Minority Groups Target Grant Guidelines

Say NTIA and RUS loans contain "structural deficiencies" that hurt chance of achieving universal broadband

Minority advocacy groups have taken issue with the guidelines for grant and loan money being handed out by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the Agricultural Department's Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

In a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce dated July 14, representatives of the NAACP, Urban League, and others said that they contain "structural deficiencies" that diminish their effectiveness in achieving universal broadband, chiefly that they do not provide sufficient broadband opportunities for small disadvantaged businesses (SDBs).

Among those deficiencies, they say, are not enough attention to race, ethnicity and poverty in defining unserved and underserved areas and in coming up with the point system and eligibility requirements that includes speed and quality of service.

"The NOFA [notice of funds availability] discourages participation of SDBs," they argue, and "does not address recommendations designed to ensure that minority groups have access to robust and affordable broadband service."

They say the guidelines lack safeguards against unconscious bias in review and grant procedures,

The groups call for a host of changes to the guidelines, including changing the definition of underserved area to include where prices are "prohibitive" or service offerings are "undesirable," which would include insufficient speeds; 2) making SDB status or partnership with an SDB or "established connections" with an SDB a requisite of eligibility for the funds, where possible; 3) giving equal weight to affordability and speed when giving extra points to bidders; 4) matching-fund waivers--bidders must put up some portion of the price of their project--should include for groups serving vulnerable population so long as they meet the hardship criteria; 5) loan and grant reviews should be conducted by as diverse a panel as possible; 6) extra points should be given for infrastructure projects that are tied to "sustainable adoption projects."

The Broadband Opportunities Coalition comprises NAACP, National Urban League, National Council of La Raza, the Asian American Justice System, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

NTIA and RUS began accepting bids July 14, with those bids--the first of three planned rounds of bidding on the $7.2 billion in funds--due in by Aug. 14.