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Fiber Connect 2023 – Understanding the Cornucopia of Federal Funds

While NTIA’s BEAD program is the biggest federal broadband program that is coming into fruition, State Broadband Officers look to leverage billions in available funding from existing federal programs to determine how to best connect communities and constituents. Each different federal program has its own criteria, milestones, and procedures to determine funding awards and distribution, creating challenges sorting through and making the best use of the opportunities available. 

“We look for the one government agency, one department that is going to coordinate everything,” said Rick Talbot, Principal Analyst, ACG Research. “It doesn’t work that way. There are multiple departments and programs. Some are taking applications. Some have taken applications and they’re disbursing funds. But in order to reach out [and extend coverage], you need even more funding.”

At Fiber Connect 2023, the “Rationalizing Broadband Funding” panel at the State Broadband Summit brought together representatives from four federal agencies to discuss best practices when navigating their respective programs. Introducing the panel, Talbot noted the complexities involved in application, coordination, timelines, and the need for finding matching funds as necessary for grant programs, a point further highlighted by the panel’s moderator. 

“There are over 25 different federal programs that are administered by seven different federal agencies,” said Carol Mattey of Mattey Consulting, the panel’s moderator. “The challenge is ‘How do all of these programs fit together?’ Everybody is focused on BEAD, the big game in town. But these existing [federal] programs are already in place, they’ve already committed funding, they’re in the process of dispersing funding. How will state broadband offices be able to get all the pieces of the puzzle together?”

Representatives from the Department of Treasury, USDA Rural Development, the White House Council of Native American Affairs at the Department of Interior, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) outlined the characteristics of their respective broadband funding programs in play outside of BEAD. In applying for BEAD, state broadband offices are required by NTIA to identify existing federal state and local efforts already underway to address the digital divide in their initial proposals and to remove from eligibility locations that already have an existing commitment to deliver reliable 100/20 Mbps service, making coordination between agencies and state broadband offices vital. 

Department of Treasury – ARPA/Capital Projects Fund

Established under the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the Capital Projects Fund (CPF) allocated $10 billion for projects to help households and communities access health, education, and work resources through broadband infrastructure, digital connectivity, and multipurpose community facilities. 

CAPTION –Nicole Gerald, Policy Advisor for the U.S. Department of Treasury, rationalizes broadband
funding options during a panel at the State Broadband Summit. (Source: FBA)

“First and foremost, our speed standards are symmetrical,” said Nicolette Gerald, Policy Advisor, U.S. Department of Treasury. “We also have a preference for fiber and last mile.”

Since ARPA is a COVID relief program, projects funded by CPF must be fully operational by December 31, 2026, the expiration date of the Act. At the time of the panel in August, Gerald said Treasury had approved over $6.9 billion in broadband infrastructure projects in 45 states that expected to add about one million locations across the country. 

Department of Agriculture (USDA)

USDA’s telecommunications programs reside within the agency’s rural utilities and rural development mission area, with five existing programs plus the addition of the Broadband Technical Assistance (BTA) Program in the spring of 2023 through the Inflation Reduction Act. 

“We received about $20 million in BTA to be able to have technical assistance and getting into broadband deployment,” said Lakeisha Hood Moise, USDA Rural Development State Director for Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “You’ve probably heard ad nauseum about ReConnect. It is the go-to program for broadband access in rural communities, particularly because it is not just a loan program, but loan, grant, or loan/grant combination. In instances in communities that are persistently impoverished or socially vulnerable, we can do 100% grant and we can do no matching requirements.”

Other offerings from USDA include the agency’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, the Community Connect Grant Program to provide broadband service to rural, economically challenged communities where service doesn’t exist, and a distance learning and telemedicine program to build on top of rural broadband connectivity. In addition, reauthorization of the Farm Bill every five years results in a direct loan broadband program being incorporated into it, with the next reauthorization due this year. 

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

HUD’s urban development mission provides Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) that go out to roughly 1,200 counties, cities, and states, with cities and counties receiving the money directly and the states passing-through the money to cities and counties not receiving the money directly. Funding from these grants can be applied to public facilities and infrastructure to improve quality of life. CDBG money is relatively unique in that it can be used, unlike most federal dollars, as a local match source for other federal programs.

