NTIA Has Millions for Broadband Infrastructure

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, May 21, 2021

Weekly Digest

NTIA Has Millions for Broadband Infrastructure

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Round-Up for the Week of May 17-21, 2021

Kevin Taglang

On May 19, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the availability of $288 million in grant funding for the deployment of broadband infrastructure. In a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), NTIA invites eligible parties to submit applications, provides information on the amount of funding available, discusses how it will allocate funds to qualifying applicants, gives instructions on the application process, and describes the evaluation criteria for application review and the factors for award selection. 

The Broadband Infrastructure Program was created by Congress in the Consolidated  Appropriations Act, 2021.

To be eligible for a Broadband Infrastructure Program grant, applicants must name the players in a local partnership, describe the project proposed for funding—including the cost of the project and the speed of the broadband service offerings—and identify the proposed service area of the project. Additionally, applicants must disclose any other federal or state support that the broadband service provider that is part of the partnership has received to deploy broadband service in the proposed service area.

What Are Broadband Infrastructure Program Grants For?

The purpose of the Broadband Infrastructure Program is to provide federal funding to deploy broadband infrastructure to eligible service areas of the country. The Broadband Infrastructure Program makes grants on a competitive basis to competitively and technologically neutral projects. To qualify the broadband infrastructure must be capable of providing service with: (A) a download speed of not less than 25 megabits per second; (B) an upload speed of not less than 3 megabits per second; and (C) a latency sufficient to support real-time, interactive applications. An eligible service area for a project is a census block in which broadband service is not available at one or more households or businesses in the census block. 

As examples, grant funds can be used to support:

  • the costs of construction, improvement, and/or acquisition of facilities and telecommunications equipment required to provide qualifying broadband service, including infrastructure for backhaul, middle-, and last-mile networks;
  • the cost of long-term leases (for terms greater than one year) of facilities required to provide qualifying broadband service, including indefeasible right-of-use (IRU) agreements;
  • the costs of engineering design, permitting, and work related to environmental, historical, and cultural reviews;
  • personnel costs, including salaries and fringe benefits for staff and consultants required for the implementation of the project (such as project managers, program directors, subject matter experts, grant administrators, financial analysts, accountants, and attorneys);
  • reasonable pre-application expenses, which include expenses related to preparing an application, in an amount not to exceed $50,000. (Additionally, pre-application costs are incurred at the sole risk of the applicant and will not be reimbursed by NTIA if the proposed project does not receive an award); and
  • other allowable costs necessary to carrying out programmatic activities of an award.

NTIA expects to make awards under this program within the funding range of $5,000,000 to $30,000,000. (This range is not a required minimum or maximum, but covered partnerships requesting amounts for projects outside of this range must provide a reasonable explanation for the variance in their project size.)

In accordance with the governing law, the award period is one year from the initial receipt of grant funds. However, NTIA may extend the period if the partnership certifies that:

  • the covered partnership has a plan for use of the grant funds;
  • the construction project is underway; or
  • extenuating circumstances require an extension of time to allow the project to be completed.

The law does not require cost sharing or matching funds. However, NTIA will favorably consider applications that propose to contribute a nonfederal cost match of at least 10 percent of the total eligible costs of the project. Matching funds may be in the form of either cash or in-kind contributions. If part of an application, they will be a binding commitment under the award. In-kind contributions can include: employee or volunteer services; equipment; supplies; indirect costs; computer hardware and software; and use of facilities.

Who is Eligible to Receive a Broadband Infrastructure Program Grant?

The Broadband Infrastructure Program is somewhat unique in requiring what it calls "covered partnerships." A covered partnership includes a state (or one or more subdivisions of a state—looking at you, counties and cities) and a provider of fixed broadband service. Partnerships can include more than one broadband service provider and service providers can be part of more than one partnership. The partnership does not need to be documented in a formal legal agreement at the time of application submission but should be expressed in the application as a general intent to cooperate in implementing the covered broadband project proposed for an award. The governmental entity must serve as the lead applicant for the covered partnership and would enter into the grant agreement with NTIA and assume primary operational and financial responsibility for completing the project. NTIA encourages municipalities, nonprofits, or cooperatives that own and/or operate broadband networks to participate in this program as part of a covered partnership.

Of note, NTIA is encouraging government entities that are contemplating forming a covered partnership with one or more fixed broadband providers to coordinate and consult with their state’s broadband office or other coordinating body to ensure that the proposal is consistent with a state’s broadband plan or priorities. Such coordination, NTIA says, enables the state to evaluate the projects and ensure the submission of top priority projects for funding.

Applicants must disclose any other federal or state support that the broadband service provider has received to deploy broadband service in the proposed service area. NTIA will factor such information as it considers applications eligible for award, but the receipt of other federal or state funds does not necessarily preclude the covered partnership from receiving a grant under the Broadband Infrastructure Program. NTIA will also ensure that necessary investments are designed to provide an adequate minimum level of service and are unlikely to be made using private sources of funds.

How Will NTIA Evaluate Applications?

In accordance with the law that created the Broadband Infrastructure Program, NTIA will give priority to applications in this order:

(1) Covered broadband projects designed to provide broadband service to the greatest number of households in an eligible service area;
(2) Covered broadband projects designed to provide broadband service in a rural eligible service area that is wholly within any area other than:
     (i) a county, city, or town that has a population of more than 50,000 inhabitants; and
     (ii) the urbanized area contiguous and adjacent to a city or town of more than 50,000 inhabitants;
(3) Covered broadband projects that are the most cost-effective, prioritizing such projects in areas that are the most rural;
(4) Covered broadband projects designed to provide broadband service with a download speed of not less than 100 megabits per second and an upload speed of not less than 20 megabits per second; and
(5) Any other covered broadband project that meets the program requirements.

