Author Archives: 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: Thursday, October 21, 2021 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

JUL

08

New Opportunities from the Maryland Office of Statewide Broadband to Connect Your Community to the Internet

Ziggy Rivkin-Fish, CGEIT, V.P. for Broadband Strategy
Barbara Fichman, Principal Analyst and Researcher
Taylor Brown, MSW, Civic Technology Analyst

If you are looking to expand your community’s internet access in Maryland, you need to prepare for the funding opportunities created by the Digital Connectivity Act of 2021 (the Act)[1] and the Office of Statewide Broadband (OSB). OSB, which replaces the Office of Rural Broadband, seeks to ensure access to high-speed, affordable broadband service to all residents by 2026 by administering the $300 million Maryland has allocated for broadband. OSB’s initiative includes a variety of programs supporting adoption, affordability, and infrastructure. It includes at least $8 million toward spurring adoption and at least $75 million to address affordability support for subscription fees and computing devices. More than $200 million will be targeted toward programs to build out additional broadband infrastructure. The following table outlines a draft of how these funds will be allocated by category:[2]

Table 1 – Draft Funding Breakdown

CategoryTypeValueCategory Subtotal
Digital Inclusion FundAdoption$2,000,000 
Digital NavigatorsAdoption$2,000,000 
Tech ExtensionAdoption$4,000,000$8,000,000
Device SubsidyAffordability$30,000,000 
Service Fee SubsidyAffordability$45,000,000$75,000,000
Broadband and Digital ConnectednessInfrastructure$23,720,000 
Gap NetworksInfrastructure$5,000,000 
Local Government Infrastructure Fund (LGIF)Infrastructure$15,180,000 
LGIF Fiscal Year 2021Infrastructure$30,000,000 
Municipal BroadbandInfrastructure$45,000,000 
Network InfrastructureInfrastructure$97,600,000$216,500,000
Total $299,500,000 

OSB will institute new grant programs and upgrade some older ones. Here is our analysis of OSB’s planned activities:

  • OSB will facilitate listening sessions with internet service providers (ISP) and counties to get feedback on grant requirements. Such requirements may govern service speeds, award ceilings, low-cost or discount programs, and matching.
  • OSB is developing plans and guidelines for some of the categories. The details of which eligible services fall into which categories still need to be fleshed out. Digital connectedness may provide coverage for last-mile infrastructure, and some of the funds that were retroactively allocated for broadband in fiscal year 2021 may be channeled for additional broadband planning and federal grant application support.
  • OSB is also expecting to develop new requirements for the program funds, including for infrastructure, to reflect changing needs, funds, and statutory restrictions. Some requirements regarding matching funds and eligibility would be the result of the listening sessions mentioned above, but some are tied to the source of funding. The State is using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) for its broadband program, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury has provided guidelines and restrictions on how those funds can be used.

If you are not prepared to apply for these funds, you need to get ready—fast. Although we expect many proposals to receive funding because of the State’s significant investment in broadband, you and your potential partners should already be prepared to apply for funding. In drawing your routes, you should prioritize unserved areas in your jurisdiction, which are clearly a priority. However, keep in mind that ARPA gives some leeway regarding your boundaries, allowing you to build out service to served areas along your route to unserved areas. That flexibility is attractive to ISPs because it allows them to provide better broadband to poorly served areas along with the targeted unserved areas. Again, OSB will provide clarification on how best to accomplish your broadband goals.

We are here to help

CTC can help you get up to speed on the new broadband funding landscape in Maryland. We can guide you through a full range of tasks related to grant applications, from articulating a project concept to preparing an application package. Please let us know if we can help you:

  • Develop a grant strategy and refine a project concept – whether for building new infrastructure, developing and organizing a device-lending program, or developing a project to promote and subsidize the adoption of broadband or any other digital-inclusion elements
  • Form a collaboration between you and partners
  • Create a checklist of required project documentation and application requirements
  • Prepare technical and financial models for your proposed project
  • Edit and refine your draft application packages
  • Submit your application

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have questions. CTC’s funding strategies and grant-writing team stands ready to assist you, your public partners, and your private collaborators with expanding your community’s broadband infrastructure.