To address broadband needs, HUD issued CPD Notice 22-04 in 2020, requiring each state and local government to evaluate the availability of broadband access, particularly among low- and moderate-income households. 

“Broadband is one of the big [needs] that has come up after COVID,” stated Savin Ven Johnson, Deputy Director, Office of Block Grant Assistance, Office of Community Planning and Development, HUD. “We’ve put out several resources to help with navigating the broadband world. We’ve also put out a broadband quick guide that will provide examples of how the grantees can work with private companies, nonprofits, on the eligible infrastructure development and other projects and activities that can be used and be funded by CARES Act money.”

Department of Commerce – Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

A total of $3 billion dollars in grant funding has been allocated to tribal broadband, $1 billion under ARPA and another $2 billion under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Eligible entities include tribes, tribal colleges, universities, Alaska Native corporations, tribal organizations, and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, with applications closing on January 23, 2024.

Tribal governments are also eligible to apply for funds under USDA’s ReConnect Broadband Grant and Loan Program while Native American higher educational institutions can tap into funding under the Department of Transportation’s Tribal Colleges Initiative Grants for broadband network construction as a part of making capital improvements to their educational facilities and to purchase equipment.

Broadband Interagency Cooperation

Panelists emphasized their respective agencies are working together to streamline broadband efforts to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible. In January of this year, USDA the FCC, and the NTIA entered into an interagency agreement to make sure their agencies were coordinating efforts, said Hood Moise, including sharing the information they have on potential projects and potential awards, and making sure award decisions are based on the same broadband coverage data.

APTION –At Fiber Connect 2023, representatives from four federal departments discussed their broadband funding programs and how they work together to avoid overlap and support grantees. (Source: FBA)

Hood Moise also noted the good relationship between her agency and the Florida State Broadband Office is critical and useful to avoid funding overlap and find additional resources as needed. “We all stay in constant communication, we have personal numbers, we text each other and work things out,” she said. “Deconfliction has been really big for our programs and making sure that there’s no duplication of program funding in areas and making sure that we’re taking a really critical look at what those areas look like. If there’s any flexibility, any wiggle room, we’re working that out amongst each other. There’s a leveraging piece of [funding] which is so critical, especially with the rural areas that we work with, a lot of which don’t have access to the capital that they may need for matching funds. We have communities who are in our pipeline for funding that may need to tap into some of those other resources, whether it’s CDBG or if it’s state appropriated funding. It’s important that we have the relationships to be able to make those connections.”

HUD sees its CDBG program as an enabler for facilitating broadband infrastructure in urban areas, with funds used to permanently affix equipment and fiber optics in an urban area, with local governments able to place the material on public buildings and public facilities. Grant money can also go to telecom businesses in those areas so long as they provide jobs for low- and moderate-income people. 

“An all-of-government approach is often necessary for successful broadband deployment,” said Morgan Rodman, White House Council on Native American Affairs, Department of Interior. “It helps with coordination of the authorities of resources and expertise. The Council’s worked with the Department of Interior, for instance, on making federal permitting more streamlined.”

Cooperation is mandated with BEAD between states and tribal governments on a state’s BEAD plans, which can provide substantial dividends to both sides. Rodman explained this is a mutually beneficial scenario in closing that digital divide. “Tribes present significant economic opportunities as well, which is why an investment in them is a solid investment. One need only look here in Florida, where there are two federally recognized tribes that contribute billions and billions of dollars to the local economy, not to mention all the jobs that are created. Where I’m from in Oklahoma, it’s a similar situation. The tribes are economic powerhouses with billions and billions of economic impacts, well over 100,000 jobs created. When the tribes are doing well, when they’re connected, there’s a positive widespread community impact. Tribes make contributions to physical and social infrastructure by donating to school, roads, and infrastructure for the state,” Rodman noted.

Don’t be BEAD Blinded

At the conclusion, the panel emphasized that while everyone is focusing on BEAD and 2024, there are lots of other federal resources available for states to tap into today. “Don’t forget the billions of dollars that are on the table right now that have not been spent, and that are being spent,” said Gerald. “The [ARPA] Capital Projects Fund being a fourth of BEAD [$10 billion], it’s still a massive amount of investment and it is happening at this very moment. I would implore you all to connect with your state broadband office to see where you could get involved if you could apply, because that money is there right now.”