Author Archives: CTC Technology & Energy

MAY

19

States will play a key coordinating role for applications to NTIA’s Middle Mile Infrastructure Grant Program

NTIA’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) is out for the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program. Applications are due by September 30, 2022—but if you are an eligible non-State or non-Tribal Government applicant, you may have less time than you think to craft a winning grant application. That’s because the NOFO requires non-State and non-Tribal applicants to consult with their State Broadband Office or other coordinating entity[1]—which adds a layer of complexity to your process. We explain here how this requirement and others might affect your overall approach and strategy.

The timeline is tight—particularly for non-State and non-Tribal applicants. While we do not yet have an official opening date for the application period, NTIA noted during a webinar that applications are expected to be available in June. That gives applicants about three months—but State and Tribal entities may be a bit distracted during that time with the scramble over BEAD and State Digital Equity Planning fund program requirements. Add to the mix a five-year period of performance in the middle of a supply chain crunch (with a lot of other broadband programs pulling on resources), and non-State and non-Tribal applicants will have an even bigger job of ironing out coordination and strategy issues for their middle mile applications.

Non-State and non-Tribal entities should act now to ensure you have enough time to coordinate and get support from the State or Tribal entity and prepare your application materials to show how you have aligned with the state’s broadband policy priorities. We expect NTIA to release further guidance related to these consultations before it opens the application portal.

Note, too, that the middle mile program is explicitly meant as a complement to the Digital Equity and BEAD programs—so early coordination with your State or Tribal entity on middle mile may directly inform all three efforts.

The middle mile program will look favorably on creative partnerships, especially those necessary to reach unserved rural America. This preference for rural areas does not exclude urban communities, however, and the connection of both is an explicit program purpose.

NTIA expects to make awards ranging from $5 million to $100 million and is encouraging applications that reflect a diversity of project sizes. It will consider requests for funding outside of this range only with a “reasonable explanation” for the variance.

An applicant’s financial, technical, and managerial qualifications are important. Financial requirements include an Irrevocable Letter of Credit (ILOC) for 25 percent of the project cost. This implies a preference for financially well-established applicants.[2] Applicants must demonstrate additional financial, managerial, and technical qualifications, plus provide matching for 30 percent of the project cost either in cash or with “in-kind” assets.[3]

Consider connections to anchor institutions. Project proposals must include direct interconnections to “facilitate the provision of broadband service, at speeds not less than 1 Gigabit per second for downloads and 1 Gigabit per second uploads to anchor institutions located within 1,000 feet of the middle mile infrastructure” (NOFO, p. 14). The definition of anchor institutions allows for a bit of flexibility, however. A state or other eligible entity could petition the NTIA to include not-yet-included anchor institutions (such as a religious institution, for example) if the applicant can show that the organization will facilitate greater use of broadband service by vulnerable populations.

Craft your application to align with NTIA’s application review process and maximize your score. Applications that score highly during the merit review will move forward to a programmatic review, where the application will be evaluated across eight stated program priorities. Applications will be ranked by their weighted scores—and funding will be awarded in rank order until the funds are depleted.

Assigned points and weighted scores will consider the application’s geographic diversity/location and the size of the funding request. NTIA has the discretion to fund applications that were not ultimately recommended through the formal review process or vice versa.

Demonstrate your project’s strong labor standards, fiscal sustainability, network interconnections, and climate resilience. These are key factors in NTIA’s review process. To this end, application materials must include:

  • Demonstration of the project’s climate resilience
  • Demonstration of the project’s purpose and need
    • Demonstration of demand for middle mile services, including letters of intent and agreements with last mile service providers
    • Information on anchor institutions, socio-economic indicators of the project area, and identification of unserved areas
    • Description of nondiscrimination and interconnection plans with reasonable rates and terms
  • Demonstration of the project’s highly skilled workforce plan, including a description of sector-based partnerships, the creation of equitable jobs, the maintenance of job quality, and other equitable workforce and job quality initiatives and practices
  • A written plan assuring compliance with labor standards, including:
    • Wage scales and overtime pay
    • Implementation of a workplace safety committee

Plan now for post-award needs. Grantees will have to submit bi-annual performance and financial reporting. This is not a small effort. As part of the grant budget, applicants should include administrative costs related to grant reporting and compliance.

Understand the period of performance. NTIA expects to complete its review, selection, and award process by mid-February 2023 and expects that project buildouts will begin, at the earliest, on March 1, 2023. The period of performance for this program is five years, after which the projects must be completed, lit, and operating. Additionally, each project must meet the following milestones:

  • 40 percent of project miles by the end of the second year
  • 60 percent of project miles by the end of the third year
  • 80 percent of project miles by the end of the fourth year
  • 100 percent of project miles by the end of the fifth year

The buildout can be extended by one year if extenuating circumstances occur. Feel free to contact info@ctcnet.us with any questions.


[1] “Prospective non-State and non-Tribal Government applicants must, prior to submitting an application, coordinate and consult with the State Broadband Office or other coordinating body located in the jurisdiction in which the eligible entity proposes to deploy middle mile infrastructure to ensure that the proposal is consistent with the State’s broadband plan and priorities.” (NOFO, pages 22 – 23).

[2] “The required documentation includes organizational historical financials, audited financials, pro-forma financial projections and analysis to substantiate the sustainability of the proposed project, and submission of a letter of credit valued at no less than 25 percent of the requested award amount,” (NOFO, p. 13).

[3] NTIA encourages matching funds that include “in-kind” assets that they describe as “non-cash donations of property, goods or services” and they provide examples of (NOFO, p. 12).

Published: Thursday, May 19, 2022 by CTC Technology & Energy

MAY

17

BEAD and Digital Equity NOFOs put states in charge of broadband funding allocations—but local governments have a role

NTIA’s Notice of Funding Opportunities (NOFO) are out for the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program and the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program[1]—and the rules indicate that state governments will decide how to allocate the funding (within certain parameters). Local governments should engage with their state decision-makers during the preliminary planning processes for both programs to offer support on data collection and to advocate for their critical broadband projects.