[1] HB97/SB66

[2] This table was adapted from Maryland’s Supplemental Budget No. 5 – Fiscal Year 2022 and informed by the Governor’s staff.

Published: Thursday, July 8, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

JUN

23

A Deep Dive into the Scoring Metrics of the NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program

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

On May 19, 2021, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) released rules for the Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP). The highly anticipated rules contained a few surprises (a recommended, but voluntary 10 percent match) and at least a few non-surprises (RDOF areas are not eligible unless you are traversing them with middle mile). The NOFO also outlined how grant applications will be scored, prioritized, and ranked in order to make award decisions. If you came away a little confused about how your point score relates to the programs stated priorities, and possibly reflecting that you might have better luck applying for admission to an Ivy League school despite having terrible grades, you weren’t the only one. 

Our team spent some time analyzing the scoring and prioritization processes based on the NOFO. While we believe that NTIA will likely make some clarifications to smooth out some inconsistencies, our below explanation and example will hopefully help you position your application for a high-priority review with a high score. 

Here is the quick (and dirty) explanation of the general scoring and prioritization schema:

  1. Your application will be reviewed for completeness.
  2. Your application will be scored AND assigned into one of the priority categories:
    a. Any application scoring over 70 points will be judged “qualified” and considered for funding.
    b. Applications scoring less than 70 points will be judged “unqualified” and denied funding.
  3. Your application will be ranked in the assigned priority category based on your score and any other favorability additions (more on that later).

But first, let’s set a few things straight:

  • Priority is not an assurance of an award. If you read the NOFO thinking that you just needed to propose a rural project that maximized the number of households your project serves while meeting a few of the other priorities, we recommend you take a closer look at the scoring requirements and pick a priority area in which to rest your application. This is because you will likely only get one priority area review and if you aim for just the rural priority, you may not get any funding.
  • Non-Rural areas are absolutely eligible. While the law and the NOFO list five priority areas, there is no language in the law or the NOFO that says urban areas that are unserved are ineligible. In fact, a higher density unserved area that is more likely to be found in an urban setting is ripe for high placement in the first priority group for consideration. In other words, the highest number of unserved households proposed to be served garner first priority group placement. 
  • You want to score as many points as possible to get a high placement in your assigned priority group. As noted earlier, throwing in the match, be it in-kind or cash, will garner you not only points, but additionally favorability in the rankings. Be strategic!
  • Serving the highest percentage of the unserved in the census blocks within your proposed service area is the most important aspect of your score. That first priority is literally “[c]overed broadband projects designed to provide broadband service to the greatest number of households in an eligible service area.” 
  • While a match isn’t required, you’ll not only get extra points for including a match, you’ll get additional favorability in the ranking within your application’s assigned priority group. 
  • The voluntary match can be in-kind – and that is easier than you think to make happen given the constructs of the program per the NOFO. The match can include third-party in-kind contributions as well.

The Administrative and Eligibility Review is the easy part of the scoring process. The review team will simply be confirming that the applicants are eligible to apply, that their application is complete (meaning it appears to have all the required elements), and that the documentation, narrative, and budget justification are responsive to the basic programmatic elements of the application requirements. In other words, make sure you have created a list and checked it twice. An incomplete application is not an immediate disqualification, but it may potentially put your application in peril if you happen to miss a request from the NTIA review team for missing information. You will only have seven calendar days to reply with responsive materials unless they give you more time. Indeed, “failure to remedy” any deficiencies when requested in the time allotted is cause for the NTIA to deny your application.

In the Merit Review, your application will be scored on a scale of 0 to 100 points. Those points are derived from the reviewers’ analysis of the project purpose and benefits (up to 30 points), the overall project viability (up to 40 points), and the project budget and sustainability (up to 30 points).

The Project Purpose and Benefits score is broken down between the overall level of impact the project will have on the proposed service area (up to 20 points) and the affordability of services offered (up to 10 points). This score will be derived from how many connections will be made and will be impacted by the amount of funding the provider partner has received from other federal sources to deploy broadband service in the proposed service area. In other words, choose your partner wisely. And keep in mind that if you are proposing a last-mile solution, you have to propose to connect 100 percent of the total unserved households in the proposed service area in order to receive all 20 of the service area points. That means the more tightly you can draw boundaries around your proposed service area to exclude served addresses, the better. Keep in mind that you can connect your unserved clusters with middle-mile infrastructure to make it contiguous without adversely impacting your scores. You may want to work with your partner to conduct selective field visits to delineate and document unserved areas to strengthen your unserved metrics and prevent challenges from incumbents in the area that could lower your unserved metrics and, therefore, your score.

