How local governments can prepare for the new federal broadband grants
The recent infrastructure deal in the Senate increases the chances of seeing significant new, federal money being made available to states and cities to address the lack of access to affordable, high-speed broadband. In its current state, $65 billion will be made available for underserved areas in both rural and more densely populated jurisdictions.
It will be a few months for the House and Senate to finalize the bill, but as there is little disagreement on its merits some version of it is likely to pass. Savvy government leaders will use this time to increase their chances of getting a share of these funds by getting their grant strategy in place. Having served as an expert, outside reviewer over several years for a government broadband grants program, it has become clear to me that there are consistent areas where many applications are weak, leading to low scores from reviewers and ultimately, being denied the grant. Broadband grants are highly competitive—paying attention to the following areas will, I guarantee, substantially improve your odds of success.
Start the process now. If you haven’t already begun, you’re behind. A good grant application will reflect that a substantial amount of organization and preparatory work has been done before the application was even started. While we don’t know what the ultimate grant program will look like, we do know what areas are universally included in broadband grants, so you should begin to develop or enhance those areas now. Too many grant applications I’ve reviewed look like they were afterthoughts put together only after the grant applications were released.
You need a broadband program. Grant programs like to see approaches that are “shovel-ready.” You should have a comprehensive program in place now with these pieces at a minimum: a strategic plan; people and organizations with roles and responsibilities; a good understanding of your status quo based on research, studies or surveys; and an overall project plan. Applications that state they “will” develop a program, or describe one that was obviously slapped together at the last minute will compare unfavorably against your competitors—they’ve been holding meetings for months.
Everybody has the same vision. The benefits of broadband are widely known and generally accepted by all—some of us were making these same arguments more than 20 years ago. As a result, you don’t need to spend a lot of time describing the generic benefits of broadband. What I as a reviewer of your grant don’t know is how it will help your particular community. Your vision should describe how your community will leverage the grant to improve education, health, economic development, public safety, etc. Include all areas that are relevant to your approach and leave out what is not.
Be credible. A surprising number of grant applications I’ve reviewed can best be described as being “fanciful.” Common among the mistakes is overstating the number of jobs created or retained; incredibly high broadband take rates; unreasonable timelines for completing the necessary bidding and contracting; and construction schedules that could never be met. Another is the “If we build the network the ISPs will come” argument. Unless you have proof of interest otherwise, such as the results of an RFI, I would avoid this argument. There are many factors in commercial ISP decisions, and you offering dark fiber for lease will not necessarily change their calculation. Remember, the granting authority has a responsibility to only approve funding for programs that are judged likely to succeed. Your approach has to be credible—incredible applications are rarely approved.
Develop partnerships now. Partnerships are crucial, but they take time to develop. They help with your credibility, sustainability and overall capacity, and are required in some grant programs. Partnerships should be diverse and reach beyond the government sphere. For example, local colleges and universities often have technical resources that they can bring to bear. Likewise, publicly owned utilities make excellent broadband partners—they have rights-of-way, network management, billing and customer support in place already. Local chambers of commerce and other non-profit organizations are usually more than happy to support the effort. Try to establish two types of partners—those that will play a role in program execution and those that will provide letters of support. One technique I’ve found that helps is to have the Mayor or County Executive host a briefing by the project team for all potential partners—people tend to accept those invitations.
Think sustainability. Sustainability to some degree depends on future events that you can’t control. So, reviewers look for reasonable assumptions in judging how sustainable your approach will likely be. The key to broadband sustainability is generally Take Rate and Monthly Fees. If your application is for an extension of an existing solution, you can extrapolate those numbers from there; otherwise, a survey documenting the level of interest would assist your sustainability score. Merely positing that “x percent” will take the service at “x dollars” without data to back it up will lead to a poor sustainability score every time. Additional factors you should address include technical support, tech refresh and ongoing network management.
Write it right. Another surprisingly common problem is grant applications that are poorly written. In some cases, poor writing can make your argument difficult to comprehend, and it certainly suggests a cavalier attitude to the process. While you won’t be rated on your writing style per se, anything that makes reviewing your application more difficult can lead to lower scores. Also, have one person do the writing if you can so the entire application is in the same voice and style—but if you cut and paste content from multiple writers, please make sure the fonts match.
There are few applications I‘ve reviewed over the years that nail each of these perfectly. Fortunately, you don’t need a perfect “A” to get approved, many “B” applications get funded—“C”s and “D”s don’t. If you follow the above advice, you should be able to produce a Grade-A application and maximize your chances of success.
Mike Hernon ([email protected]) is the principal of the Public Sector Partnership Co. LLC. Previously, Hernon was the City of Boston CIO, where he led a robust broadband program. He wrote the broadband chapter in Public Technology Institute’s 2015 book CIO Leadership for Cities and Counties and has served as an expert reviewer for federal rural broadband grants on behalf of the Appalachian Regional Commission.