Below is an overview of our initial takeaways on the two NOFOs in order of the most pressing deadlines. (Don’t worry, we’ve got thoughts on the Middle Mile program as well; we included key points in our timeline below – and watch this space for more on that program soon.)

State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program: Applications due July 12

As directed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), NTIA will distribute $60 million to states, territories, and tribal groups to fund the creation of Digital Equity Plans. (Tentative allocated funding amounts for each state are listed in the NOFO.[2]) States must submit a planning application by July 12, 2022, to begin the process.

These plans are a critical first step for two reasons.

  1. The Digital Equity Plan is the key to receiving the state’s portion of the $1.44 billion State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, which NTIA will open sometime in the future. That funding will enable the state to execute the programs identified in the state’s Digital Equity Plan.
  2. The Digital Equity Plan is expected to complement applications for BEAD grants to fund network deployments. Projects and priorities identified in the state’s Digital Equity Plan will dovetail with BEAD planning.

What does this mean for localities looking to benefit from State Digital Equity Planning Grant funding? Fundamentally, state governments are in charge of developing their Digital Equity Plans.

But local governments will still play a key role in this process—and local priorities should be considered in state-level planning. 

For starters, collaborating with local stakeholders is a statutory requirement. States are expected to include local governments when developing and implementing their Digital Equity Plans and Five-Year BEAD Plans (see below for more on that).

Any local entity that wants a seat at this table should identify who in state government is leading the charge on these efforts. (NTIA provides information about appropriate contacts in each state.) And localities should keep a close eye on which agency the governor selects as the Administering Entity for the Digital Equity Plan. Reaching out to these decision-makers to open dialogues and build relationships will be critical to local government efforts to get their projects funded.

BEAD: Letter of intent due July 18

NTIA’s IIJA BEAD program will provide federal funding directly to the states to support broadband deployment, mapping, and adoption projects. The states must complete a multi-step process by which they plan and then propose how to allocate the funds to eligible sub-recipients (all of which must be approved by NTIA for funding to flow). As with the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, states are required to engage with local stakeholders on BEAD planning. These activities will provide localities and other stakeholders with opportunities to express their local needs and shape the state’s process—including through the development of highly accurate broadband availability data.

States must submit a letter of intent for BEAD funding by July 18, 2022, and an application for $5 million in initial planning funds by August 15, 2022. Planning efforts can include research, data collection, surveys, and broadband mapping efforts related to broadband availability, adoption, affordability, and equity issues across the state. After that, however, the process will slow down considerably while NTIA waits for the FCC to release updated broadband availability maps. So local governments should engage with their state decision-makers now (the letter of intent will indicate who the governor selects as the administering agent for the program)—and be prepared to continue engaging over the planning process.

Be sure to take a look at the NTIA’s program info sheet for a quick overview of the basics. In short, the overall BEAD process looks something like this:

  • Letter of Intent – Due July 18, 2022 
  • Request for Initial Planning Funds – Due August 15, 2022 
  • Initial Planning Funds released after approval of Request for Initial Planning Funds (no timeline commitment in NOFO) 
  • Five-Year Action Plan – Due 270 days after receipt of Initial Planning Funds 
  • Program Fund Allocation and Notice of Available Amounts released
  • Initial Proposal – Due 180 days from release of Notice of Available Amounts 
  • 20 Percent Funding Release – Upon approval of Initial Proposal
  • Challenge Process – Required before subgrantee selection 
  • Subgrantee Selection Process
  • Final Proposal and Release of Remaining Funds 

Here are some key takeaways localities and other stakeholders should keep in mind as they engage with their state regarding the BEAD funding:

Local coordination with stakeholders is required: Throughout the planning process, states are obligated to collaborate with local, regional, and Tribal organizations, including representatives of underrepresented communities, civil rights organizations, community anchor institutions, and unions and worker organizations. This required outreach will provide stakeholders with opportunities to submit feedback and data regarding existing broadband assets, broadband deployment and adoption needs, barriers to deployment, existing broadband adoption and digital equity programs and related gaps, and existing and planned economic development and other community planning efforts. NTIA expects that this local engagement and outreach process will inform each element of the state’s required submissions for the BEAD funding.

Interested localities and organizations should reach out to their state’s broadband office to discuss both their communities’ needs and existing broadband strategies and efforts. This extensive local coordination obligation requires that the states document their efforts transparently and maintain an ongoing dialogue, which will produce a public record of localities’ involvement and efforts to improve local broadband opportunities. This effort can be complemented by the similar engagement requirements of State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, which will also be happening over the next year.

The state designs the grant program for distribution of its BEAD funds: The BEAD program sets out a framework for a subgrantee program to be administered by each state, but the state will decide the details. As such, it’s important that local governments and other potential applicants understand how to strategize around the framework (and pay close attention to final rules from each state).

For example, areas that do not have access to broadband services that offer at least 100/20 Mbps are eligible for funding. Generally, areas that have received federal or state funds to begin broadband deployment projects to meet that 100/20 Mbps threshold may not be eligible for funding. However, BEAD rules specify that areas slated to receive funds under the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF) may still be eligible for funding under BEAD if the RDOF grant is not yet ready-to-be-authorized or authorized by the date of the challenge process or if RDOF funding was awarded for satellite technology to deliver service.

In another example, BEAD funding requires a 25 percent match (see below for more on the required match) of a specific project cost by the state or project applicant. But states are encouraged by the BEAD framework to design their grants programs to provide additional points in their application scoring criteria to encourage applicants to provide more than the minimum 25 percent match.

Affordability proposals could be a significant opportunity for input from local entities, community organizations, and digital equity groups: States must also design a grant program that requires recipients to allow qualifying families to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and provide a low-cost service option as part of the funded project. However, BEAD rules also allow states to design low-cost plans that will meet the state’s needs—with the input of local entities. Those plans will then be submitted to NTIA for approval.