Proposed subscription pricing will be compared to existing services and pricing in the area or nationwide averages. Your application should propose competitive rates for the target market. Hot tip: municipal applicants could offer services for free to qualified families struggling to afford broadband, garnering not only the full 10 points for affordability, but also a favorability bump in the programmatic and final review. 

The Project Viability score is made up of two areas: the overall technical approach/related network capacity/performance (up to 20 points) and the applicant’s organizational capability (up to 20 points). In your project narrative and planning elements, this is where capacity and performance, clear planning, and communication of timelines will matter most. In other words, what is the technical solution you propose to solve your stated broadband needs? Your application needs to show that the proposed network solution will provide enough capacity and scalability (they have absolutely thrown around the phrase “future proof”) to meet the needs of all the households, businesses, and community anchor institutions in that area, simultaneously at peak usage. Latency will also matter. 

Don’t forget that how you present your organizational expertise and overall abilities is essential to the application. Part of the purpose of requiring a covered partnership is to make this part easier overall. Your provider partner should be able to demonstrate a deep track record of successful projects of similar size and scope. Even more important is the ability to hit the ground running. Hot tip: if you have the materials on-hand to ensure you can start work immediately upon award, brag about it in your application narrative. It will matter for points, and it will get you a little more favorability in the Programmatic Review. 

The Project Budget and Sustainability score is the last section of the Merit Review and is broken out into three areas: 1) “Reasonableness of the Budget,” 2) project sustainability, and 3) if you are providing the voluntary match. 

Reasonableness of the Budget literally means if you prepared a budget document and narrative that is clear, detailed, and comprehensive in approach, and generally makes sense (“appropriateness”), given the technical approach proposed. In other words, does the cost fit the solution? The proposed solution itself is the subject of the Project Viability score —so make sure you do your homework there. 

You’ll get a full 15 points if you can successfully demonstrate that the project will be viable beyond the award period (for example, high operational costs combined with unrealistic take-rate assumptions could drag down your score). This should be a fairly low bar, but you may stumble if you can’t clearly communicate your business plan, market projections (take-rate matters!), and any other information that will show longevity of the project. Hot tips: don’t propose a solution that will need significant upgrades in the near future and don’t forget that part of the reason for a partnership with a public entity is to ensure there are enough community commitments to help with sustainability. 

If you can, you should absolutely include a match of at least 10 percent. You’ll not only get at least 10 additional points; you’ll get a favorability bump in the Programmatic review. The simplest way to do this is via a match from the private partner. Depending on the partner, this should be a very low bar. 

Take a sip of that coffee. We’re getting to the “Squishy” part.

Before we jump into the last steps of the application scoring and review process, here’s a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say your proposed project encompasses two census blocks in an “urban desert” in a moderately sized city. The size of each census block is 1,000 residential homes and a smattering of businesses. The businesses are served well because they are along a main road, but the homes are getting less than 25/3 reliably. Let’s further assume that 75 percent of the homes in the two census blocks are unserved. That means that the hypothetical application should propose to serve 100 percent of those 1,500 households that are unserved. The application will list the percentage unserved (75 percent) and the percentage of the unserved you are proposing to serve (100 percent of the 75 percent), as well as the actual numbers. If all other elements of the application are satisfied and the application is scored to receive 70 points or more, it should be categorized in the first priority review area by merit of its proposal to serve 100 percent of the unserved. 

Assuming the application narrative has satisfied the initial Administrative and Eligibility Review and scores above 70 points in the Merit Review, it will then undergo a Programmatic Review, where it will be reviewed for “conformity with programmatic objectives, requirements, and priorities.” This is where the review team will rank qualified applications that scored over 70 points in order of the priority groups in which the applications have been assigned. 

In other words, your application is categorized, scored, and then ranked in its category. 

