Regulation - What is it Good For?

Federal Broadband Coordination

The White House is now requiring that the three agencies that are involved with broadband funding – the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – to share information about broadband funding.

The agencies have agreed to share the following information about any location that is receiving or is under consideration for federal broadband funding:

  • Every ISP serving in the area
  • Description of broadband technology and speeds being delivered for each ISP
  • Maps showing the geographic coverage of ISPs
  • Identity and details of any ISP that has received or will receive broadband funds from any of the three agencies.

This kind of coordination seems vital in the current environment and where all three agencies are awarding sizable grants. It’s not hard to imagine having different ISPs seeking grants from different federal grant programs to serve the same geographic areas.

But then what happens? Will two agencies collaborate to decide which grant program will make the award? That would add another layer of complexity to grants if a grant application filed with one agency is suddenly conflicting with a grant request at another agency. Will ISPs be informed if discussions are happening behind the scenes between agencies concerning a grant request?

This also raises the issue of different agencies having significantly different grant requirements. We’re already seeing differences among grants in terms of identifying areas that are eligible for grant awards, different definitions of qualifying broadband speeds, different lists of technologies that will or won’t be funded, etc. How can the agencies collaborate if grants trying to serve the same area are following different grant rules? For example, what does collaboration mean when grants at one agency allow for wireless technologies when grants at another agency don’t?

One of the most troublesome aspects of this arrangement is that the agencies are going to share information on existing broadband speeds and coverage. The whole industry understands that the FCC’s database for this data is often badly flawed. Some grant programs today are open to examining facts that prove the errors in the FCC mapping data – but will the FCC be open to having its data challenged by a grant request filed with a different agency?  For collaboration to be effective, all three agencies have to be working with the same set of facts.

One of the oddest aspects of this collaborative effort is that it’s only required to last two years and any of the three agencies is free after that to end the collaboration. That makes it sound like somebody doesn’t think this is going to work.

The collaboration sounds like a worthwhile effort if the agencies can work together effectively. But it’s not hard to imagine the collaborative effort adding complexity and possibly even paralysis when considering multiple grants for the same location. How will the three agencies resolve differences between grant programs? My biggest fear is that this effort will add paperwork and time to the grant process without improving the process.

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