Where Will $4.7B in Broadband Bucks Go? You Decide!

imagesHow would you like to help determine which projects will receive some of the $4.7 billion in federal funds allocated for broadband improvement around the country? Well, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has the job for you — as a volunteer grant reviewer. That’s right, when the government wants to give out $4.7 billion (only $1.6 billion in this first round) in 14 months it has to cut some corners to make sure it can handle the load. That means bringing on citizens to review grant applications. From the letter calling for volunteers:

As a reviewer, your evaluations will be an important factor considered by NTIA in determining whether to award grant funding. To be considered as a reviewer you must have significant expertise and experience in at least one of the following areas: 1) the design, funding, construction, and operation of broadband networks or public computer centers; 2) broadband-related outreach, training, or education; and 3) innovative programs to increase the demand for broadband services. In addition you must agree to comply with Department of Commerce policies on conflict of interest and confidentiality.

Presumably the Department of Commerce policies on conflicts of interest and confidentiality excludes folks working for projects or private firms that are applying for grants. That’s good, but it probably disqualifies a lot of educated volunteers. An NTIA spokesman said the org uses volunteers to review applications for many of its grant programs, and stressed that reviewers don’t decide if the project is funded or not. Regardless, I have a lot of questions about how the process works, mainly as to the scope of a volunteer’s responsibility. Are they matching application items against a checklist, scoring items against a set list, or will they be make their own value judgments? The Department of Agriculture, which is giving out $2.5 billion, will not use volunteer reviewers.

If the NTIA gets back to me on these questions I’ll update the story. In case any of you guys are interested, I also asked how many people the program will need and how much of a time commitment it will take. You can also email the NTIA your own questions about this process at BTOPReviewers@ntia.doc.gov. If anyone steps up, all I ask is that you help spend my taxpayer dollars wisely when it comes to delivering broadband.

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