A financial match is required: Applicants seeking BEAD funding from their state must provide at least a 25 percent funding match. This can be cash or in-kind (where the value of services or goods is substituted for cash), but applicants should keep in mind that states are “required to incentivize matches of greater than 25 percent from subgrantees wherever feasible” (NOFO, p. 21). The most likely means of meeting this requirement is for a state, in designing their grant program, to include extra points or weight to applicants that offer to provide more than 25 percent in match.

Further, the IIJA provides some guardrails regarding use of certain federal funding as the match. While generally federal funds related to the Covid pandemic (for example, ARPA funds) with the purpose of expanding broadband can be used as match, the terms and requirements of those funds will apply in addition to requirements set forth by the BEAD program. For In-kind matches, seek out guidance if you have questions. NTIA suggests to states that they should ”thoroughly consider potential sources of in-kind contributions” (NOFO, p. 22). That means, consistent with federal cost principles, applicants for subgrants from the state could include waivers of pole attachment fees, access to conduit, or the value of an easement as part of the required match.

The NTIA provided for an additional challenge opportunity: The BEAD program requires that states establish an opportunity for local governments, nonprofits, and ISPs to challenge a determination made by the state as to whether a particular location should be eligible for BEAD funds under the state’s newly designed program. With this BEAD challenge process, states are directed to incorporate additional eligibility criteria that fall outside the FCC’s broadband availability data, such as reliability, affordability, proportion of served units, and technology types. Only after this challenge process is complete can a state finalize the areas that will be eligible for funding.

This challenge process is separate from the FCC DATA Act map challenge process, which focuses on mapping data of served and unserved addresses. For example, an apartment building with reliable service only to some of the units may be classified as “served” under the FCC’s map. During a BEAD challenge process, a local government could provide data showing that several units are “unserved” and should be eligible for funding. Our team is closely monitoring the development of the frameworks for both the FCC’s and NTIA’s challenge processes. Watch this space for a full analysis of how local entities can participate in both processes to support broadband deployment to meet community needs.

Start planning now: Interested local entities and other stakeholders should not wait to start gathering data, talking to their communities, and strategizing about broadband needs and deployment plans. From almost the first stage of the BEAD program, states are required to seek out broadband availability, adoption, and digital needs information from local jurisdictions and regional and community-based organizations.

Your efforts, and the work within your communities, should help to shape how this once-in-a-lifeline funding opportunity is utilized. To be well-prepared to be an active and substantive participant in this unprecedented level of coordination across federal, state, local, and organizational perspectives, it is now time to develop the latest data and understanding of what is happening in your community.

Keep up to date with our insights at ctcnet.us/blog and feel free to contact info@ctcnet.us with any questions.


[1] “Internet for All: Programs,” https://www.internetforall.gov/programs.

[2] See Page 13 of NOFO for State Digital Equity Planning Grants, Section II.C.2.

Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2022 by CTC Technology & Energy

MAR

10

Understanding the ReConnect Challenge Process

With the March 9, 2022, application deadline recently passed, it is time to begin planning for the next step in the ReConnect grant and loan program: the challenge process. The ReConnect challenge process is one way the program’s administrator, the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), will seek to ensure that funding is going to eligible locations.[1] The process is straightforward—but will unfold over multiple steps.

  1. RUS issues a Public Notice Filing for each application
  2. Internet service providers (ISP) can challenge a Public Notice Filing with a Public Notice Response if they already serve a proposed funded service area—or have substantially initiated service there
  3. RUS validates Public Notice Responses
  4. RUS conducts Service Area Validations to confirm or deny Public Notice Responses

Step one: RUS issues a Public Notice Filing (PNF) for each application

The starting point is the proposed funded service area (PFSA) identified in ReConnect applications. Within a few days, RUS is expected to launch a searchable database of Public Notice Filings (PNF) documenting the PFSAs and other key details in each application.[2] PNFs will be publicly available for 45 calendar days, roughly through April 8, 2022.

Step two: ISPs can challenge a PNF with a Public Notice Response (PNR) if they already serve a PFSA—or have substantially initiated service there

If an ISP or another eligible entity wants to respond to a PNF—in other words, to challenge the eligibility of one or more PFSAs in an application—they will file a Public Notice Response (PNR).

An ISP can challenge a PFSA by showing RUS that the ISP currently is “offering sufficient access to broadband service” within the PFSA.[3] An ISP can also challenge a PFSA if it has substantially begun efforts to offer services in the area.

The ISP (referred to as a “respondent” in this step) will file a PNR through its USDA Level 2 eAuthentication (eAuth) account. In terms of mapping, the respondent can draw a shape on the PFSA map associated with the PNF or can submit its own shapefile with details of its service area within the PFSA.

The PNR also requires the respondent to provide details on its service levels and number of households served; respondents can also submit speed test results for the disputed area (though those are optional).

PNRs will not be public; rather, they will be used by RUS to guide the next steps in the process.

Step three: RUS validates PNRs

RUS will validate PNRs by working directly with respondents (i.e., the ISPs that challenged PFSAs in ReConnect applications). According to RUS, PNR respondents will be contacted during this step to:

  • Provide additional information, including test results validating the details submitted in the PNR
  • Conduct an on-site field validation with RUS staff
  • Conduct on-site testing with RUS staff

RUS states that it “will notify respondents if their challenge was successful or not and allow for [a] response.”[4]

Step four: RUS conducts Service Area Validations (SAV) to confirm or deny PNRs

As a final step, RUS will conduct a Service Area Validation (SAV) of all PFSAs that were subject to a PNR. (If no PNR is submitted, then an application’s PFSA will be assumed to be eligible if it meets RUS’s other requirements.)

To validate the service area, RUS states that it will:

  • “Check for 100/20 Mbps service in the PFSA
  • Utilize desktop research to inform determinations on service availability
  • Validate other information submitted in the application”[5]

CTC’s Grant and Funding Strategies team is ready to help you with the ReConnect challenge process. Please contact us if you have any questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.


