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 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