H.R. 1 -- The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- contains over 7 billion dollars in grant funding earmarked for innovative projects leading to better broadband connectivity in underserved areas. Schools and libraries, together with hospitals and political subdivisions, are specifically mentioned in the bill as likely partners and grant recipients.

The Broadband Technology Opportunity Program. The Act gives the Department of Commerce, through the existing National Telecommunications and Information Agency, the responsibility for allocating approximately 4.7 Billion Dollars of grant funds for broadband. Currently, the Department is holding public meetings, which will end on March 24, to gather input on how the grants will be administered and what criteria will be used in selection.

Of these funds, the largest portion will be available for innovative programs that encourage sustainable adoption of broadband services; at least $200 million will be available to upgrade technology and capacity at public computing centers, including schools, community colleges and public libraries. Up to $350 million of the BTOP funding is designated for the development and maintenance of statewide broadband inventory maps.

Public entities and non-profit organizations are automatically eligible to submit projects. For the first time, certain private infrastructure and service providers may also submit projects. Although the exact parameters of the grant program are still being considered in light of public input, the Department has announced that there will be three rounds of funding - one upcoming in April/May, one in October/November, and a final round in April 2010, and that there would be an effort to distribute the available funding equitably over the three rounds.

In the public meetings to date, Department and NTIA officials have stated their intention to consider the "best and brightest" of the grant proposals received. They have indicated that although they intend to work with and consult the states, they do not consider that to be the only avenue of funding. As with most of the stimulus projects, a 20% local match will be required. That match may, depending on the Department's design of the program, be able to include the value of rights--of--way or equipment.

Given the incredibly short timeframe to create the program and fund the first round of grants, the Department has advised that discussions between interested parties begin immediately. For projects involving multiple public entities, counsel will be necessary to create the needed governing structures and to consult on public financing or other arrangements necessary to accomplish the match.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Utilities Service Grants. Another provision of the Recovery Act earmarks 2.5 Billion Dollars to expand the USDA's program of loans, loan guarantees and grants to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas. The USDA has teamed with NTIA in holding the public meetings, and in all ways seems to be coordinating schedules and processes with the Department of Commerce.

What will be different about these grants is the definition of "rurality" and "extreme rurality" that will make certain grant and loan applications more suited to one program than the other. There is some indication from the discussion at the public meetings that interested parties can submit one application that will be placed in the proper program if fundable.

At the moment, details of both these programs have not been decided. When they are, a summary will be posted on this site. What is clear in both programs, however, is that they are on a fast track - and interested parties need to be talking immediately about potential partnerships and projects. Counsel can help with governance ideas, funding strategies, and with projecting requirements and needed safeguards for those operating Federal grants under the new, tougher oversight announced by the Administration and funded by the Act itself.

Note that both these broadband connectivity programs are in addition to the educational technology funding announced in a separate part of the Recovery Act!