[1] “Service Area Eligibility Requirements,” USDA RUS, https://www.usda.gov/reconnect/service-area-eligibility-requirements.

[2] “Public Notice Filings,” USDA RUS, https://www.rus-services.rd.usda.gov/s/. To receive alerts when PNFs are published, sign up here: https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDARD/subscriber/new?qsp=USDA_RD-PNFs.

[3] “Notify (PNF/PNR) Process: USDA RUS ReConnect Program,” Notify (PNF/PNR) Process (usda.gov).

[4] “Notify (PNF/PNR) Process: USDA RUS ReConnect Program,” Notify (PNF/PNR) Process (usda.gov).

[5] “Notify (PNF/PNR) Process: USDA RUS ReConnect Program,” Notify (PNF/PNR) Process (usda.gov).

Published: Thursday, March 10, 2022 by CTC Technology & Energy

DEC

21

Mason County and the City of Maysville, KY, Issue Broadband RFP

Mason County and the City of Maysville, KY (the City/County) seek a partner to review the current status of broadband availability in the community; plan for the construction of an expanded network to address underserved, unserved, and unreliably served areas; and construct and operate the broadband infrastructure.

The City/County seek to empower residents and local businesses to be network economy producers and believe this project will enable economic diversification and create new job opportunities. The City/County intend to support this vision with a fiscally sustainable, scalable, and long-term solution. Responses to this RFP will ideally consider community needs not just of today, but for 10 to 15 years in the future.

 Responses are due Monday, January 17, 2022, at 2:00 PM local time.

The full RFP is available here.

Published: Tuesday, December 21, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

NOV

03

ReConnect Round 3 scoring rules are the key to planning a competitive application: What you need to know

Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies

If you’ve glanced at the scoring metrics for USDA’s ReConnect Round 3, a few big changes probably jumped out at you. Most notably, the eligibility requirements related to available speeds have changed in a very forward-thinking and game-changing way (all hail 100/20!). Areas that receive inadequate 25/3 Mbps service are now eligible.

But the program balances this expanded eligibility criteria against rurality and lack of service. What does this scoring approach mean for your ReConnect grant strategy? To maximize your points, you need to include areas that:

  • Are rural: Maximum points are awarded for Proposed Funded Service Areas (PFSA) with population densities of six or less and PFSAs located 100 miles from a city or town with 50,000 people
  • Do not currently receive 25/3 Mbps services: Points are awarded based on the number of households without 25/3 that will be served

Also, don’t look to ReConnect as a solution for your middle-mile woes. This program is designed to deliver last-mile service. While middle-mile can be included, it’s only allowable as a means to a “fiber-to-the-premises” end. If you are looking to leverage the ReConnect program for middle-mile, your proposal must include last-mile services.

These are just one of the strategic approaches you should consider in light of the new ReConnect rules. Let’s dive into the rules to uncover additional strategies.

Base scores are calculated automatically, thanks to “AI”

To maximize your score, you should first recognize there are two sets of ReConnect scoring criteria: those you can influence with narrative writing, and those that are set in stone because they are calculated automatically. The application portal USDA commissioned for the ReConnect program was designed with a certain amount of “AI” to help calculate your base scores. (More on that later.)

Generally, here is how the scoring process for the ReConnect program will work for Round 3:

  1. Your application will be grouped with all the applications in your category (grant or grant/loan or tribal/socially vulnerable grant).
  2. Your application will then be reviewed for financial feasibility and sustainability as a matter of eligibility.
  3. Your ‘AI’ score will be confirmed.
  4. The remainder of your score will be calculated and will include:
    1. A merit review of the required materials submitted with your narrative to ensure they satisfy the evaluation criteria. The Final Rules include a healthy list beginning at section § 1740.60 on page 13 (page 11,615 of the printed document) that every potential applicant should take the time to review.
    1. A review of the scoring sheet on which you have the opportunity to discuss the scoring criteria as they pertain to your proposed project. Use the opportunity to address each scoring element directly and explain how your project satisfies the requirements.
    1. A merit review of the technical feasibility of your project.
    1. A merit review of the financial feasibility of your project (beyond the basic eligibility review).
    1. A possible site visit and creation of a Management Analysis Profile (MAP).

Awards will be made based on score and availability of funding.

So what goes into the ‘AI’ score?

Scores for certain evaluation categories are automatically calculated. For example, you will be required to upload mapping information that will, among other things, validate the eligibility of your PFSA—and will calculate your score for 75 of the possible 175 points.

A trip to the Evaluation Criteria webpage will give you an ordered list of criteria by point value, with the most point-worthy items listed first. For the purpose of understanding where you need to spend the most energy, let’s start with the ‘AI’ items (with links to the mapping tool):

  • Rurality of PFSA (25 points) – for serving the least dense rural area as measured by the population of a square mile OR if the PFSA is at least 100 miles from a city or town with a population of greater than 50,000 inhabitants. Multiple service areas will have a combined density calculation as if they were a single area – not the average of individual area densities.
  • Economic Need of the Community (20 points) – this is based on the county poverty percentage of the PFSA. They have provided the mapping from the US Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program.
  • Tribal Lands (15 points) – the requirement is not only to be a tribal government, but to propose services to an area that includes 50 percent tribal lands.
  • Socially Vulnerable Communities (15 points) – if you include a PFSA where at least 75 percent of the PFSA is proposing to serve Socially Vulnerable communities (defined as those areas with an SVI score of 0.75 or higher (see the map at the link), you’ll get up to 15 additional points.

How is the rest of your score determined?

