Dept. of Commerce’s NTIA came out with a schedule that was a little off in the date when grants will be awarded, and their oft-quoted March 10 commitment to start handing out the big bucks in June. Though NTIA told inquiring reporters that they weren’t late (a mere technical quibble), the reality is the first grant checks aren’t coming out until December.

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Though this means money starts to flow just in time for the holidays, the practical realities of this are a little challenging. And before going on, let me say that NTIA is to be lauded for giving themselves more room to work with since this whole stimulus timeline they’ve inherited is pretty insane, and the weight of conflicting expectations threatens to drag their boat down.

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First, December paydays means April/May 2010 project launch dates. For communities in the northeast and midwest, groundbreaking on networks isn’t going to happen until said ground thaws. What about all those towns, cities and counties that have completed needs assessments, planning, partner development and everything else but writing the applications?

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They folks are ready to roll and have economic impacts they could be seeing by next April rather than just getting started. Do they wait? Let’s face it, this grant process is a crapshoot for almost everyone involved. There’ll be more people asking for money than will come away with the brass rings. Do you delay the broadband benefits for nearly a year, and if you don’t get the money, start casting about anew in January for money? Or do you lift anchor on your project now?

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Then there’s the catch-22. You can’t get grant money unless you prove there’s no other way you can afford to move your network forward. So you obviously can’t have a 2010 municipal budget item for the 80% CapEx you want from Uncle Sam. But when your fiscal year ends and the new budget kicks in without this line item and if you discover shortly after that you’re not a lucky winner, you’re pretty much up that smelly creek without a paddle.

I’ve been telling people for a few months that the best approach is to research and identify key stakeholder organizations and constituents with the needs and the budgets to buy enough services to underwrite network costs, then scope out an appropriate broadband plan. Work from the stance that stimulus money is only one option of many, not the one and only option for a successful project. From this position of strength, you better resolve with the catch-22.

One of what should be several options is to move things forward now, even if it means scaling back the scope of your project. It’s probably better to take the plans you have now, figure out some alternative funding sources and look to grant money as a way to expand whatever you start. If you win a grant, bump the project into overdrive. If you don’t, you already have plan B.

There are other options and strategies to attack this issue. What are some of your thoughts? (Check out the NTIA schedule)

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