Broadband Stimulus Deadline Extended Amid Clogged Servers and Confusion

The $7.2 billion broadband stimulus is off to an inauspicious start. In two articles this week, Telephony Online has reported on the flood of applications that have crashed government servers (where have we heard that one before), resulting in a one-week extension of the application deadline to August 21.

Telephony interviewed Craig Settles, an industry consultant specializing in broadband infrastructure issues, who said applicants are submitting multiple applications to cover different parts of their broadband projects rather than putting all their eggs in one application basket for fear of seeing their entire funding request rejected on a technicality. “It’s been clear from the beginning if there is a technical error, if you omit some data or it is not formatted correctly, your application will be rejected,” Settle told Telephony.

“The volume of applications is making things worse,” Settles said. He had advocated a 30-day extension back in mid-July when the volume of applicants became apparent, but that idea was rejected.

Those who applied early are in the best shape, Settles said. He’s concerned that a one-week extension may not be enough for those who waited.

“For those folks who got ahead of the curve, they are in great shape, but for others, it’s going to be an ordeal,” Settles said. “I have no idea how many servers they are able to add or what kind of capacity they have behind the scenes for this. People are frantic, they’re upset. What happens if, even with a one-week extension, some applications can’t be finished?”

The problem, Settles said, is that this kind of fast-paced process has not been attempted before, making it harder for the federal government to prepare technology resources. Previous grant programs were done over much longer periods of time. “They haven’t done this dance before,” he said. “Murphy’s Law of technology will always rear its head.”

Nonetheless, a number of winners have already been announced, primarily for the “mapping broadband” phase. In a second story, Telephony reports on the overall confusion that’s become inherent in the broadband stimulus process.

While the pace of the overall broadband stimulus process has overwhelmed many would-be applicants (to the point where many of them are skipping the first round and focusing on the second), the broadband mapping component of the plan has been regarded as especially confusing. To better understand the nation’s broadband needs, the federal government has allocated some $350 million to create a national broadband availability map that won’t be completed until early 2011, long after stimulus funds have been awarded.

“It strikes many of us that we put the cart before the horse,” said Joel McCamley, senior vice president and division manager of telecommunications and technology services for L. Robert Kimball Associates, which is helping broadband stimulus candidates apply for funding.
While it’s true that this rushed pace is likely to result in some sloppiness in the way that broadband is funded and deployed (and could even give rise to fraud, as Yankee Group analyst and Telephony alum Vince Vittore recently told BusinessWeek), the immediate goal of the stimulus program is more about feeding employment than it is about achieving universal broadband. Critics of the stimulus plan sometimes confuse the plan’s long-term stimulus ambitions — which come from more widespread use of broadband — with its short-term job-creation imperatives. For now, whether the cart goes before the horse or vice versa is less important than whether or not they are both put to work.

More information about the broadband stimulus can be found in the telecommunications section (p. 114) of Reason’s 2009 Annual Privatization Review.