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September 10, 2009 11:09 AM

Color Me Officially Concerned About BTOP

So let's start by admitting that I've been worried about NTIA's BTOP stimulus program for a while now.

It began with the disappointing NOFA, which focused too much on the unserved and set inadequate bandwidth thresholds. But even more troubling was how divorced it was from the realities of building networks, which should be done contiguously, whereas the NOFA encouraged slicing communities up so that only those slivers that were un/underserved could apply.

I then got a bit more worried when NTIA's site crashed at the submission deadline. Sure there were a lot of applications, but there couldn't have been more than 2000 people uploading at the same time, which doesn't sound like a crazy number, and therefore leaves me worried that this is indicative of NTIA not being prepared in general to handle this volume of applications.

But these were minor issues compared to what's happening now with the review process, or perhaps more accurately said, what's not happening.

Many of these concerns stem from my following along with the experiences of Mike O'Connor as he writes about life as a BTOP volunteer reviewer on his site.

As a quick frame of reference, I think it's likely you can't expect to find a better volunteer reviewer than Mike. He's been appointed as a member to the MN Ultrahighspeed Broadband Taskforce. He helped start one of MN's first high-speed ISPs in gofast.net in the 90s. And he worked as an AVP in charge of finance at the University of Minnesota. So in other words he understand the technology and business of broadband. Plus I can attest to the fact that he's a really good and honest guy who just wants to see his country become greater through broadband.

My first concern about this review process doesn't stem from a blog post of Mike's but something he told me during a face-to-face meeting, namely how they're vetting reviewers to avoid conflicts of interest. Apparently all that Mike knows they've done so far is have him sign a piece of paper claiming he has no conflicts. There doesn't appear to be any other serious vetting going on of him.

Even if there is, I can't help be concerned that a reviewer would be totally unaware that it's going on, plus there's the matter of thoroughly vetting the thousand people who signed up to volunteer taking some significant time, and yet it appears as though they're either not doing anything or haven't started doing anything, both of which are troubling.

Many have been critical of using an all-volunteer army from the get go as it seems wide open to attempts to game the system, plus it can be a challenge to make sure that not only do the volunteers not have conflicts of interest, but also that they're competent.

But there are other issues with using volunteers that Mike brings up. Like how many hours in how short of a window of time are volunteers expected to invest in this process? He's heard 30-40 hours, but will he have a month to put that time in or a week? I don't think we can expect volunteers to devote full-time work to this, and yet stretching it out means the review process will drag on. Also, what support will reviewers have during odd hours like nights and weekends, which is likely when many of the will be working through these applications?

But none of this is what has me worried the most. What worries me more than anything is that after Mike went through an introductory orientation webinar on Aug 28th, he has not heard from NTIA since then. He has no idea if the review process has started yet. If he's made the final cut of reviewers. If a pile of applications is in the mail on its way to him as I type this. Nothing.

And yet a quick glance at the calendar shows that NTIA's supposed to have some initial recommendations to pass on to states for their input on Monday. That's four days from now.

Making matters worse for the chances of BTOP's success is that it's going to be such a complex equation to determine who deserves what.

Should NTIA go with the cheapest broadband or the best broadband?

Should NTIA invest in networks that only deliver the baseline of bandwidth and that don't have a clear path to upgrade to higher capacities, or should they prioritize networks that are future proof and that can upgrade easily as needed?

Should they favor non-profits and community initiatives like the original stimulus language suggests, or should private companies be favored since some think that municipal broadband's actually a bad idea?

How can they be sure they're funding projects that will be financially self sustaining?

Even more worrisome is that I've heard from some reputable people like David Burstein of BroadbandReports.com that many of the applications he's seen are horribly overpriced, oftentimes trying to get a grant that's two or three times what a network should actually cost to build. This isn't entirely surprising given that government's handing out free money, but how does NTIA make sure it's not wasting that money on inflated projects?

And all of these are concerns relate just to this initial review process. We haven't even gotten to the point of giving the states a chance to have their say, which is likely to be a mess. Some governors don't understand broadband. Some don't want to make the decision themselves and pass the buck to some other entity that might be corrupt or incompetent. And others have conflicts of interest themselves. Plus we have to deal with the fact that some states have put in their own applications, which they'll undoubtedly favor over anyone else's.

Then these projects are going to have to run the gauntlet of incumbents getting a chance to have their say, which is another opportunity to game the system as all they have to do is show advertised speeds and not actual service to disqualify projects from receiving funding.

And these are all issues just with the infrastructure grants. I have a whole other set of concerns about the broadband adoption and public computing center grants, namely that I'm not sure it's such a good idea to just buy a bunch of computers and have a few training classes, which seems to be the bulk of what money's been requested for.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot about the mess that is the mapping program. Ugh...

I don't want this post to come off as me calling out the hard-working individuals at NTIA as I know there are good people over there trying their best. But I can't help but be dissatisfied with the process so far, and I'm extremely concerned about what the ultimate fate and impact of the BTOP program will be given all the complexities I've listed above.

My main point in all this is that we can't accept failure from BTOP. If we don't do BTOP right, that will hurt our chances for ever getting any more money out of Congress for broadband. Yet I kind of feel like I'm watching a trainwreck in slow motion, and that while I want to help I'm not sure what I can do to stop this from being a disaster.

I'm going to be working through this dilemma over the weekend, and I hope all of you will as well. If you have any thoughts on how we can help support NTIA's efforts and rescue this project from heading into the ditch, add them in as a comment below. I'll then work on coming up with some suggestions and share them in posts next week.

But until then or until we get more word out of NTIA about what's going on, you can color me officially concerned about BTOP.

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Comments (1)

As one of those many people who had concerns about this from the get go, I have to say that Geoff's assessment is pretty spot on. The devil of it is, I feel that if we all start complaining it creates a lot of negative press, which is unfair to the hard-working people but appropriate for what is clearly a poorly working process. However, what we get slammed with is the fact that scrapping everything and starting over at least with the "review panel" process is the best solution but politically not a very practical one.

How many of you have the time and the will to work to bring enough pressure to bear for force a do-over? I'm thinking that the easiest solution is to turn the entire process over to the same process-outsourcing company RUS is using, ICF. They seem to have a structure already in place to take this review process over. It may delay things a month or two, but that's a small price to pay to get this right. Furthermore, if you give these grants out in January, most of the recipients can't get started until March or April anyway.

Posted by Craig Settles on September 11, 2009 12:56 PM

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