Federal and state governments’ responses to the coronavirus crisis have resulted in historic levels of funding for a wide range of initiatives. Given the prominent role of connectivity in most of the solutions to dealing with the pandemic – remote learning, remote working, telehealth, and other virtual services – new and expanded funding programs are also being launched to reduce disparities in access to robust internet capacity across the country.
The very diversity of these funding programs, in dollar amounts as well as in application processes and timelines, can present its own kind of barrier to grants-seekers who are looking to explore and maximize all the funding that is available. But each broadband grant and auction program has its own personality – characteristics that distinguish one from another. And with a little investigation and some self-reflection, you can choose the one or two grant programs that fit best with your vision, and that will ultimately be worth dedicating the time and resources that will be needed to apply.
Gather all the Programs Together
There are a number of helpful resources that have been published on the landscape of broadband funding. But many of the online resources are incomplete or out of date, so it’s important to check twice to make sure you’re getting good information.
The purpose of this stage is to gather, as completely as possible, all the options that are available to support broadband projects. Don’t worry too much about the specifics of each program at this point. Instead, search as extensively as you can for funding information that is:
- Timely – Grants information gets old fast because deadlines come and go in about six to eight weeks. And unlike most grant opportunities, many of the broadband programs (the $300 million Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants, for example) are not certain to be renewed in coming years. Old information may have you spending time considering a grant opportunity that has already passed, putting the program out of reach, or the next round far into the future.
- Inclusive – For most broadband projects, federal and state funding programs – including typical grant programs and reverse auction programs – make up the entire locus of opportunities, and you’ll want to be sure to include as many of these as possible. For some projects, foundation funding may also be relevant, but these are typically targeted nonprofit-led projects that provide a very specific form of support (workforce development services, for example) to a defined population.
- Useful – The Federal Electronic Clearinghouse at grants.gov has information on all federal grant programs, but the information it contains is limited and may not be sufficient to make a decision about a particular program. Databases like these are fine places to start, but it’s important to keep digging until you have found the most useful information about a program – funding levels, the complexity of the application process, technical requirements (if any), and the program’s targeting toward beneficiaries (users) of the funding and eligible applicants.
From the various formats in which you have collected the information, assemble it all together in a consistent document or spreadsheet that you can work with.
It’s worth noting that there is also no need to worry about engineering or systems architecture at this stage. Most funding programs are flexible in terms of how the projects are developed, for example, topographic and engineering considerations. They are more focused on why the funding is being made available in the first place, such as the programmatic parameters of each funding source (tribal broadband, rural broadband, urban economic development, broadband research, or the expansion of specific educational or healthcare applications to an underserved population).
With a complete picture of the funding that is available, you’ll be well-prepared to begin evaluating the opportunities to find the best fit for your project.
Most grants programs also provide guidance on the expected range of individual awards. In general, state programs will be smaller than federal programs, and foundation funding will be smaller still. If you haven’t done extensive development of your project budget (for an application to another funding program, for example), you may only have a general idea of how much funding your project needs. And that’s completely fine for this stage of evaluation. You’re only looking for funding amounts that match the rough order of magnitude you expect to need for your project. Is it $50,000 – $100,000 or $5 million – $10 million or somewhere in between?
Data on the overall funding amounts that are available for a program can be useful as well, as it can give you a clue as to how relatively competitive a program is. Programs with a total of $10 million are usually more competitive than programs with $1 billion to distribute.
Lastly, funding levels may come with a cost-sharing caveat, and it’s important to consider realistically what outside (local budget or investment) sources of funding you will be able to provide to the project. Limited capacity to match funding will reduce, but not eliminate, your funding options. The USDA’s Rural eConnectivity (ReConnect) Pilot Program, for example, has varying cost-sharing requirements, depending on the percent of households in the target service area that do not have sufficient broadband access.
Application requirements for broadband funding programs also range from a short paper to a multi-volume tome. And the complexity of the application process deserves consideration as you evaluate your options.
A few programs, like the Department of Commerce’s Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants, allow winners to recoup the cost of having an outside firm like Grants Office prepare the application, but most do not. And even if you’re using an outside grant writer to help, you’ll still be required to produce data and materials that the grant writer needs to include in the application.
No matter how you do it, developing a funding application – for a grant or an auction bid – takes time and resources, which is why it’s important to select only the most promising programs to apply to.
Technical requirements are usually stated as minimums – if they are stated at all. The Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants are looking for a minimum of 100/20 Mbps service levels, while the ReConnect program requires bandwidth offerings at 25/3 Mbps. The RDOF program has an entire rubric dedicated to awarding competitive priority for promised higher speeds.
Meeting these and other technical requirements may be feasible for your organization, while other requirements may not be. So, you’ll want to consider carefully and realistically what your capacity is before deciding to move forward with applying to a particular program.
Beneficiaries and Outcomes
Funding for federal and state programs has been appropriated by their respective legislatures because these political bodies are seeking to address a problem, capitalize on an opportunity, or produce a specific outcome. Funders often try to drive awards to those projects that best address these issues by awarding extra points to applications that meet their requirements. As with everything else we’ve discussed here, these criteria vary as well.
In some cases, these goals are technical. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), for example, gives preference in the bidding process to projects that will commit to delivering higher speeds and lower latency for users.
In other cases, preference might be given to project that meet programmatic goals. ReConnect gives extra points for applications that will support farms and community facilities, for example, among other priorities which are also favored with additional points in the review process.
These extra points serve both to improve the chances that the most preferred projects are selected and to encourage applicants to build these factors into their applications and subsequent implementation plans.
Look for the funders that most closely match your project without modification. As you develop the project more fully during your application, you’ll have an opportunity to tweak it to maximize the number of points (and competitive advantage) your proposal or bid is likely to receive.
Just because you aren’t directly eligible to receive an award from a particular grant program doesn’t mean you can’t participate as a member of a consortium led by an organization that is eligible. But as with the competing priorities we discussed above, fitting too square a peg into too round a hole will result in your application being less competitive than if you had applied to a more suitable program.
It’s best to look for programs that will fund organizations like yours, or at least organizations with whom you have a long-standing working relationship.
The Lowest Hanging Fruit
Choosing a funding program (or programs) that matches your intended project on these dimensions will not only make your applications more likely to be successful, it will also make the whole application development process more straightforward and authentic. And with the range of funding that is available for broadband projects right now, you’re bound to find a program that fits well – if you’re willing to do a little homework.