Cisco: How to Choose the Right Funding Program for Your Broadband Projects

Federal and state government responses to the coronavirus crisis have resulted in historic funding levels for a wide range of initiatives. Given the prominent role of connectivity in most solutions to deal with the pandemic – distance learning, remote work, telehealth and other virtual services – new and expanded funding programs are also being launched to reduce disparities in access to robust internet capacity across the country.

The sheer diversity of these funding programs, both in dollars and in the application process and timelines, can present its own kind of barrier to grant applicants seeking to explore and maximize all available funding. But each broadband grant and auction program has its own unique personality – characteristics that stand out from one another. And with a little investigation and soul-searching, you can choose one or two grant programs that best match your vision, and ultimately be worth the time and resources to apply.

Bring all the programs together

There are a number of useful resources that have been published on the broadband finance landscape. But many online resources are incomplete or out of date, so it’s important to double-check to make sure you’re getting the right information.

The objective of this step is to bring together, as fully as possible, all the options available to support broadband projects. Don’t worry too much about the specifics of each program at this point. Instead, search as broadly as possible for fundraising information that is:

  • Timely – Grant information ages quickly as deadlines come and go in about six to eight weeks. And unlike most grant opportunities, many broadband programs (the $ 300 million broadband infrastructure deployment grants, for example) will not be certain to be renewed in the years to come. Old information can make you spend time considering a grant opportunity that has already passed, putting the program out of reach or the next cycle in the distant future.

  • Inclusive – For most broadband projects, federal and state funding programs – including typical grant programs and reverse auction programs – are the set of opportunities, and you’ll want to make sure you include them. as much as possible. For some projects, foundation funding may also be relevant, but these are usually targeted non-profit projects that provide a very specific form of support (e.g. workforce development services) to a defined population.

  • Helpful – The Federal Electronic Clearinghouse at grant.gov has information on all federal grant programs, but the information it contains is limited and may not be sufficient to make a decision about a particular program. Databases like these are a good place to start, but it’s important to keep digging until you’ve found the most useful information about a program – funding levels, complexity of the application process, technical requirements (if applicable) and targeting of the program to funding recipients (users) and eligible applicants.

From the different formats in which you collected the information, bring it together into a cohesive document or spreadsheet that you can work with.

It should be noted that there is also no need to worry about engineering or systems architecture at this point. Most funding programs are flexible in the way projects are developed, for example, topographical and technical considerations. They focus more on why funding is made available in the first place, such as the programmatic parameters of each funding source (tribal broadband, rural broadband, urban economic development, broadband research, or expansion of funding). education or healthcare applications specific to an underserved population).

With a complete picture of the funding available, you will be well prepared to begin evaluating opportunities to find the best solution for your project.

Funding Levels

Most grant programs also provide guidance on the expected range of individual grants. In general, state programs will be smaller than federal programs, and foundation funding will be even smaller. If you haven’t developed your project budget in depth (for a request to another funding program, for example), you may only have a general idea of ​​how much funding your project needs. . And that is absolutely correct for this evaluation step. You are only looking for funding amounts that correspond to the approximate order of magnitude you think you will need for your project. Is it $ 50,000 to $ 100,000 or $ 5 to $ 10 million or somewhere in between?

Data on the overall amounts of funding available for a program can also be useful, as it can give you an idea of ​​how competitive a program is. Programs with a total of $ 10 million are generally more competitive than programs with $ 1 billion to distribute.

Finally, funding levels may come with a caveat about cost sharing, and it is important to realistically consider the external funding sources (local budget or investment) that you will be able to provide to the government. project. The limited ability to match funding will reduce, but not eliminate, your funding options. USDA’s Rural eConnectivity (ReConnect) pilot program, for example, has varying cost-sharing requirements, depending on the percentage of households in the target service area that do not have sufficient broadband access.

Application process

Application requirements for broadband funding programs also range from a short article to a multi-volume work. And the complexity of the application process is worth considering when weighing your options.

A few programs, like the Commerce Department’s Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants, allow winners to recoup the cost of having an outside company like Grants Office to prepare the application, but most do not. And even if you use an external grant writer to assist you, you will still need to produce data and documents for the grant writer to include in the application.

No matter how you do it, developing a funding request – for a grant or an auction offer – takes time and resources, which is why it’s important to select only the most promising programs to apply to.

The technical requirements

Technical requirements are usually listed as minimums, if at all. Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants seek service levels of at least 100/20 Mbps, while the ReConnect program requires bandwidth offerings of 25/3 Mbps. The RDOF program has an entire section dedicated to the competitive prioritization for the higher speeds promised.

Meeting these and other technical requirements may be feasible for your organization, while other requirements may not be. So you will need to carefully and realistically examine your abilities before you decide to go ahead and apply for a particular program.

Beneficiaries and results

Funding for federal and state programs has been affected by their respective legislatures because these political bodies seek to solve a problem, take advantage of an opportunity, or produce a specific result. Funders often try to reward projects that best address these issues by awarding additional points to applications that meet their requirements. As with everything we’ve discussed here, those criteria also vary.

In some cases, these lenses are technical. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), for example, gives preference in the bidding process to projects that will commit to providing higher speeds and lower latency for users.

In other cases, preference might be given to projects that meet programmatic objectives. ReConnect gives extra points for applications that will support farms and community facilities, for example, among other priorities that are also privileged with extra points in the review process.
These additional points serve both to improve the chances that the most preferred projects will be selected and to encourage applicants to incorporate these factors into their subsequent applications and implementation plans.

Find the funders that best match your project without modification. As you develop the project more thoroughly during your application, you will have the opportunity to fine-tune it to maximize the number of points (and the competitive edge) your proposal or offer is likely to receive.

Eligible applicants

Just because you are not directly eligible to receive an award from a particular grant program does not mean that you cannot participate as a member of a consortium led by an eligible organization. But as with the competing priorities we talked about above, if you put an overly square peg in an overly round hole, your application will be less competitive than if you had applied to a more suitable program.

It’s best to look for programs that will fund organizations like yours, or at least organizations with which you have a long working relationship.

The lowest hanging fruit

Choosing a funding program (or programs) that matches your planned project on these dimensions will not only make your applications more likely to be successful, but will also make the entire application development process simpler and more authentic. And with the range of funding available for broadband projects right now, you’re bound to find a program that’s right for you – if you’re willing to do a little homework.

For more information on broadband funding opportunities, see The New Landscape of Broadband Funding white paper available on the Cisco Rural Broadband Networking Solutions page.

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About Irene J. O'Donnell

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