Updated: NTIA relying on volunteers to evaluate broadband grant proposals

See update at the end

The National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) is putting billions of tax dollars into the hands of volunteers.

You heard it right. The agency, which is in charge of doling out the majority of stimulus money ($4.7 billion) going for broadband, is looking for people who are willing to work for free to serve as panelists to evaluate all of the grant proposals that are expected to flood the agency's office starting July 14.

Do you have a lot of time on your hands, can do without getting paid and feel a civic duty to help out the federal government? According to the NTIA's call for volunteers, you must have significant expertise in at least one of the following areas:

  • the design, funding, construction and operation of broadband networks or public computer centers;
  • broadband-related outreach, training or education;
  • innovative programs to increase the demand for broadband services

Tell me how someone with expertise in innovative programs to increase the demand for broadband services understands why one broadband technology may be a better fit than another? Or whether a network's cost is really reasonable or will perform the way the grant proposal says it will? We in the industry know there is a big difference between theoretical broadband speeds and real world speeds.

It appears that in the NTIA's haste to get this money out the door to stimulate the economy, it left the door open for massive fraud and misuse of funds. As Successful.com's Craig Settles points out, given the short window of time for reviewing and approving grants and the sheer volume of money, it will be impossible for the NTIA to regulate quality control.

NTIA says these volunteers must agree to comply with the Department of Commerce policies on conflict of interest and confidentiality, but how will NTIA keep these volunteers from getting paid under the table? The situation reminds me of all of those supposed independent engineers that used to attend standards body meetings but were actually paid by particular vendors to vote a particular way. (The IEEE tightened those rules a while back, by the way).

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of giving out $2.5 billion of the stimulus money, won't be using volunteers. It will use its current staff and actually hire more people to review the proposals. And while the agency's people are getting paid, they have still been tripped up by a U.S.D.A. inspector general audit. The audit found that RUS continues to give loans to areas already served by broadband and to major communities. 

The RUS program also faced tough criticism in 2005 when auditors then found irregularities with a quarter of the funds the program issued in its first four years of operation. In one instance, the RUS program loaned $45 million to wire wealthy subdivisions in the Houston suburbs.

"We remain concerned with RUS' current direction of the broadband program, particularly as they receive greater funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act," Assistant Inspector General Robert W. Young wrote. "RUS' broadband program may not meet the Recovery Act's objective of awarding funds to projects that provide service to the most rural residents that do not have access to broadband service."

Can we expect much better from a hastily constructed group of volunteers who are given a brief amount of training?--Lynnette

Update: I need to clarify that volunteers will be in charge of vetting these applications in the first round and passing them on to paid staff for final selection. However, there is some confusion about how "technical" these volunteers can be. Some say according to the 120-page rules, that volunteers are segmented in the above three categories and allowed to make recommendations based on their expertise. Others understand it to be from attending NTIA workshops that volunteers are reviewing the actual proposals in their entirety based on a check list before passing them on. Either way, the NTIA said in its call for volunteer reviewers that their evaluations will be an important factor considered by NTIA in determining whether to award grand funding. So it's an important issue to be critical about. Here's a link to the call for volunteers.

Updated July 9