Additionally, NTIA is interested in ensuring that any broadband infrastructure deployed under this grant program will have the ability to evolve, sustain, and scale for future advanced services that will also be important to the U.S. economy. NTIA encourages the submission of project proposals that deploy future-proof infrastructure, e.g., fiber.

NTIA will evaluate those eligible applications that satisfy these statutory purposes and funding priorities. The evaluation criteria for a merit review of an application are grouped into three categories: (1) Project Purpose and Benefits; (2) Project Viability; and (3) Project Budget and Sustainability. Each application will be evaluated against the following objective criteria.

1. Project Purpose and Benefits

A. Level of Impact in the Proposed Service Area: Reviewers will consider the number of total households, businesses, and community anchor institutions that the project will connect in the proposed service area; the total number of unserved households; the total number of households, businesses, and community anchor institutions that will receive qualifying broadband service; and the total number of households, businesses, and community anchor institutions that will receive broadband service at speeds greater than qualifying broadband service. Reviewers will also consider whether there are service providers already present in all or part of the area, as well as the pricing, coverage, and available capacity of those providers. Reviewers will consider what proportion of the end-users projected to be served are located in unserved areas and may take into account any comments submitted by existing broadband service providers. Projects to deploy middle-mile networks must prioritize connecting with last-mile networks serving unserved households and substantiate the incremental value to the last mile connection to the middle-mile network, including, increased network capacity for last-mile circuits, increased network performance, and lower costs that are passed onto end users, as well as identify potential or partnered last-mile networks that could or would leverage the middle-mile network in the proposed service area to receive points in this category.

B. Affordability of Services Offered: Applications will be evaluated on the pricing of the broadband services offered compared to existing broadband services in the proposed service area or based on nationwide averages. Applicants should demonstrate that this pricing is competitive and affordable to their target markets.

2. Project Viability

A. Technical Approach and Related Network Capacity and Performance: Applications will be scored on the comprehensiveness and appropriateness of the technical
solution for the community need and related benefits (capacity and performance). Applications will be evaluated on the proposed technological solution and the ability of the proposed network to provide sufficient capacity, as well as scalability, to meet the needs of the households, businesses, and community anchor institutions in the proposed service area. Networks with higher end-user speeds and the potential for incremental future capacity/bandwidth increases to offer higher broadband speeds in the future, will receive greater consideration. Reviewers will look for proposed networks that deliver broadband service with 95 percent or more of all peak period measurements of network round-trip latency at or below 80 milliseconds. Reviewers will give additional consideration for construction projects that are “shovel ready” and capable of completion within a one-year award period.

B. Applicant’s Organizational Capability: Reviewers will assess whether the applicant has the organizational capability necessary to undertake and complete the project. Reviewers will consider the experience and expertise of the project management team and the past track record of the organization with projects of a similar size and scope, as well as the organization’s capacity and readiness. Reviewers will also assess the applicant's partnership and/or subrecipient strategy, including how it complements the applicant's organizational capacity, as well as the project approach, feasibility, and timely completion of proposed project. NTIA will only fund proposals where it determines that the applicant has the organizational capability necessary to carry out the project to completion.

3. Project Budget and Sustainability

A. Reasonableness of the Budget: Reviewers will evaluate the reasonableness of the budget based on its clarity, level of detail, comprehensiveness, appropriateness to the proposed technical and programmatic solutions, the reasonableness of its costs, and whether the allocation of funds is sufficient to complete the tasks outlined in the project plan.

B. Sustainability of the Project: Applicants must convincingly demonstrate the ability of the project to be sustained beyond the award period. Reviewers will consider business plans, market projections, third-party funding commitments, and other data as may be appropriate to the nature of the applicant and the proposed project. Reviewers will consider demonstrations of community commitments or anchor tenant commitments that would help promote sustainability. Reviewers will look for project plans that describe the ability to scale and integrate evolving advanced services over time (such as interoperable interfaces for fifth-generation fixed wireless capability or by deploying fiber).

C. Leverage of Non-Federal Resources: Reviewers will give additional consideration to those applications that propose to contribute a non-federal cost share of at least 10 percent of the total eligible project costs as reflected in the proposed project budget.

What's the Timeline?

Applications for Broadband Infrastructure Program grants are being accepted through August 17, 2021. NTIA expects to complete its review, selection of successful applicants, and award processing by November 15, 2021. NTIA expects the earliest start date for awards to be November 29, 2021. By law the projects are to be completed in one year; however, NTIA is creating a process for projects to get extensions to complete work.

This article is meant to serve as a quick summary of the Broadband Infrastructure Program. There is much more detail in the Notice of Funding Opportunity. For communities interested in applying for a grant, we encourage you to carefully read NTIA's full notice. NTIA is also holding a series of webinars to further inform the public about the program. The next Broadband Infrastructure Program webinar will be held on June 9 and 10.

Quick Bits

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Upcoming Events

May 25—Using ARPA Funds to Boost Economic Development, Strengthen Fiscal Health (Pew Charitable Trusts)

May 27—How to Bring Gigabit Broadband to Rural Communities (Harmonic)

May 27—Have Broadband Networks Peaked, or Is the Best Yet to Come? (Fiber Broadband Association)

June 7—RightsCon 2021 (Access Now)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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