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July 16, 2010 8:54 AM

It's Official: NTIA Used Non-Expert Reviewers For BTOP Rd 1

During the course of packing and getting ready for our move to Lafayette, LA, I happened to meet someone who works at the Commerce Department.

While making small talk, I shared my interest in fiber. The gentlemen had an interesting response: "Oh, do you mean like BTOP?"

I was a bit taken aback by this at first as he didn't seem to be overly knowledgeable about broadband, and yet he immediately knew about BTOP. It's when I asked him what he does that I learned he works in the Commerce Department, which explained how he knew about BTOP.

But probing a little further, I found out that while he didn't work directly for NTIA, he had been a witness to what had happened during the BTOP program.

We shared a quick back-and-forth about how we both thought NTIA had some good people working over there who were put into an impossible situation. I mean, how are a couple dozen people supposed to properly distributed four billion dollars in a year and a half with limited institutional wherewithal related to a grant program of this size?

Then things got interesting: he admitted that NTIA was basically in crisis management mode and that he had been asked to step in and help review grant applications because he had had experience as a grant reviewer previously.

I had to ask him straight out: does he know anything about broadband? And he candidly admitted that he doesn't.

He seemed like a bright, nice guy, but I'm not even sure he knows the difference between different broadband technologies. He's a self-described finance guy, and yet he had no awareness about the business models of broadband before reviewing these applications.

While I know each BTOP application was supposed to be reviewed by multiple reviewers, and hopefully the ones with less knowledge like him were put onto teams that had a lot more knowledge, I still can't help but be disappointed by this confirmation of my fears.

The greatest complaint that I picked up from everyone I knew who applied for BTOP money is that it didn't seem like NTIA truly understood the business models that were submitted to them. In particular, many with the most advanced, creative models felt like their applications had been dismissed for being overly complicated.

Well if some portion of NTIA's reviewers were just numbers guys, with no nuanced understanding of the business of broadband, wouldn't it make sense that the result of this would be the likelihood that the simplest models won out over the most complex?

What's most frustrating about this is that it suggests that because of the limitations of its reviewers, NTIA likely missed an opportunity to identify and support the most innovative models for broadband deployment.

Any application that appeared overly complex likely didn't get a fair consideration as its reviewers may not have fully understood what they were reading.

And another unintended consequence of this is that if your reviewers don't know broadband and can only rate applications based on NTIA's scoring criteria, then what you create is an environment where the projects that get funded aren't necessarily the best but rather are the projects with the most well completed applications.

I, for one, would have much preferred NTIA picked the best projects with the most innovative models rather than the projects that had the simplest models and the best paperwork.

Unfortunately, we can't turn back the clock on the broadband stimulus. Luckily, the sense I get is that NTIA has been able to step up its game in the second round. And since the bulk of the money's being given out in this second round, hopefully we haven't blown too much of an opportunity to get the greatest return on our investment in broadband.

But let this be a lesson for the future. Just because a government agency already exists and has some experience giving out money for broadband does not necessarily mean they're prepared to manage an exponential increase in available funds.

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Comments (1)

Why is it that private businesses (small business land-line operations and WISP's) have seen little to no help from the BTOP. The requirements and paper work are so convoluted and complex, that a small company that really does create more jobs, gets no assistance. However, if you are part of a state operated municipality or a state regulated Rural COOP, you can get plenty of help and money.

It strikes me as strange that, REAL job creation is stifled, but expanding government control (whether Federal or State) is what the money is really going to support,

Posted by Roy McMillan on July 21, 2010 12:01 PM

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