Please Make Grant Applications Public

Most broadband grant programs do not publish open grant applications for the public to see. But we are in a time when an ISP that is awarded funding for bringing a new broadband network is likely to become the near-monopoly ISP in a rural area for a decade or two to come. The public ought to get to see who is proposing to bring them broadband so that these decisions are not made behind closed doors.

One of the interesting things about writing this blog is that people send me things that I likely would never see on my own. It turns out that the Nebraska Public Service Commission posts grant applications online. I think that every agency awarding last-mile grant funding should be doing the same.

The particular grant application that hit my inbox is from AMG Technology Investment Group (Nextlink Internet). This grant seems to be asking for state funding in the same or nearby areas where Nextlink won the RDOF auction. The FCC hasn’t yet made that RDOF award to Nextlink almost 20 months later.

The person who sent me the grant application wanted to point out inconsistencies and that the application didn’t seem to be complete. I’m not sure that’s unusual. One state grant office told me recently that they outright reject about half of all grant applications for being incomplete. The email to me included a number of complaints. For example, they thought there is an inconsistency since this grant asks to fund a 100/100 Mbps network when the speed promised for RDOF was symmetrical gigabit. They were dismayed that the grant application didn’t include a specific network design.

The point of this blog is not to concentrate on this particular grant application but to point out that letting the public see grants can raise the kind of questions that ended up in my inbox. I have no knowledge of the Nebraska PSC grant program or its processes. The PSC might routinely ask a grant applicant to fill in any missing gaps, and for all I know, they may have already asked questions of Nextlink. The point of today’s blog is that allowing the public to see grant requests can prompt interesting observations and questions like the ones sent to me. Certainly, not all public input will be valid, but there can be issues raised by the public that a grant office might not otherwise hear.

I’d like to praise the Nebraska PSC for putting the grant application online. In most state grant programs, the broadband grant requests are never shown to the public – even after they are awarded. At most, grant offices might publish a paragraph or two from the executive summary of a grant request.

I talked to several grant offices about this issue, and they told me that they are not comfortable disclosing financial information about a grant applicant. That’s a valid concern, but a grant application can easily be structured so that financial information is in a separate attachment that could be kept confidential if requested by the applicant. I would note that some grant applicants I work with like electric cooperatives would welcome disclosing everything as a way to compare them with other applicants.

I don’t think there is any question that the public wants to see grant requests from the companies that are vying to become the new dominant ISP in the community. Communities ought to have a chance to weigh in against an ISP they don’t want, against a technology they don’t want, or to weigh-in in favor of a particular ISP if there are multiple ISPs asking for funds for the same geographic footprint.

Letting the public see grant requests is also a way to fact-check ISPs. Most states will tell you that the folks reviewing broadband grants often don’t have a lot of experience with the inner workings of ISPs. This means that it is easy for an ISP to snow a grant reviewer with misleading statements that an experienced reviewer would catch immediately. ISPs will be less likely to make misleading claims if they think the public will call them out and threaten the chances of winning the grant.

I know that publishing grant requests can open a whole new can of worms and extra work for a grant office. But I think the extra public scrutiny is healthy. I would think a grant office would want to know if false or misleading claims are made in a grant request. On the flip side, a grant office will benefit by knowing if the public strongly supports a grant request. Shining light on the grant process should be overall a positive thing. It’s a good check against awarding grants that aren’t deserved. But it’s also a way to make sure that grant offices are being fair when picking winners.