The rest of the scoring is based on your ability to demonstrate the following throughout the application narrative and other required materials:

  • Level of Existing Service (25 points) – points awarded based on the number of households in the PFSA lacking 25/3 service. Expect this to be a straight calculation of total possible points multiplied by percent of PFSA lacking 25/3 Mbps.
  • Affordability (20 points) – points awarded based on how affordable the resulting services will be for the target markets as well as the completeness of information regarding the offerings. Low cost options and a willingness to commit to participating in the FCC’s Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit programs will be looked at favorably.
  • Labor Standards (20 points) – While it’s not a requirement, it will get you points if you can commit to strong labor standards and give details about:
    • How the project will incorporate strong labor standards
    • If workers will be paid wages at or above the prevailing rate
    • If there will be labor agreement
    • What safety training, professional certifications, in-house training and licensing will be required of workers (contractors AND subcontractors)
    • If locally based workers will be used
    • If work will be done by employees or contractors/subcontractors and if there are policies in place to make sure contractors and subcontractors are qualified
    • If there have been any safety violations by you or your contractors/subcontractors in the last five years
  • Local, governments, non-profits, and cooperatives (15 points) This is a bump for the municipal/non-profit/coop groups in points.
  • Net neutrality (10 points) Committing to net neutrality gets you some extra points.
  • Wholesale broadband service (10 points) Offer wholesale broadband service at reasonable rates/terms and you will get 10 points. You will have to provide evidence that you are actively marketing those services.

How much funding is available, and when are applications due?

As we noted in our post earlier this week: The program will make available $350 million for grants (25 percent match required); $250 million for 50/50 grant-loans; $200 million for loans; and $350 million for new 100 percent grants (no match required) for Tribal and socially vulnerable communities.

The funding application window/portal will open on November 24, 2021 and will close on February 22, 2022.

CTC’s grant writing and broadband strategies team are ready to assist with your grant writing and strategy needs. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.

Published: Wednesday, November 3, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

OCT

26

USDA’s new ReConnect broadband grant rules dramatically expand eligible areas and effectively redefine broadband

Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies

With the October 25 release of a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA), the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) has made important changes for Round 3 of its Rural eConnectivity Program (commonly known as ReConnect).

Significant new scoring considerations include a preference for local governments

The NOFA includes a significant shift in application scoring metrics. RUS has included a preference for local governments, non-profits, and cooperatives as applicants and additional points to those applications (“including for projects involving public-private partnerships where the local government, non-profit, or cooperative is the applicant”).

Further, RUS includes metrics to score the affordability of the services being offered; whether wholesale services at non-discriminatory rates will be offered; compliance with net neutrality requirements; and willingness to include strong labor standards.

RUS has also included points for applications with service areas that encompass Socially Vulnerable Communities and those that address areas with defined economic need. (Our grants team is still evaluating these issues and will post a deep dive soon.)

However, don’t forget that this is a rural program and rurality still matters. Available speeds also matter. As such, points are awarded for serving the least dense rural areas as well as serving areas that lack 25/3 Mbps.

Any areas with less than 100/20 Mbps, even those with DSL or fixed wireless, are eligible

RUS is expanding eligible areas beyond the FCC’s 25/3 definition of broadband. The RUS’ definition of an eligible Proposed Funded Service Area (PFSA) is now one that is not currently receiving speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, a considerable and welcome change from its previous definition of 10/1. Further, in the scoring process, extra points (25) will be awarded to those applications that will serve areas that currently have less than 25/3 Mbps available. This includes the service areas of existing RUS borrowers without sufficient access to broadband.

This new approach follows the policies of the Biden Administration and the Commerce Department in moving away from the FCC’s longtime definition of broadband as 25/3 Mbps, essentially eliminating any claims from DSL and fixed wireless providers—which can generally not reach those speeds—that their services qualify as broadband. Going forward, the Administration appears to be saying, only cable and fiber can deliver the speeds necessary for communities to compete in the post-pandemic world.

RDOF areas are eligible for inclusion in PFSAs

After being shut out of Round 2 due to the need to coordinate with the FCC’s auction, RDOF areas will be included in PFSAs for Round 3. The NOFA explains that this is because “RDOF funds both operational expenses and capital expenses, while ReConnect funds only capital expenses.” Another rationale given is that the six-year timeline for RDOF funds is not sufficiently fast enough to respond to the needs created by the pandemic. The goal is to get communities wired as fast as possible.

There are some nuances to those applicants applying for funding in areas where they have also received – or expect to receive – RDOF awards. Expect a lot of questions to be asked and answered regarding the nuances, but generally, those applications including RDOF areas will need to provide additional insight into why that additional funding is needed. And if applicants are RDOF awardees, they must commit to keeping RDOF and ReConnect funding separate for tracking and reporting purposes.

This also means that those Round 2 applications that were left to die due to the sudden rule change in the curing process could resubmit in Round 3 if discussion is included on why the RDOF-awarded areas should be included in light of the pandemic.

As for existing USDA grantees or borrowers, they’re also protected as long as their protection hasn’t run out.

New Tribal/socially vulnerable set aside is a big deal – but there are strings!

New to the program is a separate funding option in which applicants can seek up to $35 million for Tribal and socially vulnerable areas. Socially vulnerable areas are those with “100 percent of locations within areas classified by the USDA Economic Research Service as FAR Level 4.” Criteria for Frontier and Remote (FAR) Level 4 areas are extremely rural or remote areas that are:

“15 minutes or more from an urban area of 2,500-9,999 people; 30 minutes or more from an urban area of 10,000-24,999 people; 45 minutes or more from an urban area of 25,000-49,999 people; and 60 minutes or more from an urban area of 50,000 or more people”[1].

Take the time to consult ReConnect’s mapping tools to confirm eligibility for these areas. And remember: It is essential to include discussion in the narrative on how the pandemic has further effected those areas and how the project will help address those issues.

It doesn’t matter what the Form 477s say, so long as the applicant can demonstrate that geographic eligibility

The NOFA includes a very clear statement that should guide your thinking on defining eligible areas:

“Applicants are not required to treat the publicly available FCC current Form 477 data as dispositive of what speed service currently exists.”

In other words, communities need to know that they’re not excluded from consideration just because Form 477 data indicates connectivity. But they need to show that they are under the 100/20 threshold.

