Doug Dawson is on the frontlines of building broadband; he understands funding and policy from the most pragmatic perspective. Hence, his call to make broadband grant applications public …
Most broadband grant programs do not publish open grant applications for the public to see. But we are in a time when an ISP that is awarded funding for bringing a new broadband network is likely to become the near-monopoly ISP in a rural area for a decade or two to come. The public ought to get to see who is proposing to bring them broadband so that these decisions are not made behind closed doors.
He gives a specific example, but I think in Minnesota one that comes to mind is LTD Broadband. They applied for RDOF grants. They won the sole opportunity to submit long for applications. Nearly two years later, the funds have not yet been awarded and the proposed communities have bee stuck in a limbo where nothing else has been happening to improve their situation. Some of the communities (notably Le Sueur County) has questioned the ability of LTD to provide the service they claim to be able to achieve for the price; Le Sueur has done feasibility studies and their costs were much higher than LTD’s. Now maybe LTD has a new way or maybe they have been too optimistic in bidding. But before the money is awarded would be a good time to know what’s happening.
But as Doug, says it’s not about the specifics, it’s about the process and a possible early warning system and planning for the future…
The point of today’s blog is that allowing the public to see grant requests can prompt interesting observations and questions like the ones sent to me. Certainly, not all public input will be valid, but there can be issues raised by the public that a grant office might not otherwise hear.
I’m a terrible shopper. I don’t try on the dress before I buy. Every 6 months, I come home with single-ply toilet paper because I forgot to read the small print. But when we are spending real money – as we are with these tax-backed grants, I take the time. Broadband is integral to education, healthcare and economic development. We need to be good shoppers or communities will suffer the consequences for generations.
Letting the public see grant requests is also a way to fact-check ISPs. Most states will tell you that the folks reviewing broadband grants often don’t have a lot of experience with the inner workings of ISPs. This means that it is easy for an ISP to snow a grant reviewer with misleading statements that an experienced reviewer would catch immediately. ISPs will be less likely to make misleading claims if they think the public will call them out and threaten the chances of winning the grant.
I know that publishing grant requests can open a whole new can of worms and extra work for a grant office. But I think the extra public scrutiny is healthy. I would think a grant office would want to know if false or misleading claims are made in a grant request. On the flip side, a grant office will benefit by knowing if the public strongly supports a grant request. Shining light on the grant process should be overall a positive thing. It’s a good check against awarding grants that aren’t deserved. But it’s also a way to make sure that grant offices are being fair when picking winners.