This is also a deep due diligence time. If you get a call in the fall from NTIA for more information, it’s a good sign your application is being ranked in its priority category and they are seeking further information to finalize that ranking and determine if they will recommend an award. The team at the NTIA may also do a little deal-making during this time period. As with other agencies, they may ask you to alter to your proposal to make an award possible. Be ready and be open to changes.

When describing this process to clients, I often use the term “squishy.” To be clear, the scoring and ranking process is quite fair, but it isn’t uncomplicated. In part, that complication is the last step in the award-decision process as defined: Once the Programmatic Review is complete, the Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications (OTIA) Associate Administrator will make rank recommendations within each priority group to the Selecting Official (SO).

This is the squishy part: The SO will then consider the following nine factors in making final decisions:

  1. The application score and comments from the expert reviewers during Merit Review.
    This is why your score matters!
  2. How the NTIA Program Staff felt/analyzed your application during the Programmatic Review
    Your grade on presentation and concept
  3. If your application satisfied any of the five program priorities defined by the Act
  4. If your application proposes to include any cost share (remember, the match is voluntary)
    This is a “favorability” bump. If it is down to you and one other application, and yours gave the match but the other didn’t, you’ll get a higher ranking
  5. Where your proposed project is located and if, when considering the award, it will generate a geographically equitable distribution of the considered/awarded grants
    This feels like a massive challenge, right? Essentially, it means that proposals for funding in the same area will set up a Highlander scenario (“There can be only one!”), so get it in early if you can.
  6. If your project, as proposed, is necessary given the likelihood of a private provider expanding service without the need for federal grant support
    In other words, how long have you been waiting for that broadband service to get to you, but the providers just seem uninterested? How likely is it that a provider would build it without grant support? Why haven’t they done so before?
  7. If your project will incorporate “strong labor protections into the performance of the construction project, including paying prevailing wages.”
  8. If your project avoids potential duplication of other federal initiatives
  9. If there is enough funding

That’s the “squish.”  And it’s a lot of gray area when the stakes are so high. 

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.


https://www.grants.gov/web/grants/view-opportunity.html?oppId=333684
Published: Wednesday, June 23, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

JUN

18

Where to Draw the Line: Guidance on Proposals for NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program

Ziggy Rivkin-Fish, CGEIT, V.P. for Broadband Strategy

If you’re like us, you might be confused about what the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) accepts as service coverage data for their new Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP). In BIP’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), NTIA states the following:

The term “eligible service area” means a census block in which broadband service is not available at one or more households or businesses in the census block, as determined by the Assistant Secretary on the basis of: (A) the maps created under section 802(c)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 642(c)(1)); or (B) if the maps described in subparagraph (A) are not available, the most recent information available to the Assistant Secretary, including information provided by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

NTIA, Section I.A, p. 4

So, does that mean we can use our own GIS data and maps? Yes and no. Here is our analysis of this section of the NOFO:

  • NTIA consults the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) when considering proposals. Essentially, NBAM adds state-provided data and speed test data to the old 477 maps. Although the final rules have not been published yet, we believe that NTIA consults the map at three points:
    1. To do a quick and rough validation at application intake to ensure that the reporting of estimated unserved addresses passes the smell test
    2. During the programmatic review, when NTIA analyzes all submitted documentation to verify project details like construction planning and financial viability
    3. To respond to a challenge from an incumbent

If NTIA’s GIS data and maps are inconclusive, it may send auditors to verify challenger and/or project claims regarding served and unserved areas included in the proposed service area. Although it has not been explicitly stated, we believe—and NTIA recently indicated in a webinar—that any documentation of served and unserved areas generated by/for a project can be included in a project submission. If you have conducted a study or mapping process, this data can play a key role in allowing NTIA to dismiss challenges without needing to complete a comprehensive inspection.

