U.S. agencies extend broadband grant application deadline

The number of organizations applying for broadband deployment grants and loans from two U.S. federal agencies has overloaded the agencies' servers and prompted them to extend the application deadline by six days.

Companies and other organizations applying for broadband grants over the Internet have experienced "server delays" in recent days, said Mark Tolbert, acting broadband communications director with the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The original deadline for applying for a first round of broadband grants was Friday, but the NTIA and the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS) have extended the deadline until Aug. 20 for those organizations that have online applications in progress by Friday. No new applications will be accepted after Friday.

"We decided that [the extension] was necessary to make sure that there was appropriate time for applicants to complete their forms," Tolbert said.

The NTIA and RUS have added servers to address the load of applications, Tolbert said.

"Due to the volume of potential applicants using the online application system, the system is moving more slowly than we would like," the two agencies said in a joint statement. "We are taking steps to address this, but we also thought a limited extension of the application deadline would be fair to the public."

Under a huge economic stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress earlier this year, the NTIA and RUS are tasked with distributing about $7.2 billion in broadband deployment grants and loans over the next 14 months, including $4 billion in this first funding round. The winners of the first round are scheduled to be announced in November.

Craig Settles, a telecom consultant and president of Successful.com, suggested the two agencies could have extended the deadline earlier. In a July poll on Settles' blog, 42% of respondents said they intended to apply for broadband money but didn't think they could meet the deadline.

"This isn't about people failing to start their planning in February when the stimulus bill passed," Settles said in an e-mail. "The problem is the complexity and length of the information requested, compounded by the agencies eliminating the original 30-day comment period we were to have to review the rules, get clarifications, request changes, etc., before an application filing period of 30 or 60 days. People ended up having a little over 30 days total to do everything."

The agencies should consider allowing organizations to send their applications by paper or in a PDF file, instead of using the Web-based application, Settles added.

"I believe that the inner workings of the various agencies that the new [Barack Obama] administration inherited needs to be forcefully awakened -- which they probably have already -- to the fact that many of these programs the president is introducing are going to be wildly popular, such as Cash for Clunkers and broadband stimulus," he said. "Given this, the computing infrastructures need rapid upgrading to handle these surges of demand from the public for information, to submit applications, and so forth."

Meanwhile, Qwest Communications International, a major broadband provider in the rural western U.S., said this week it would not apply for the first round of broadband grants.

"We continue to support the use of program proceeds to facilitate the deployment of broadband services to unserved consumers," the company said in a statement. "However, upon evaluation of the funding opportunity and the various requirements for participation, we were unable to make the business case for filing an application for more rural opportunities."

Qwest may apply in future rounds, the company said.

The telecom carrier didn't explain what requirements it objected to, but other carriers have spoken out against net neutrality rules that both agencies have included. The NTIA and RUS will require that grant applicants "not favor any lawful Internet applications or content over others," according to a funding notice released July 1.

Applicants can deploy nondiscriminatory network management methods, and they can offer managed services that use private connections, such as telemedicine, public safety communications and distance learning, the notice said.

Telecom carriers have also objected to several other pieces of the funding notice, including the agencies supposedly favoring applicants offering slower wireless connections over faster wireline connections.

RUS is waiting to see what other applicants will aim to provide broadband to the rural Mountain West, said Bartel Kendrick, a spokesman for the agency. "It's unfortunate that they chose not to apply, but that's their choice," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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