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September 14, 2009 7:24 AM

BTOP's Headed For The Ditch; Here's How We Can Save It

Over the weekend I learned something about NTIA's handling of BTOP that shook me to the core: last week they dumped all of their applications onto states without conducting any initial review to weed out ineligible projects or including any guidelines to help frame how states should go about making their recommendations.

While there's a chance they're going to announce an initial round of cuts today, I'm not optimistic given that the volunteer reviewers I know haven't been asked to do anything yet.

And while they're supposed to give guidelines to states this week, I'm not sure how those guidelines can overcome the many problems with relying on states to play a primary role in deciding who gets what. For one, most states don't have any formal decision-making process or the in-house tech or business expertise to enable them to pick the right projects. For two, few if any states have thoroughly read and tried to understand the NOFA, so they're not ready to pick the best projects relative to the original rules that were set out. Three, there's no end to the potential conflicts of interest that could negatively influence a state's recommendations, including the fact that some states have put in their own applications.

If I'm being brutally honest then I can't help but admit feeling like NTIA dumping these applications on states is a sign that they're punting, that they'd rather someone else make the tough decisions, and that they're positioning themselves to be able to deflect blame to the states if any bad projects end up getting funded.

At the same time, part of me can't blame them for trying to do this. In many ways, NTIA has been set up for failure. When they were given their billions they simply didn't have the infrastructure in place to distribute those funds efficiently and effectively. They then had to craft rules in an extremely polarized broadband policy environment. And they didn't even get their leader in place until the process was already underway.

But that doesn't mean we should be satisfied sitting on our hands watching as BTOP heads into the ditch. Now is not the time to point fingers; now is the time to figure out how to save this process. Because it's not too late to do things right, to find new ways to make sure our tax dollars are going to support the best possible broadband projects. To that end, I'd like to propose a new review process for BTOP.

To start with, I want to suggest that it's a mistake to rank projects based on purely quantitative measures. Yes we need to know how much projects cost, yes we need to make sure they're not overpriced, and yes we need quantitative measures of how self sustaining a project is, how many jobs it creates, and how well it secures a community's broadband future, but there are qualitative elements associated with all of these things that shouldn't be ignored, especially since questions like how much bandwidth is needed, how open networks should be, and who should own networks are fairly subjective.

Plus quantitative scoring systems can often be too rigid. The question shouldn't be, "Is this project 45 or 50 miles from the nearest city?" Instead we should be focusing on, "Is this the right project for the right community with the right people leading it that offers the best avenue for spending taxpayer dollars?"

Additionally, I think it's a big mistake to have this review and decision-making process occur behind closed doors. One big positive outcome of the stimulus is how it's stimulated interest in broadband and broadband policy. But the fastest way to dissuade that interest is to make the public feel like secret people are making secret decisions that they can't guarantee are being made in the public's best interests.

With all of this in mind, I'd like to suggest a three-step process for the public vetting and review of BTOP applications.

The first two steps can happen concurrently.

One step is to conduct that initial review, but instead of doing so behind closed doors with three reviewers reading and ranking the applications separately, I think we should create review panels. These panels would include three reviewers that applicants must sit in front of to present, discuss, and defend their projects. By doing this reviewers can ask questions of applicants directly and get immediate answers. These panel reviews should also be recorded, and some or all of it should be made available for public review. This content can also be used to inform final decision-making further down the line.

The other initial step is to hold an event or series of events in every state capitol where everyone who's applied for money in a state would come together to give a 5-10 minute presentation on why their project deserves the money. There could also be a discussion facilitated between applicants to debate how the rules should be interpreted. These events should also be recorded and even webcast live so the public can tune in. The point of doing all of this is that if we put all the projects on the same stage together next to each other it should help states and NTIA compare projects directly and to get a sense for which applicants are the most prepared. In states with lots of projects, multiple events could be arranged focused on the different types of applications.

Then once states make their recommendations based on this process and incumbents have a chance to flag projects that may not qualify because of existing broadband service, the final step would be to have a core NTIA, and possibly RUS, team lock themselves in a room for a couple of weeks to review the materials and to pick the best possible project for each state. In addition to the paper applications, they'd also have video from the panel reviews and public events to consider, as well as the recommendations of the panel reviewers. When needed, they could call in applicants for states that they're having trouble picking one winner. After they pick the best first project for each state, then they could see how much money's left and fund other projects based purely on merit.

By pursuing this new process, NTIA could be more open to the public while conducting a more thorough vetting process that provides more opportunities to gauge the seriousness and relative value of projects. By thinking just a little bit outside of the box and recognizing that it's not too late to do this right, we can take this process out of the backrooms and put it firmly in the public eye, which will only help further stimulate public interest in the best way to solve our country's broadband problems.

Going a step further, let's consider the timeline for implementing this model.

Given that there were 1,000 volunteers who applied to help review, I'm assuming that at least 300 of them are qualified and not tainted by conflicts of interest, hopefully more. That means we'd have at least 100 panels of three reviewers each. That would leave each team with about 20 applications to go through. Let's say they take half a day to review each on average, that means it'd require two weeks of full-time work, or four weeks of half-time work to get through everything.

For the state events it'd just be a matter of picking a time, finding a venue, and getting everyone there. While there'd be some logistics to deal with in terms of getting the events webcast, and making sure all of the right people are there, these are not insurmountable challenges. Plus anyone that really wants funding should be able to make time for this. So there's no reason these events couldn't all be conducted in the month of October.

What this would all lead to is that by November 1st NTIA (and RUS if they're included in this process) would have everything they'd need to start the final review and selection process.

As they're going through that process, I'd suggest they plan on announcing awards as they make their decisions, either a state or group of states at a time.

It may take them a whole month to get through everything, but that's OK. While we don't want to slow this process down more than needed, the truth is that at least when it comes to infrastructure projects in northern states, most of them will have to wait until spring to start deployment any way. So one easy way to deal with this is to focus on making decisions about warmer states first.

So there we have it. An alternative way to handle the BTOP review process. It's based on the principles of the original process, but with an added emphasis on transparency and collaboration, and a greater acknowledgment of the need to understand the qualitative benefits of these projects, which can't necessarily be captured on paper.

My hope is that NTIA will seriously consider this proposal as a way to save the integrity of their review process, because otherwise I've moved beyond mere concern to full-on panic about the fate of BTOP. And as I've said before and will say again, we can't afford to waste these billions if we want to continue receiving resources to push forward our country's broadband future. So let's remember that it's never too late to do things the right way, and that it's time for us all to work together to make sure we do this right.

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