Although the burden is on them, it’s a huge opportunity for those areas that have had bad fixed wireless networks to now participate in federal grant programs.

How should applicants prove their PFSA(s) is/are eligible if the Form 477 data isn’t “dispositive?” Use of existing mapping from NTIA (the NBAM) is an option, but is possibly limiting (because it, too, relies to some extent on the Form 477 data). Our recommendation is to act quickly (before the end of December) to do one or two essential data collection tasks:

  1. Have the potential PFSA(s) surveyed by a qualified outside plant engineer to determine:
    • Availability of services
    • Status of need for make-ready (for potential aerial installations)
  2.  Issue an online speed test survey to collect:
    • Information about those with service and real-time speeds
    • Information from those who wish to report they do not have service

These efforts would immediately provide your application with the necessary backup required to validate the efficacy and eligibility of your PFSA. It will also help the RUS application reviewers make easy work of your application.

Like other broadband funding programs, the application should be pandemic-centric

Applicants should focus their narratives on not only the need for broadband, but the need for broadband in light of lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. Be sure to include discussion and reference to the need to “build back better.”

Additional considerations as you prepare to prepare your application:

Don’t underestimate the effort required to complete and submit your application. As we mentioned in our previous blog posts on the ReConnect program: it’s never too early to start planning and, even if your eventual application is not selected for an award, the planning will not be wasted. There are more funding opportunities for broadband infrastructure coming soon!

The ReConnect application resides on the USDA’s application portal (not grants.gov) and requires a second Level E-Authentication for all users. This means users may have to make in-person appointments at USDA field offices if an online verification is not possible. Additionally, many applicants had significant trouble setting up their accounts for Round 1 and Round 2 due to technical issues. Make account and user set-up a priority task.

It’s time to start preparing!

While we await the comprehensive application guide to be posted on the ReConnect website, here are some strategic thoughts on starting the planning process:

  1. Develop a grant strategy. Your goal is to maximize your application’s scoring given USDA’s stated criteria. Every element of your application should speak to those criteria. Start by developing a comprehensive strategy that aligns your approach (with respect to technology, partnerships, business plan, and service levels) with what USDA is seeking to fund.
  2. Gather the many types of information and support materials required. You’ll need a range of data and numbers—such as population statistics—to establish eligibility under the program rules and to provide content for the grant narrative. You’ll also need a wide range of supporting materials, ranging from letters from your governor to documents that demonstrate the support of the local government, prospective customers, and the business community. Our recommendation here is to go over and above; additional letters (such as from your congressional delegation, the Chamber of Commerce, and so on) can only help to demonstrate the breadth of support in the community for your initiative.
  3. Define and refine your proposed funded service area (PFSA). Define the PFSA with a count of the number of rural premises to be connected, including homes, farms, schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, and businesses (which are important because they confer additional points in the application). Then, document the engineering methodology used to demonstrate that the PFSA lacks service and is therefore eligible for funding.
  4. Develop and review your project’s engineering plans and cost estimates. The critical engineering task after you have defined the PFSA is to develop a conceptual design for your network—including project plan, buildout timeline, design, and diagram—and cost estimates for materials and construction. The cost estimates will become a critical input to your business plan and pro forma financials and will need to be certified by a licensed Professional Engineer under the RUS rules.
  5. Develop a financial pro forma and business plan. The pro forma is perhaps the most important (and arduous) part of your application—it should be prepared in the format provided by USDA (which will hopefully be available soon) and should include subscriber projections and descriptions of service and pricing. To support the pro forma revenue projections, you’ll need very compelling data, ideally in the form of statistically valid market research, as well as empirical data about your or your partner’s historical success in achieving comparable market share. This is possibly the most critical item in the application, given USDA’s interest in funding projects it considers sustainable and low-risk.
  6. Develop a market narrative, including discussion and data regarding service in the region. You’ll need to demonstrate that your services will be better and no more expensive than other services offered nearby—and present a narrative discussion of why the proposed services will be both marketable and affordable.

The recently regulated program will make available $350 million for grants (25 percent match required); $250 million for 50/50 grant-loans; $200 million for loans; and $350 million for new 100 percent grants (no match required) for Tribal and socially vulnerable communities.

The funding application window/portal will open on November 24,2021, and will close on February 22, 2022.

CTC’s grant writing and broadband strategies team are ready to assist with your grant writing and strategy needs. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.


[1] See https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/frontier-and-remote-area-codes/documentation/ accessed October 24, 2021.

Published: Tuesday, October 26, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

OCT

21

NTIA’s Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program Is a Broadband Funding Opportunity for Local Governments and Minority Serving Institutions

Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies
Lydia Weinberger, Civic Technology Analyst

Local governments and minority serving institutions (MSI) have a unique partnership opportunity in the Connecting Minority Communities (CMC) Pilot Program—which has a fast-approaching application deadline on December 1, 2021. Now is the time for local governments to speak to their MSI partners to identify potential projects.

The $285 million CMC grant program was established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to support MSIs and their surrounding communities. The program will fund purchasing broadband services and equipment, hiring information technology personnel, and upgrading on-campus facilities. In other words, this is not a broadband infrastructure program—it is an opportunity for local governments to fund workforce development, curriculum development, and service with their higher education partners.

Local governments can apply in partnership with eligible applicants

For purposes of applying to the CMC pilot, eligible institutions include:

  • Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU)
  • Tribal colleges and universities (TCU)
  • Minority-serving institutions (MSI), which include:
    • Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian-serving institutions (ANNH)
    • Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions (AANAPISI)
    • Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI)
    • Native American-serving nontribal institutions (NASNTI)
    • Predominantly Black institutions (PBI)

The CMC pilot program also covers qualifying surrounding communities as a way to provide further support for low-income students and businesses. NTIA was purposeful with its definition of “anchor community”: Any area within a 15-mile radius of an HBCU or other MSI (other than some TCUs) that has an estimated median annual household income of no more than 250 percent of the poverty line.