  • NBAM maps are not public, although you can access them if your state is an NBAM participant. To see if your state is participating in NBAM, click here. If your state is a participant, your state contact should be able to give you more information.
  • The proposed service areas can be part of census blocks and do not have to be contiguous. Middle-mile infrastructure is eligible for funding. Therefore, the boundaries for the proposed funding service areas drawn by you and your partner(s) can consist of clusters if they’re connected by middle-mile.
  • Including some served locations in your proposal should not be a problem. NTIA’s criteria for an unserved area is that at least one address in a census block is unserved. However, a higher number of unserved addresses, as well as a high unserved-to-served ratio, will positively impact the project’s score.
  • Fixed wireless coverage counts for BIP could potentially eliminate a census block from funding since physical inspection is difficult and field testing is unreliable. NTIA has not indicated how it plans to test fixed wireless claims, but its first go-to resource is its own NBAM map. If you have independent speed test or survey data to document no service, below-average broadband speeds, and/or unreliable service, your project will be less vulnerable to exaggerated fixed wireless provider claims. If your state participates in NBAM, you should also contact your state broadband office to consult NTIA’s map.
  • Prior federal or state broadband funding in a census block does not necessarily preclude an area from consideration but must be disclosed in the grant application. NTIA will consult its maps to determine if a census block should be excluded. A census block that has been previously funded with state or federal funds such as the Connect America Fund II (CAF II) would not—if there are still unserved households—preclude an applicant from including such an area, but it could weaken the overall score of the project and could potentially exclude it. While the status of RDOF, including SpaceX-awarded areas, is uncertain, we suspect that low-speed, fixed wireless, CAF II projects would be disregarded by NTIA.

For our first-take analysis of the NOFO, you can check out our previous post here. Be on the lookout for more expert analysis of the Broadband Infrastructure Program and everything else you need to know for efficient, affordable, and equitable broadband infrastructure. If you have any questions or need assistance in the meantime, please feel free to contact us.

Published: Friday, June 18, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

JUN

18

Weighing Your Options: An Analysis of Recent Federal Broadband Funding

By Ziggy Rivkin-Fish, CGEIT, V.P. for Broadband Strategy

If you are like many of our friends right now, you may be unsure about which federal funds to target for broadband expansion. Some of you may consider going after the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (FRF), authorized in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which is currently an object of hot debate and often competing priorities. Others may be interested in the Treasury Department’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CCPF), because—unlike FRF—it is solely focused on broadband projects. You may even think about bypassing these funds altogether in favor of future stimulus funding that may include broadband alongside other areas of infrastructure policy.

With all these considerations and the gravity of your decision, it is important to weigh your options. We hope that our expert advice can help you decide which funding strategy is best for you.

Your Federal Funding Landscape Explained

Coronavirus State and Local Federal Recovery Funds (FRF): Department of the Treasury

  • FRF is likely the most unrestricted opportunity you will have when it comes to broadband infrastructure investments. If your community is currently shackled when considering needed broadband investments because it is “mostly” served—even though the broadband is unreliable, below functional speeds, or unaffordable—FRF may be your best opportunity for addressing gaps in coverage.
  • So far, FRF is the only opportunity to potentially offset bad RDOF outcomes for most projects. Many states and counties have been marred by FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction (RDOF) outcomes, with SpaceX and fixed wireless providers winning sizable areas using specious speed claims and unaffordable prices. Other funding opportunities will likely be hampered by industry and congressional pressures to avoid “duplication” and “overbuilding” that would make these areas ineligible for funding, but FRF interim rules specifically define “served” as only including reliable wireline 25/3 Mbps services. (Tribal entities may also apply for NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to address bad RDOF outcomes.) 

Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (CCPF): Department of the Treasury

  • The CCPF may be a good alternative, but it depends on how your state government decides to administer the funds. Treasury has provided an initial statement framing this fund in anticipation of rules, but they have indicated that it is a companion piece to FRF and may adopt some similar guardrails on eligibility and solution requirements. However, after our initial review, we expect somewhat more restricted rules than FRF, but much of that depends on how your state decides to administer the projects. For example, states may use their own policy priorities—on top of Treasury’s guidelines and requirements—in deciding whether to build infrastructure itself, funnel funds directly to a state broadband grant program, or directly solicit project proposals from ISPs and local communities.

Upcoming infrastructure and stimulus funding

  • Upcoming infrastructure and stimulus funding bills targeting broadband expansion are far from a sure thing. Even if broadband expansion is included in upcoming bills, congressional negotiations and industry pressure may result in restrictions so onerous that is practically precludes most desired initiatives.

