2009 Year in Review: Broadband stimulus applications flood government agencies

The news: This past summer, nearly 2,200 bidders applied for almost $28 billion in broadband stimulus money from both the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture's RUS fund. That is nearly seven times the $4 billion available for the program in the first round.

The bidders committed another $10.5 billion of their own money in matching funds, which means all of these bidders came forward with more than $38 billion in proposed projects. The statistics show more than 320 applicants sought nearly $2.5 billion for broadband awareness, training, access and support. Another 360 applications asked for a total of $1.9 billion for computer centers to expand broadband access. The remainder wanted funding for infrastructure projects.

Applications came in from a diverse range of parties including state, local, and tribal governments; nonprofits; industry; anchor institutions, such as libraries, universities, community colleges, and hospitals; public safety organizations; and other entities in rural, suburban, and urban areas, NTIA said.

Last week, Joe Biden announced the recipients of $182 million of the grants and effectively delayed the announcement of the majority of the grants from this month until March 2010. The government also committed to announce a total of $2 billion project awards within 75 days.

The first round of awards was previously delayed from Nov. 7 until December and was originally expected to total $4 billion. The timeline for awards continues to slide as both the NTIA and RUS are understaffed to handle the sheer volume of applications. The remaining $3.2 billion will be granted in a second round of applications, which is expected to happen later in 2010.

Why it was significant: The purpose of the broadband stimulus grants is to bridge the digital divide, spur the economy and create new jobs. Whether this will be accomplished remains to be seen. Most experts believe the $7.2 billion in funds won't be near enough to deploy truly universal broadband access. But perhaps more encouraging is the fact that so many proposals have a detailed business plan that may enable entities to get funding from a private source when the economy turns.