2 federal grant requests denied in first round of Big Broadband action

Local broadband officials are hoping two federal grants to support the Big Broadband project will be redeemed in a second round of funding after they were denied in the first.

But without those two support grants, some officials say the high-speed Internet infrastructure, already being questioned by some elected representatives, could be less effective than they originally planned.

Last year, the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois applied for three grants, all aimed at bringing high-speed Internet access to residents of "underserved" neighborhoods – areas where 40 percent or less of inhabitants have access.

Two of those grants have since been denied by the federal government: one that would have set up public computing centers and another that would give computers and computer skills to residents. The latter of those two is called the "sustainable broadband adoption."

"Putting a high-speed Internet connection to your home is useful, but it's a lot more useful when you know what to do with it," said Mike Smeltzer, director of networking for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services.

The third and largest request, $24.3 million for the construction of the broadband infrastructure, is still alive, and officials expect to hear of its fate soon. In total, the consortium applied for more than $28 million in federal grants.

Whether or not the infrastructure grant is less effective provokes a two-sided response from UI professor Abdul Alkalimat, who was the lead writer for the two support grant applications in round one.

"Schools, libraries, police department, fire department and so on, they all have connectivity now," Alkalimat said. "What (the infrastructure grant) is doing is giving them better connectivity and cheaper."

But then there is the rest of the population, Alkalimat said, outside of the 137 "anchor institutions" that would be directly connected to the high-speed Internet.

"The actual take-up of broadband by the population, the users of the library, the parents of the students going to school, that is not touched at all by the infrastructure grant," Alkalimat said.

All of the grants are intended to reach "vulnerable populations," a term the federal government uses to describe low-income neighborhoods susceptible to economic stress.

Most of the people – 60 percent or more – in the 11 areas specifically targeted by the grants do not have Internet access.

"I guess the biggest concern is that the (sustainable broadband adoption) grant was going to put computers in a lot of the homes that don't have them," said Mike Monson, chief of staff in the Urbana mayor's office.

The financial sustainability of the proposal depends on the number of people it reaches. Monson said that penetration rate could be weakened if the consortium does not receive federal funds for the two smaller grants.

"The grant assumes 54 percent penetration rate, which is a really optimistic assumption," Monson said Monday. "To hit that number you really need everything working right."

A Maryland consultant who audited the project said in a January report that the program could face a significant cash shortfall if it does not reach its target penetration rate. That cost would be shouldered by local governments, which already are facing tight budgets.

The city councils in Champaign and Urbana have yet to confirm their commitment to the Big Broadband proposal, and Monson said the federal grant denials could hurt the acceptance among local representatives.

"It could make them a little more questioning of it, just for the fact that it's going to be harder to reach break-even," Monson said.

The two councils will have to vote to appropriate local matching money to the project, prices originally tagged as $1 million for Champaign and $555,000 for Urbana.

But those totals would be less without funding for public computing centers and free computers, Smeltzer said.

"In a strange way, it may actually help them" be more accepting of the project, Smeltzer said Monday. Champaign's contribution would be $400,000 less if the two smaller grants are not funded, and Urbana's would be $200,000 less.

Organizers have been developing their round two applications for weeks, and the new proposals will be scaled back, lowering their per capita costs, Smeltzer said.

After examining the proposals that the federal government accepted in the first round, Smeltzer said those per capita costs "tended to be on the high side" for the local proposal.

And as officials continue waiting out the federal decision, the whole issue could be moot if all or none of the three requests are funded.

"It's not given that they won't be funded in round two, so I don't want to give up hope on that," Smeltzer said.

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