Handicapping NOFA 2

The good news is that the new NOFA rules are out. The bad news, if you have Attention Deficit Disorder, is that there are two of them and each one seems as long as the first NOFA rules. But at least there are welcome changes. Here’s an overview and a look at who does well as a result of these.

First, I think it’s wise to let each group have its own rules. Many of the frustration people have had with the NOFA, Round 1 stem from the rules being a quick blending of procedures from agencies with two different purposes and ways of doing business. That led to the rules contradicting each other in places, or otherwise breeding confusion.

In terms of focus, NTIA is addressing middle mile primarily and this makes sense because it gives NTIA a bigger bang for their buck, allowing them to bring broadband to large geographical areas through each award. Rather than spend time reviewing 30 proposals for $1 million each, better to review one proposal for $30 million. There’s less administrative hassle on the backend where NTIA has to manage each funded project to completion.

RUS, mercifully, has eliminated the “remote, non-remote” qualifications combined with different (and confusing) grant versus loan options that have driven people absolutely crazy. Now it’s a straight up 75/25 grant-to-loan ratio for all projects. The final definition of rural is what it was pre-stimulus at RUS in terms of population size and proximity to big cities.

The other thing that’s good for RUS is their focus on last mile projects. Though it’s still a pain to address a lot of individual communities on the proposal review side, at least RUS has 400 field offices. So, unlike NTIA’s smaller staff in just a couple of locations, RUS has people spread across the U.S. who can make providing oversight of the awardees a more manageable process.

For communities, RUS’ last-mile focus could become a negative for those places that want to band together for a countywide or other large-scale network. You can’t create a uniform last-mile umbrella over several dozen towns without some serious backhaul action, and backhaul=middle mile if you want to be nit-picky about definitions. Some of you had better ask for clarification to determine how you word a proposal so as to not get bounced by RUS. Maybe  you can call yours a hybrid wired-wireless network in which the fiber does double duty as last and middle mile.

The one thing I question is RUS’ intent to make money available for satellite broadband projects. Even though it is to cover areas still left unserved after all the original money is awarded, satellite has a poor reputation (based on experience) for cost/speed. Considering that RUS has way more applicants than money available, shouldn’t that money budgeted for satellite be made available to cover projects with better cost/speed deliverables?

After reading these points, see my post on possible action steps to take in response to NOFA 2.

Who’s looking good with these new rules in place

  1. NOFA 2 for NTIA clearly enshrines net neutrality AND open access on all networks built. Big win for communities.
  2. A bit worrisome is that the same is not in RUS’ NOFA. Could be RUS’ history of dealing with local telcos opposed to the idea, or maybe they think last mile networks aren’t good vehicles for multiple providers. The umps are heading to the review booth on this one.
  3. NTIA’s NOFA 2 sticks with the pitiful baseline to define broadband speed (768 Kbps down, 200 Kbps up). Give RUS a hand. They’ve set the minimum bar at 5 Mbpscombined, so your up and down in whatever combination of speeds need to equal 5Mbps. And since RUS is focusing almost entirely on last mile projects, that’s huge for consumers. So the home team batted .500 here.
  4. Public Private Partnerships are highly valued AND prioritized by NTIA. Grand slam to win the big game for community broadband supporters! I don’t see the same level of enthusiasm in RUS’ NOFA. Back to the review booth.
  5. Cities catch a break! Since NTIA is removing the requirement that infrastructure projects must be located in unserved or underserved areas, cities can play. The key to winning, though, comes from how you state your case (see my other post). Un- and underserved communities still have priority. Not the biggest win, but cities are at least in the game this round more than they were in the last one.
  6. Broadband access is still defined in terms of whether or not a household “readily can subscribe to that service upon request.” We pretty much lost that round. “Subscribe to” and “actually get” are a world apart in many places. The only way to beat that issue down is to have documentation for all the times constituents and business asked for service and got some silly excuse for why they’re being ignored.
  7. Incumbent challenges are still a reality of broadband stim life. However, they have to provid 7 types of data, including speeds, prices and numbers of subscribers and the details of their challenge will be made public. Applicants can defend themselves, so bring numbers and other data to due dili to trump challenges. Score a couple of runs for the home team, but they give up a couple too. However, I don’t think too many will lose the game here.
  8. Round 1 winners can go back to the pot to get more money to connect libraries and write economic development strategy plans. May not end up being a ton of money, but it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye (an optometrist told me that one). Actually, this falls under the “Little Things That Mean a Lot” banner. So we’ll score a couple of RBI’s for this.

Overall, I think community broadband supporters won some needed improvements and have a stronger position from which to work. We didn’t lose any ground, but we still have some rules that best should have fallen by the wayside. When the FCC reforms the Universal Service Fund, they can learn a lot from all of this for when they establish rules for distributing that money.

One major concern was how much easier it would be to complete and submit an application with new rules to streamline the process. It appears this process will be much faster because a lot of the information that was a major pain to compile and file is now required only if you get called for the due diligence process. This is good because you have almost no time to make the deadline of March 15. You can put off some of that work until you file your application, though not as much as you might think on the first read.

From a timing standpoint, some of you need to think long and hard over the next few days about what you want to do. The deadline for your proposal is less than 60 days away.  If you don’t have a solid broadband plan, have identified potential partners in these past few months and people willing to work 24/7 for a month from February on, ask yourself “how badly do we really want that money,” and be brutally honest in your assessment of your ability to run the gauntlet.

Those of you in the middle of Round 1 who haven’t been called in for due diligence? You may want to consider packing it in and looking at NOFA 2. Since the rules and requirements have been streamlined in some important areas, you may not be looking at that much work to prepare a new application. Besides, your original proposal’s still on the table and you could get that last-minute call.