By Heather Mills, V.P. for Grant and Funding Strategies
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will distribute more than $2 billion in new broadband grant funding through three new programs created by the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act. (Read more about the programs here.)
If your community or institution will be eligible to apply for one or more of these programs, don’t wait for NTIA to issue rules later this spring. Start preparing the broad outlines of your proposed projects now—so you’re ready to submit a competitive application when the window opens this summer. While the programs will have different rules and requirements, your strategic approach to preparing an application will share these key steps:
Understand and document your community’s broadband needs
While many communities have a range of broadband needs, grant applications require a targeted proposal. So, first things first: Now is the time to identify a specific need you want to address.
Define your project area and evaluate your market. We know the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program will favor applicants who can serve the greatest number of households in an eligible service area. The other programs’ applications will include questions about the communities to be served, too.
If you’ve been studying your local broadband gaps, you may already have a handle on those demographics; if not—or if you need more granular detail—now is the time to develop data and a market narrative.
Now is also the time to draw a line around your proposed project area. You can fine-tune as you finalize your application, but for now you want a general sense of the service area—because that will drive your technical design and cost estimates.
As you write your application, you will need to explain the state of the market in the service area. For many grant programs, you must demonstrate that your services will be better and no more expensive than other services offered nearby; and you should be prepared to present a narrative discussion of why the proposed services will be both marketable and affordable.
Watch out for existing federal funding. We know NTIA will be coordinating with the FCC and the USDA to ensure grant funds are not expended unnecessarily in areas that are already receiving funding through those agencies. It will be important to verify that your proposed project routes don’t run afoul of any funded areas.
While NTIA has not yet released information about whether Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF)-awarded areas will be eligible for funding through the new programs, you should be prepared in case they are not. CTC’s interactive RDOF Auction Results tool is a good starting point for developing an alternative service area if necessary.
Develop a technical analysis and cost estimates for construction, equipment, and operations
Once you have the outlines of a project that will address your community’s broadband needs, start developing your technical and programmatic approaches—and, most importantly, the estimated capital and operating costs for implementing your plan.
As NTIA issues its rules and requirements, and as we develop a better understanding of the relative size of the awards NTIA might make, you will need to fine-tune the design and cost estimate to improve your application’s likelihood of securing funding. But the sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.
Keep in mind that you may need to implement your grant-funded project quickly, so be realistic about your proposed timeline. For example, the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program has a one-year expenditure timeline for construction projects (though a one-year extension is possible on a case-by-case basis).
Also, recognize that even if you have to scale back a design for one of these applications, that original application could be the basis for another grant application you develop later.
Develop a business strategy
Regardless of the program to which you apply, or the specifics of your proposal, NTIA will be looking for applicants that demonstrate a strong, business strategy. They want to award funds to financially viable programs—so your application needs to make the case that you are investment-ready and sustainable. In our experience, that means the following:
Build partnerships. For localities that do not have experience operating their own networks, partnerships with established ISPs are a way to demonstrate operational capabilities. (NTIA will be specifically looking for public-private partnerships for the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.)
Public–private collaboration is also a key way for many local, state, and Tribal applicants to achieve their broadband goals while reducing their financial risk. That’s because, in a well-designed partnership, localities and Tribes are able to trade revenue potential for community-focused results. In this type of scenario, the goal is for private partners to expand the availability and affordability of broadband services to residents whom the market has previously overlooked.
Start talking to potential partners now. While the Tribal program doesn’t require a partner, the Promote Broadband Expansion Grants Program does. This is intentional and meant to enable fast deployment of proposed projects. You’ll need proof of an intended relationship.
Develop a sustainable business model. Grant programs are fundamentally designed to deliver limited funds where they will do the most good. For NTIA, that means identifying applications for solid projects that will continue delivering benefits long after the grant award has been spent. Just as you would if you were developing a project to be funded with bonds or as part of a local budget appropriation, now is the time to take your cost estimates and other inputs, and prepare a business model to demonstrate cost-effectiveness and sustainability.
One key element to keep in mind: Financial matches. While NTIA will not be requiring Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program applicants to provide a match, the other two programs may require some match. If past NTIA grant programs are any indication, we anticipate this could be anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Plan accordingly.
Create a grant checklist and start marking off the basics
We expect NTIA’s grant application windows to be relatively short—so the more you can do to get ready now, the better off you’ll be. Start with the basics. For example, do you have Sam.gov and Grants.gov accounts? You’ll need both to apply to any of NTIA’s programs—and you can imagine how many other entities will be applying for credentials when the application rules are released. Do not wait until the last minute to set up these accounts.
Start gathering the many other types of information and support materials you’ll need for your application, too. In our experience, you’ll need a range of data and numbers to not only establish eligibility for the program you are applying to, but also to provide content for the grant narrative. Start thinking now about supporting materials, ranging from letters from your governor to documents that demonstrate the support of local government, prospective customers, and the business community.
Our recommendation, as with other programs like this, is to go above and beyond; additional letters (such as from your congressional delegation or the Chamber of Commerce) can only help to demonstrate the breadth of support in the community for your project.
The CTC Grant and Funding Strategies team will update this space with more information about these programs as it becomes available. In the meantime, please contact us if you have questions or would like to discuss how CTC can assist you.
 The three programs are the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program ($1 billion), the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program ($300 million), and the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program ($285 million). Read more about the programs in this post.