Other funding streams

  • The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) released interim final rules, and it may have restrictions that severely limit what projects are deemed eligible. Treasury adopted FCC’s minimal speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream as its qualifying threshold of what constitutes “unserved” areas. Assuming this reflects an administration policy priority, we expected NTIA to adopt the 25/3 Mbps benchmark for funding eligibility. This low benchmark limits the pool of areas eligible for NTIA grant funding. The enabling legislation also clearly requires proposed projects not to duplicate federally funded areas, so it may exclude all RDOF-funded areas. In fact, in a recent webinar, NTIA suggested RDOF-funded areas should be excluded, but they also recognized that some would be going through a long process of certification and therefore could be eligible for federal funding – but the timeline just doesn’t work out to clarify this in time for submitting the grant application. And NITA has not clearly indicated whether SpaceX satellite areas would be considered ineligible. In other words, NTIA grant funds could be a lot more restrictive than FRF or CPF funds.

While these limitations restrict possible proposed service areas, we must also highlight that these funds can be applied toward unserved areas bridging or right outside RDOF-awarded areas and incorporate middle-mile and backhaul fiber necessary to reach those unserved areas.

  • United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect will have strings attached.  While we do not anticipate ReConnect grant funding to open until early 2022, USDA has more strings attached in enabling legislation than other grant programs. USDA does have some discretion, but it only funds infrastructure in unserved areas. While we hope USDA will readjust its eligibility requirements from 10/1 to 25/3 Mbps, there are no guarantees. We still expect it to have stringent eligibility requirements and require large matching shares for its grant program.
  • Economic Development Administration (EDA) has more flexibility and generous funding but remains a heavy lift. EDA has lately seen more projects with a strong broadband component. It does not have any rules regarding what broadband speeds are eligible, but it requires documentation on economic impact and has strongly preferred projects that extend to businesses rather than residential buildings, even with a remote work justification. EDA requires the applicant—a public or nonprofit entity—to own the infrastructure. Since many of our government clients do not want to manage, let alone operate broadband infrastructure, and EDA will not allow handing over assets to a private partner, a workable business model requires some creative thinking. EDA also generally focuses on direct impact to business locations and are less interested in residential ones. That translates to a heavily involved process for finding the right model regarding ownership, control, management, and operations; identifying beneficiary businesses; and soliciting letters of support. But look out for the EDA to release NOFOs regarding the $3 billion in ARPA funds in short order. We anticipate some funds to be directly set aside for broadband projects. 
  • The recommended, but not required, 10 percent match for NTIA BIP is a welcome low bar and does not require cash commitments from strained local government budgets. NTIA has indicated it will consider grant proposals favorably if they include a 10 percent or higher match from the partnership, but it does not need to be in cash. Thankfully, the 10 percent threshold is fairly low and in-line with what an ISP partner can contribute, and because in-kind matching is allowed, planning efforts and staff support hours qualify.

Recommendation

In light of this analysis, we recommend that you discuss setting aside funds from your local allocation of FRF—however modest it may be—with your government decision-makers to target underserved areas that would otherwise prove difficult to fund with federal or state grant funding. Just keep in mind that such projects should fulfill the FRF’s proposed requirements of 100/100 Mbps and only allow cable with 100/20 Mbps if the project can show there are significant cost or physical barriers to deploying a symmetric solution, and it can indicate a roadmap to symmetric speeds.

NTIA funds could be targeted toward unserved areas bridging or right outside RDOF-awarded areas and incorporate middle-mile and backhaul fiber tying the areas together and providing additional resiliency and capacity – including in the form of multi-year leased IRU fiber, which NTIA has indicated are allowable costs. State or local FRF funds can then be set aside as backstop if an NTIA grant Is not awarded.

FRF funds—local and state (if there aren’t additional restrictions added by a state grant program)—are more flexible. As long as unserved areas are specifically targeted, there are no restrictions from picking up areas that may have prior service. This is important for areas that do not qualify for traditional grant programs because they are technically served with 25/3, but actual performance is poor, or have costly subscriptions pricing creating adoption barriers. It can also be a solution for areas where it is difficult to demonstrate that areas are in fact unserved, e.g., due to spotty fixed wireless connectivity.

