Broadband stimulus funds draw lots of requests

The federal government has received more than 2,200 applications asking for $28 billion in stimulus funding for new broadband projects across the USA.

The avalanche of applications has eased concerns that there might not be much interest in the program, which is aimed at driving deployment of high-speed Internet access in underserved areas.

But the government has only $4 billion to dole out right now and just two weeks to decide which projects should be considered. The program, ordered by Congress, will eventually hand out $7.2 billion.

It is being overseen by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

NTIA did not release any data about proposals but says it plans to post brief summaries "in the coming weeks."

Applications run the gamut: One applicant wants to run fiber-optic lines directly to homes in a rural community in Idaho; another is pitching a public computing center with the goal of educating people about the value of broadband in day-to-day life. Both applications were developed with help from Baller Herbst Law Group.

The crush of responses is proof that the sagging U.S. economy hasn't dulled interest in broadband projects, says Jim Baller, a principal in the Washington, D.C.-based firm. All the thinking reflected in submissions "has put our country two to three years ahead of where we would have been otherwise," he says.

Evaluating submissions could prove challenging. Applications can run 500 pages or more. The short time line doesn't help, says Paul Glenchur, a regulatory analyst at Potomac Research Group. It's unclear "if the government can efficiently manage this program," he says.

Tom Power, chief of staff at NTIA, says the agencies are prepared. "We've got to do it fast, and do it right," he says.

According to NTIA, applications were submitted by a wide range of broadband hopefuls, including state, local and tribal governments. Non-profits, libraries, hospitals and public safety groups also applied. So did rural phone carriers.

Evaluations are being handled by a mix of government and non-government personnel, as well as outside consultants. NTIA is using Booz Allen; RUS is using ICF.

Both agencies are using volunteers to help out. Power says volunteers must sign a document stating that they have no conflicts of interest — such as stock holdings — that could influence their judgment.