For TCUs located on land held in trust by the United States that are also located within a reservation, the reservation boundary will create an area of interest (AOI) for each institution. The AOI will be used to define the institution’s anchor community boundary.

You can check out the eligibility status of your communities by consulting the CMC Anchor Community Eligibility Dashboard. If you believe the Dashboard is in any way incorrect, plan to submit supplementary information. A list of eligible HBCUs and TCUs can be found on the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) College Navigator Website. The Eligibility Matrix for MSIs is available on the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education website.

Eligible costs

Take the time to understand what the CMC pilot will fund. Eligible costs include:

  • The purchase of broadband internet services
  • The installation and upgrade of campus facilities on a one-time, capital-improvement basis
  • The hiring and training of IT personnel
  • The purchase or lease of equipment and devices for student or patron use

What’s missing from this list? You cannot use the CMC pilot to fund an infrastructure build for broadband services. While the program will fund one-time upgrades to facilities, the intent is to outfit existing structures, not create new ones. The rules prohibit ground disturbance (construction) activities that require state or federal historic preservation or environmental review approvals. However, general in-building or classroom wiring, deploying fiber through existing conduit or trenches, installing wireless equipment (e.g., access points, routers), and installing wireless transmission equipment are not considered construction and therefore can be included.

Be strategic in what you include in your proposed project and its budget. The CMC pilot has an expected award range of $500,000 to $3 million. Competitive applications will most likely fall in that range. If you are asking for more than $3 million, be prepared to provide justification as to why your application is reasonable. Keep in mind that 20 percent) of grant funding is earmarked to provide broadband service or equipment to students. It makes sense that you should craft your application to mirror that structure.

Application scoring considerations

In CTC’s initial analysis of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, we noted that strong proposals would include workforce development, equipment lending, and education components, and should prioritize low-income students and community members. That is still an important framework. A well-rounded application will score better with the reviewers.

It’s worth your time to understand the scoring. The CMC Pilot will include a programmatic review to verify the proposed project’s eligibility. Then, during the merit review, NTIA’s reviewers will score each project as follows:

  • Project Needs and Benefits (up to 35 points): Level of demonstrated community need and how the project will address those needs
  • Project Purpose (up to 25 points): How the project aligns with the program’s purposes
  • Project Viability and Innovation (up to 20 points): The project’s technical feasibility and the organizational capability of the applicant
  • Project Budget (up to 15 points): The reasonableness and sustainability of the budget
  • Project Evaluation (up to 5 points): How the results of the project will be assessed

The two-year award period (i.e. when funds will become accessible to an awardee) is expected to begin in March 2022. More information on the CMC Pilot (including webinars and FAQs) can be found on the BroadbandUSA website.

CTC’s Grant and Funding Strategies team continues to analyze the latest developments in federal funding. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.

Published: Thursday, October 21, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

OCT

21

States and Localities Have Updated Guidance for Treasury’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Funds

By Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies

The Treasury Department released new guidance on its long-awaited, $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund program—an extremely flexible opportunity that will deliver funds to each eligible state, territory, and tribal entity. State governments will now work with Treasury to receive their allocations—so now is also the time for local governments to advocate at the state level for their key broadband projects.

What can these funds be used for?

As we noted back in May, this program will deliver guaranteed funding to the states for the purpose of ensuring “access to the high-quality modern infrastructure, including broadband, needed to access critical services.” (See Treasury’s Allocation Information for a list of allocations by state, territory, and tribal area.)

The updated guidance issued gives us a clear picture of the kinds of projects Treasury has in mind—and that state governments will thus be considering as they decide how to allocate their funds:

“The COVID-19 public health emergency highlighted that access to high-quality internet can enable work, education, and health access, and that individuals and communities that lack affordable access to such high-quality internet are at a marked disadvantage. Investing in broadband for communities sensitive to or that have historically experienced these inequities will be critical for improving digital equity and opportunity, especially in the case of communities that currently lack access to the affordable, reliable, high-quality broadband internet that is necessary for full participation in school, healthcare, employment, social services, government programs, and civic life.”

The program will allow funds to be used for costs that fit in one of three main categories:

  1. Broadband Infrastructure Projects: “[C]onstruction and deployment of broadband infrastructure designed to deliver service that reliably meets or exceeds symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps so that communities have future-proof infrastructure to serve their long-term needs.”
  2. Digital Connectivity Technology Projects: “[P]urchase or installation of devices and equipment, such as laptops, tablets, desktop personal computers, and public Wi-Fi equipment, to facilitate broadband internet access for communities where affordability is a barrier to broadband adoption and use.” You read that right: Affordability matters. Those who can’t afford to pay for services, even if available, are considered unserved.
  3. Multi-Purpose Community Facility Projects: “[C]onstruction or improvement of buildings designed to jointly and directly enable work, education, and health monitoring located in communities with critical need for the project.”

Proposals for all projects need to address the ability to do work, education, and health monitoring remotely. While fulfilling these requirements may feel intuitive for category 1 (Broadband Infrastructure Projects) and category 2 (Digital Connectivity Technology Projects), category 3 requires expansion of our concept of libraries, community centers, and health centers—as well as a retooling of the scope of services these institutions can offer.

Devices funded by the program can’t be locked with filters and they can’t have usage caps that would hinder household needs.

Multi-purpose Community Facility Projects will require legwork by agencies involved in the design to institute appropriate privacy and confidentiality controls. This process would include both virtual and physical considerations and should ultimately make it easier for patrons to access healthcare, education, and work.

Affordability and Speed as a focal point

Unique to this program is the focus on determining where affordability is a barrier to broadband adoption and use and an emphasis on the importance of providing 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds. If you haven’t done so already, make sure you incorporate affordability in your planning. It will be essential to your project justification and documentation of community need, as well as the way you track the project’s progress in addressing those needs. Additionally, an eligible area is defined simply as one that cannot receive affordable, reliable, fixed wireline service of at least 100/20 Mbps. Further, RDOF-awarded areas are eligible if the service being provided is not affordable or at or above 100/20.