EDA grants should be considered for specific economically depressed areas that may be technically served but lack the broadband speed options necessary to sustain economic growth; retain and attract businesses; and allow critical remote work, remote learning, and telehealth options; and stem population flight.

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

JUN

17

Putting State Broadband Funds to Work: Best Practices In State Rural Broadband Grant Programs

Joanne Hovis, President
Ryland Sherman, Senior Research Associate
Jacob Levin, Senior Analyst

After a year of pandemic and crisis, the scale of our national digital divide is at last recognized by policymakers at all levels, with federal, state, and local governments making unprecedented commitments to narrow the divide.

While most of the funds to address these challenges flow from the federal government, it is at the state, county, and local levels where remarkable innovation has developed.

Particularly critical in this moment are state-level efforts to distribute federal funds and incubate local initiatives.

Those states that have long-established programs for addressing rural broadband gaps offer a valuable history of lessons learned, both of what works and what doesn’t. Through more than a decade of significant efforts and experimentation in broadband funding strategies, new innovations and trends have emerged that offer insights for other states that are developing new rural broadband funding programs or retooling existing programs.

Given this rich set of data and experience, this paper describes the commonalities among many of the leading state rural broadband funding programs and recommends best practices. In subsequent case studies to be published online later this year, we will illustrate these programs and practices in more depth.

This post was excerpted from “Putting State Broadband Funds to Work: Best Practices In State Rural Broadband Grant Programs,” a paper published on June 16, 2021 by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. You can download it at their website.

Published: Thursday, June 17, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

MAY

20

First Take on NTIA’s Newest Broadband Grant Program

Heather D. Mills, V.P. for Grant & Funding Strategies
Ziggy Rivkin-Fish, CGEIT, V.P. for Broadband Strategy

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) on May 19, 2021, for the Broadband Infrastructure Program—what the Consolidated Appropriations Act referred to as the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program. The funding window for submission of grant applications is now open and will close on August 17, 2021.

This program represents a remarkable opportunity for communities and their private partners. Based on our first take on the NOFO, NTIA will fund projects that represent win-win, shared-risk scenarios as between public and private entities: projects in which public entities fund, build, and maintain communications infrastructure assets and their private partners operate those networks and provide services to the public.

This is a model we’ve long analyzed, developed, and championed because of the opportunity for communities to share risk and effort with private partners.

Here are key points you should understand about the program in general:

  1. This program is intended to support partnerships between a state or local jurisdiction of a state and a service provider capable of providing fixed broadband service. To qualify as an eligible partner for this program, an entity must deliver “broadband service” as defined by the statute.
  2. The program clearly prioritizes rural projects, but it does not rule out a project in urban areas if the project meets all of the other requirements. All will depend on your application’s score and the number of other applications NTIA receives.
  3. The program has a $5 million floor and a $30 million ceiling. If you plan to ask for funds above this range, be sure to have a strong justification. If you are interested in less than $5 million, your application should address the reasons for needing less.
  4. The program has only $288 million in total funding—for the entire country. Unfortunately, this means that competition will be stiff and only a fraction of worthy projects will be funded. For that reason, we recommend communities develop grant applications that are usable not only for this NOFO, but also to apply for funds under other state and federal programs.

While you don’t have long to get your application in, you need to carefully consider your project strategy as you develop your application materials. We plan to release a more detailed analysis of NTIA’s scoring and prioritization process in the coming days; here are our key takeaways so far:

