A Wide Landscape of Funding
The digital divide has been closing over the past decade, with help from a range of federal funding programs aimed at extending broadband services to underserved areas of the country. Along the way, of course, technologies have become more bandwidth-intensive, which has also moved the goalposts on what are considered minimally adequate levels of connectivity, creating a cycle of growth in capacity followed by a growth in demand for more capacity.
This need to continuously upgrade infrastructure capacity to accommodate an ever-evolving demand for bandwidth has been especially challenging in areas where bandwidth expansion is not economically feasible without government assistance or where the capacity requirements are abnormally large, such as for telehealth or university research applications. But a lack of funding shouldn’t be an excuse for a failure to make these types of projects a reality and provide better connectivity to everyone.
The sheer number of broadband-friendly grant programs is partly to blame for the fact that the landscape of funding can be intimidating. So, before you start thinking about how much funding you want or where to go to find it, it’ll help to consider how and where you want to expand broadband services and what these services will enable customer and stakeholders to do. Then you can start looking into the funding opportunities that can help make those more concrete plans a reality.
Most funding for broadband expansion comes from just two types of sources: federal and state agencies, and it falls into three broad categories:
- Research and development
- Infrastructure development and expansion
- Devices and connectivity
Research and Development
The National Science Foundation supports most of the federally funded university broadband R&D in the country. These research programs fall into two broad categories: basic research and translational research.
Basic research is in developing a fundamental understanding of the phenomena that could be further developed, and not taking into consideration the ultimate end-use of their research. Aside from university Ph.D. researchers, this type of funding is likely to be of interest outside the ivory tower, particularly in the near term.
Translational research moves an idea past the basic discovery stage towards and through proof-of-concept. This type of research is applicable to a much broader group of stakeholders in both the public and private sectors. It can take many forms but often leads to the development of technology platforms and engineered systems, requires the integration of multiple disciplines, and is developed in collaboration with industry or other practitioners.
Translational research is intended to be commercializable, the idea being that the research provides a platform for technology development, with later stages (proof of concept, product development, and full commercialization) funded through private capital markets and deployed by private companies outside universities.
Infrastructure Development and Expansion
Both federal and state agencies have grant programs that support broadband expansion, as most service providers would define it. This funding is focused primarily on underserved areas, but not all funders define underserved in the same way. Further, while many of the grant programs in this area are focused on extending connectivity to rural areas, there are many that focus on more densely populated areas as well – to increase speeds available in business districts, for example, or to provide faster improve connectivity in public housing campuses.
These programs generally allow for private for-profit service providers to apply for funding alongside municipal networks, with the emphasis being on the capacity of the winning applicant to provide robust, reliable service, rather than on whether the organization is privately or publicly owned.
The flexibility afforded by most broadband funding programs also encourages providers to explore public-private partnership options that may enable, for example, both municipal and private offerings to achieve economies of scale by combining networks and customer service capacity while serving discrete geographic areas of a state or region.
The Big Federal Broadband Programs
As you can see from this article, there are a lot of grants that fund broadband expansion, but there are a couple worth special note that represent the lion’s share of pure broadband expansion funding.
The $660 million USDA ReConnect program focuses on rural areas of the country and awards extra points to competitive applications for projects service the least dense rural areas, farms, businesses, healthcare centers, educational facilities, critical community facilities, and tribal lands. It also takes into account the speeds that will be offered, as well as the work the state in which the project will sited has done to lay the regulatory and planning groundwork to encourage broadband build-out. These added points are especially important for ReConnect applications, since the program is extremely competitive.
The FCC’s $16 billion RDOF Phase I auction, while not technically a grant program, will provide significant resources to service providers to expand services to unserved and underserved census blocks across the country. Rather than awarding the funding based on an application, as you would typically see in a grant, these awards will be based on the results of a reverse auction process that will fund service providers who are able to commit to serving specified areas with the least amount of federal support.
For more useful information on grants and other funding for broadband, check out our whitepaper, Making Your RDOF Bid Count!
Devices and Connectivity
Bridging the digital divide with expanded broadband capacity is only useful to municipal, educational, and healthcare institutions in a community if they can also leverage that connectivity to better meet their organizational objectives and improve services to their communities and stakeholders. Grant funding that supports devices and connectivity helps these organizations make the most of technology and broadband access by funding end-user devices, software, custom development, and intranet build-outs as well.
Beyond just making more robust internet services available to citizens, and the local and regional economic development that accompanies better bandwidth access, communities can leverage these more programmatic grant opportunities to improve situational awareness for public safety, provide access to healthcare specialists through telemedicine applications, and enhance and expand course offerings and access to educational opportunities for all levels of education and workforce development.
Take Small Steps Toward Big Dividends
Together, these programs represent tens of billions of dollars in grant funding. But you don’t have to access all of them to reap the benefits of broadband funding. Focusing in on one or two grant programs that fit best with your community’s needs and circumstances can pay big dividends.
If you’re feeling stuck with too many good options, try starting with the most localized or least competitive programs. The contacts associated with smaller grant programs are usually quite responsive and can help walk you through the process and help you gain experience that you can use as you prepare to approach the bigger, more competitive programs.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for even more grant programs that you can apply to, you may also be able to access grant programs that you aren’t directly eligible for by partnering with an eligible organization to develop a collaborative proposal that will allow you to participate in the project and the grant award.
The landscape of funding for broadband development is expansive, and the demand for connectivity certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing. And no matter what experience you’ve had with grantseeking in the past, there’s never been a better time to make use of all the resources that can help everyone make the most of technology into the future.
Top Funding Sources
The following is a survey of some of the most prominent grant opportunities that fund a range of different recipients to conduct R&D, expand and develop broadband access, and leverage improved connectivity to improve service delivery for Americans.
Service Providers – Including Municipal Service Providers
Colleges and Universities – Broadband R&D
Colleges and Universities – Devices and Connectivity
|Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*)||Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program (DLT)||Wyoming Distance Education Grant (DEG)|
Colleges and Universities – including, in most cases, municipal service providers
Schools and Libraries – Devices and Connectivity
Healthcare Institutions – Devices and Telehealth Applications
Local Governments – Broadband Expansion