For infrastructure projects, the unit of analysis is not individual households, but communities. This means low-income and other communities not being well served by the private sector can be targeted without worrying about exact boundaries of served and unserved. Treasury suggests providing a list of federal sources (such as census data) to document the need, but if you have local data on social and health indicators, that would be even better. Your mapping should utilize a community focus to aid in analysis of priority areas.

How can your locality benefit from this program? And what should you be doing now?

Keep in mind that this is not a competitive grant program at the source (Treasury). Rather, the prioritization and distribution of allocated funds will occur at the state, territory, or tribal government level. For localities with candidate projects, a lot will depend on the states, territories, and tribal governments, and their decisions to apply for the funding.

Also, while it feels like a done deal that every eligible entity will apply, there may be exceptions. And while there is time for localities to get their ideas to their state governments to be considered a “subrecipient” of funding, the states are not required to reach out for ideas from localities. Make sure you get in front of your state broadband office or equivalent lead agency; get your needs in front of them and get a sense of their initial thoughts on the process.

Funds are block-grant type, so they are “guaranteed” allocations for your state or other governing body. Your state has enormous freedom in structuring the process for which projects to fund. This could mean that it either intentionally or unintentionally restricts the funding by applying outdated procedures and rules.

If a broadband office, for example, decides to award funds through its existing grant program it could end up reintroducing a funding match requirement—or an old definition of “unserved” (e.g., limiting unserved areas to those that can only receive less than 25/3 by any technology; ignoring reliability, affordability, and technology (wireline)  components; or, conversely, allowing funding of projects with fixed wireless design and not taking affordability into account).

These would end up locking out the very communities that the Treasury program is aiming to serve. Make sure you talk with your state office to ensure your community’s needs are considered; that the funding process is adopted fairly; and that the process reflects the funding source’s flexibility and intentions.

So, what happens now?

Eligible entities must apply to Treasury for the funding by December 27, 2021. Once they have done so, Treasury will issue a grant agreement (remember, if the eligible state, territory, or tribal entity wants the money, they have a right to it per the ARPA law). Once the grant agreement is signed, most eligible entities will have 365 days to file a grant plan for approval by Treasury on how the funds will be used. The exception is for Tribal governments; their grant applications will serve as their grant plans. The grant plan can be revised during the 365-day period, if needed.

All funds must be expended by no later than December 31, 2026.

CTC’s Grant and Funding Strategies team continues to analyze the latest developments in infrastructure funding. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.

Published: by CTC Technology & Energy

OCT

12

Ithaca Area Economic Development Issues Broadband Connectivity RFP

Ithaca Area Economic Development (IAED), working closely with Cayuga Data Juice, has released an RFP seeking a qualified partner to design, build, and operate a middle mile fiber optic network for use by Ithaca-area companies, internet service providers, and other stakeholders.

As communities in New York seek to modernize their economies, high-speed internet connection is proving to be a necessity. IAED, a 501(c)(6) economic development organization, is actively engaged in developing initiatives to improve broadband internet in the Ithaca area for purposes of economic and other development. IAED is working closely with Cayuga Data Juice which plans to build a regional data center that – along with broadband providers and other institutional clients – is expected to be a potential client of this infrastructure.

Responses are due November 22, 2021, 5PM EST.

Download the full Broadband Connectivity RFP below.

Published: Tuesday, October 12, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

OCT

12

New Federal Grant Opportunity for Broadband Economic Development Projects: $500 Million in New Funding with Applications Due Early in 2022

Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies
Lydia Weinberger, Civic Technology Analyst

A promising federal grant program has new funding and creates the potential for securing broadband funding to support economic development. The American Rescue Plan Act added $500 million in funding to the Economic Adjustment Assistance (EAA) program run by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

With the new funding, EAA represents a wide-ranging $500 million program to support planning and technical assistance projects in support of a strong and stable economy. Of that $500 million figure, $200 million is allocated to coal-impacted communities, leaving $300 million in the general pot.Grant awards will range from $500,000 to $5 million.[1]

While the EAA program has not traditionally had application deadlines, the notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) recommends submitting application packages before March 31, 2022. We recommend you treat that date as a hard deadline;the EDA team needs time to review and process applications before their funding window closes at the end of September 2022.

Eligible entities include:

  • Cities, townships, counties, or special district governments
  • State governments
  • Federally recognized Tribal governments
  • Nonprofits (excluding higher education) in partnership with a local government
  • Private institutions of higher education
  • Public and state institutions of higher education

Eligible applicants that applied for EAA CARES Act funding opportunity but were denied due to lack of funding can resubmit under the ARPA opportunity. As with the CARES Act funding opportunity, the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis is considered an eligible “special need,” and all areas of the country are eligible to apply.

If you are interested in applying, note that a Community Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) or acceptable equivalent must be in place for the intended project area; the CEDS must discuss the need for broadband; and you will need to show support from the business community.

 Applicants will need to explain what steps they will “take to ensure that the economic benefits of the project will be shared by all communities in the project region, including any underserved communities.”And most important: Applicants must explain how their proposed projects will ease the economic effects of the pandemic and how they will encourage job creation—or, even better, directly create them. This program’s emphasis is the economy, jobs, and more jobs.

The grant will fund 80 percent of a proposed project. As such, applicants should be prepared for at least a 20 percent match. Higher matches will make proposals more competitive in the review process. Keep in mind as you start your planning that a wide range of technical, planning, workforce development, and public works projects are eligible for funding under this program. Building, designing, or engineering infrastructure and facilities to advance economic development strategies, or planning efforts to implement such solutions, are all considered eligible costs.

CTC’s Grant and Funding Strategies team continues to analyze the latest developments in federal funding. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.


[1] This funding is in addition to $1.5 billion added to the program by the CARES Act last year, which was earmarked for projects to address pandemic recovery.

Published: by CTC Technology & Energy