  • No match is required, but you might consider a 10 percent match to get more points. Willingness to provide a match—in cash or in-kind—will garner you extra points in NTIA’s scoring. If you do offer the 10 percent match, it’s binding. You can structure your partnership with a provider to include their costs as an in-kind match if the partner is passing through the costs. As a caveat for in-kind match: Be sure you understand the requirements for the Indirect Cost Rate. If you have a way to provide cash and want to be competitive in a market where it might be difficult to find partners or where the supply chain for materials may be challenged, matching funds will give the project capital with which to purchase and deploy assets.
  • You can propose a middle-mile project or purchase an indefeasible right of use (IRU). Your proposal will have to prioritize interconnections with last-mile networks, and you will need to describe in detail how a middle-mile network will benefit the last-mile provider and how an IRU will enable your network design. Remember the description of your project’s level of impact will be essential to your total score.
  • Municipal, cooperative, or non-profit providers are encouraged to apply. The NOFO defines an eligible partnership as a “partnership between: (A) a State, or one or more political subdivisions of a State; and (B) a provider of fixed broadband service,” and the NTIA notes in the opening paragraphs of its program description that it “encourages municipalities, non-profits, or cooperatives that own and/or operate broadband networks to participate in this program as part of a covered partnership.” Although we don’t yet know the details of what kind of partner a municipal or cooperative ISP would need, it’s clear that such applicants are well-positioned for this opportunity. We’ll share more detail on this topic as we learn more from NTIA.
  • The lead applicant is not the private partner. The state or local division of government serves as the lead and will bear ultimate responsibility for the application, meaning that if the private partner fails to perform, the applicant is still responsible. In light of that, the selection of a partner or partners with a strong financial track record and established operations will be seen as favorable by the reviewers—and will be critical for public entities, as they will ultimately be responsible for all grant obligations.
  • Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and other “enforceable buildout commitments” matter. While the mention is fleeting under the definition of unserved, the eligibility of unserved areas that have a funding commitment from another program such as RDOF, the Connect America Fund (CAF II), or ReConnect is clear: If a federal program is paying for a buildout—including planned buildouts that haven’t yet put a shovel in the ground—that area is not eligible. To be clear: RDOF-awarded areas are not eligible—so plan accordingly.
  • Your availability maps are likely just as good as, or even better than, the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM). If you’ve recently completed a needs assessment or survey of broadband service availability in your area, you are well-prepared for submission; speed test data compiled within the past two years will also be helpful to your application narrative. Based on our initial read of the NOFO, applicants who aren’t located in states that are participating in NBAM will not have access to NBAM prior to submitting applications. If you are in one of the 36 states participating in NBAM (updated as of May 17, 2021), you should contact your state’s NBAM administrator.[1]
  • You should prioritize connecting as many unserved addresses as possible. NTIA will first conduct an initial screening of applications to confirm eligibility and completeness; it will then prioritize projects based on the defined priority areas, and review applications in order of priority area based on point scores. As such, if your application meets a “qualified” point status, and if it is part of the first priority group (see below), it will be reviewed against other qualified first-priority applications. (We don’t yet know how NTIA will handle applications that meet more than one of the stated priorities.) If there is money left over after the review of the first priority group, NTIA will then move on to the second priority group and so on. NTIA’s priority areas are:
    • Greatest number of households in an eligible area
    • Rurality
    • “Cost-effective” while prioritizing by rurality
    • Speed of “not less than 100 megabits per second and an upload speed of not less than 20 megabits per second”
    • All other applications that meet the basic requirements of the NOFO

One bright note as you begin your application: NTIA’s application submittal process is less burdensome than some others in that you can prepare almost everything outside of the Grants.gov portal, allowing you to simply upload most of your application materials.

In our next post, we’ll dive into the details on how the NTIA will be scoring and prioritizing submissions and how to ensure your strategic approach to an application for the Broadband Infrastructure Program will maximize your points.

CTC’s grant and funding strategies team continues to analyze the latest funding developments. Please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.


[1] See https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/resources/national-broadband-availability-map or email nbam@ntia.gov.


Published: Thursday, May 20, 2021 by CTC Technology & Energy

MAY

20

Greendale, IN Issues Broadband RFP

The City of Greendale, Indiana, has released an RFP to identify an entity to plan, construct, and operate middle-mile and last-mile broadband infrastructure. This infrastructure will be used to deliver broadband services to the City’s currently unserved or underserved areas.

City leaders regard broadband as foundational to the City’s vitality. The City’s critical priority is to successfully implement an affordable, reliable, fast broadband connection to homes and businesses beyond what is currently available, allowing for broadband-dependent work and distance learning. Ideally, the infrastructure would be fiber broadband.

Responses are due July 14th by 4:00 p.m. local time.

To read the full RFP and attachments, click here.

Published: by CTC Technology & Energy