By Liz Shay, Senior Grants Development Consultant
Access to the internet is critical for so many daily activities (such as reading this article, for instance). The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, recognizes the importance of broadband for Americans and provides significant funding to implement solutions. Through the Internet for All initiative, this funding is being distributed to states, territories, and other eligible recipients through various grant programs. Even before IIJA, federal agencies such as the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture were and continue to fund broadband grant programs. States have also started to make their own contributions to broadband efforts. Now is a great time to be pursuing grant funding for your broadband projects.
Most of these programs are only open for about 60 days, which leaves very little time to prepare a competitive application after the solicitation is released. There are many components of these applications that you can prepare now so your organization is ready to finish program-specific components, last-minute details, and uploading processes once the application window opens.
- Organization details: One of the most important components of every application is the information about your organization. Gather all the documents about the history of your organization, mission statements, financial documents, and other details that will demonstrate that you are a well-organized and successful entity capable of implementing the kind of broadband project you plan to propose. For some types of organizations (such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or other for-profit entities), applicants may need to submit pro forma financial information, so start drafting those documents and making appropriate projects. Many funders also require a recent audit of the lead applicant; start that process now so that it will be completed prior to the submission window. Also collect registration information, such as Tax IDs, System for Award Management (SAM) registration, logins for the grant maker’s application portal, and confirm your Authorized Organization Representative (AOR) information is up to date. If anything has expired or is about to, update those registrations so that you don’t risk not being able to submit because you aren’t current and active in the appropriate systems.
- Needs assessment: You are presumably planning a broadband project because residents and organizations in your area do not have (sufficient) internet access currently. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is developing broadband coverage maps, the information on those maps is often not all you want to include in a grant application when you are demonstrating the need for your project. The exact definition of unserved and underserved area varies from funder to funder and program to program, but the IIJA defines unserved areas as those that are lacking any broadband service or have less than 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up with sufficient latency to support real-time interactive applications. Underserved areas are those that lack broadband speeds of at least 100 Mbps down/20 Mbps up with sufficient latency to support real-time interactive applications. Conduct speed tests and collect other data to be able to quantitatively demonstrate that your proposed service area is currently unserved and/or underserved. If parts of your planned service area do not meet these definitions, consider redefining the service area to make it more competitive.
- Community impact: Although one goal of broadband implementation projects is to simply connect residences and businesses to the internet, there are often other related goals that the funder is also interested in achieving. Think about the broader impact that your project will have on the end users. Will residents now be able to participate in distance learning or remote work opportunities? Can they have telehealth appointments with specialists located far from their community? Will the community benefit from new economic opportunities and additional businesses joining the area? Determine the needs of the community or communities your project will impact and reflect on the impacts broadband could have on those needs. Collect or find data demonstrating those needs to help share them with the funder.
- Partnerships: As should be clear from the need to articulate community impact, broadband projects are inherently collaborative. At a minimum, these projects should include at least one ISP to install and manage the broadband equipment and at least one local government who can discuss how their residents will be benefiting from the broadband implementation. Many projects will also need to consider community organizations, workforce development boards, economic development boards, and/or community anchor institutions (such as schools, public safety entities, and healthcare facilities). Determine which organizations you will need to collaborate with to develop your comprehensive broadband project and demonstrate the need that will be fulfilled through its implementation. Once you have identified those organizations, start conversations with them now to make sure everyone is on the same page and is interested in working on the project. Create and sign memoranda of understanding, documents that show what each organization will be contributing to the overall project and confirmation of their commitment to follow through on the planned efforts. These documents are helpful to ensure a successful partnership but are also often required to be included in applications to help articulate the partnership(s) to the funder.
- Service area and network mapping: Funders want to understand all the details of your planned project. Map out the exact boundaries of your proposed service area(s). Put them in the context of other service areas your organization covers (as appropriate). Make sure the map shows the community or communities you will be covering and a version that gives the birds-eye view so funders can see how you fit within the state/region. Plot out exactly where you will be installing equipment and what that equipment will be to meet the required level of service for all applicable potential end users in the service area. Determine how much it will cost to implement the plans. Where you are installing equipment, determine what potential environmental impacts might come into play and clearly document them so they can be discussed in appropriate sections of the application. If you aren’t sure about any of these pieces, bring in vendors and/or network engineers to help with this process.
Current and anticipated broadband grant programs provide great opportunities to implement critical infrastructure and meet the needs of Americans. These projects are often large and complex, so developing competitive applications during the short application windows can be daunting. Your organization can get started on many of the important and time-consuming components of these applications now to put yourselves in the best possible position for success once a solicitation is released. Collect information, build partnerships, and map out major project components to use in your final application materials.
Caption: IIJA brought an influx of broadband funding to add to existing annual programs. Applications can often be complex, so get started on necessary components now before solicitations are released.