USDA Announces New Rural Broadband Grant Funding

Cat Blake, Civic Technology Analyst

In late September, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) opened the FY2021 funding round for its well-regarded Community Connect broadband funding program. Community Connect is a competitive grant program that distributes awards to rural, unserved communities demonstrating economic necessity. Awards range from $100,000 to $3 million and require a 15 percent cash match.

Expect the program to be competitive—historically only about 10 percent of applicants have received awards. Additionally, time is of the essence: The application window is currently open and closes December 23, 2020.

The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) does not include a program budget, suggesting that there is some flexibility to the amount of funding available. In previous years, the program budget has been about $35 million. RUS has indicated that it expects to award 20 grants this funding cycle.

The FOA can be found here and the program application guide here. The following is a brief summary of the opportunity; please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Who is eligible to apply?

State, local, and tribal governments, nonprofits, and private companies are all eligible to apply for Community Connect. RUS has a history of making awards to all of these types of entities and a strong track record of granting funds to public entities.

Under program rules, the applicant will be required to own the infrastructure and operate the service. If you are a public entity but would prefer not to own and operate the infrastructure yourself, you can build a collaboration with a private sector partner to leverage this opportunity. Your private partner would be the applicant and your role would be to improve the likelihood of success by working with them to develop a compelling application, secure letters of support, demonstrate financial viability, and otherwise strengthen the case for grant funding that would benefit your jurisdiction.

What geographic areas are eligible?

Eligible service areas must be contiguous and entirely within a rural area, which is defined for the purposes of this program as an area not located in an incorporated area that has a population of more than 20,000 people, nor in an urbanized area adjacent to a city or town that has a population of more than 50,000.

Further, an eligible service area must have no existing service at 10/1 Mbps speeds, excluding mobile and satellite service. This extremely high bar means that only very rural communities will be eligible for this program.

On the plus side, applicants can themselves define a proposed service area rather than being required to adhere to jurisdictional or other boundaries that may complicate eligibility.

What are the requirements of the program?

The Community Connect program includes important service commitments focused on community interests: Awardees must use their grant-funded facilities to offer broadband service at 25/3 Mbps or greater speeds to all residential and business customers within the defined service area. In addition, awardees must provide free service to all Essential Community Facilities (such as schools, public hospitals, emergency responders, etc.) within the service area for at least two years, and must also provide a community center with two computers and wireless access free of charge to users for at least two years.

Priority is given to areas that demonstrate “economic necessity,” which is evaluated based on factors such as persistent poverty, patterns of out-migration, and degree of rurality; planned service to substantially underserved trust areas; and planned service to community members with disabilities. Program scoring also includes consideration of economic characteristics, educational challenges, health care needs, and public safety issues in the community.

What is a compelling application strategy?

We recommend prospective applicants first analyze the unserved regions of their jurisdiction, then target the portions with the highest need in order to identify competitive potential service areas. A competitive application will demonstrate that the grant will have great impact on the community. We anticipate grant awards to favor applications that take a multi-jurisdictional and multisectoral approach, such as involving schools, a post office, and/or other institutions critical to the functioning of rural communities, and to have a strong economic development aspect, such as to stop migration outflows or attract new residents.

In our experience, RUS frequently makes awards to areas that are low-income, but we have also seen Community Connect grants awarded for areas with somewhat higher incomes so long as there is a convincing showing of the need for connectivity for such purposes as education or health care. Generally, a geographically modest project in a high-need community with good traction for community engagement would be a strong fit for this opportunity.

We are available to help

CTC can help with the full range of tasks related to Community Connect 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
  • Develop a public-private collaboration that enables your community to work with a private partner to leverage this opportunity
  • Develop a checklist of required project documentation and application requirements
  • Develop technical and financial models for your proposed project
  • Draft narrative sections of your application
  • Review a draft project budget
  • Edit and refine draft application packages
  • Assist you in creating an online application account (through SAM.gov and/or USDA eAuthentication) and submitting your application

Contact information for the CTC grants team

Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions. CTC’s funding strategies and grant-writing team stands ready to assist you and your private sector collaborators with your Community Connect application planning and with your other broadband planning needs.

Cat Blake, Civic Technology Analyst: cblake@ctcnet.us

Heather Mills, Team Lead, Funding Strategies: hmills@ctcnet.us

Ziggy Rivkin-Fish, Principal Grant Strategist: ziggy@ctcnet.us

Published: Thursday, October 1, 2020 by CTC Technology & Energy