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—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.) States must submit a planning application by July 12, 2022, to begin the process.
These plans are a critical first step for two reasons.
- 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.
- 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.
 See Page 13 of NOFO for State Digital Equity Planning Grants, Section II.C.2.