Fiber optic splicer. (photo by Shawn Poynter)

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October marks the start of the new federal fiscal year, and that means a reset on more than two dozen funding programs for broadband and broadband-assisted education and telehealth programs. 

The FCC awarded $4.5 billion in broadband grants in 2020 targeted to broadband healthcare. Health and Human Services’ 2021 budget provides “$11.2 billion to invest in programs that support direct heath care services to individuals who are medically underserved or face barriers to health care.” The USDA’s rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect) had $555 million dollars for their rural broadband grant program.

Towns and counties need to take stock ASAP of all of the grant programs and a way to keep the details straight on how various programs operate, the grant application rules, compliance regulations, etc. For example, there are restrictions on where funds can be used. E-rate funds are restricted to schools and libraries while Appalachian Regional Commission grants are limited to Appalachian portions of 13 states.

There are agencies that fund projects, and broadband is just one of them. One Department of Education program funded $1.49 billion this year for general assistance to school districts including broadband adoption activities. They have seven more grant programs. The smaller Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) granted $167 million in 2020 and may award grants for libraries’ digital skills training projects.      

Know Your Grants

For anyone who writes a grant proposal, a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) is their bible. Every federal agency publishes a NOFA for each grant program annually. A NOFA encompasses key details about respective program such as application deadlines, submission guidelines, compliance rules and contact information where applications may be submitted. 

There are several grant categories, so applicants must understand the categories each agency requires. Communities might seek different types of grants throughout the year or years based on evolving broadband needs from planning through pre-launch to digital literacy programs. Some may want to mix and match the types of grants. Know if an agency restricts applicants from partnering with other federal agencies.  

Here are several categories of grants that communities should be aware of as they prepare their proposals.

  • Start-up grants, which also might be called “seed money,” can be limited to the cost of building infrastructure but not the daily operating costs. Or launch costs for a digital literacy program for network subscribers. Often these grants are to entice financial commitments from other sources.
  • Project grant funds often are for specific one-off programs or projects that can cost a few thousand dollars or much more, such as the FCC’s emergency Covid-19 telehealth grants, some of which were $5,000 up to $1 million. Consider these grants for broadband, telehealth, or educational needs as a way to contribute to the overall operation of organizations, such as adding a wing and equipment Internet training at a senior citizen center.
  • Operating grants cover the costs for on-going services or programs. Many times these funds are for enhancing or expanding activities and services already in operation within communities, co-ops and other internet service providers.  
  • Restricted grant funds are for a specific part of organizations’ operations. The FCC’s E- Rate broadband infrastructure grants initially were limited to schools’ learning curriculum and eventually allowed community network access after school hours. Sometimes these are offered just for Native American tribes, such as ones through the Department of the Interior. Some grant programs are limited to a handful of states.
  • Matching grants or “challenge match” grants. Several agencies have “match” requirements in which some percentage of the grant must be matched by another entity. Funds offered by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), for examples, are through matching grants.

Sometimes the challenge match concept is reversed, meaning an local entity (e.g. a chamber of commerce, a university) offers a certain amount if a group raising money can find a federal or state agency to offer a matching amount. For example, a large church may offer $5,000 for a telehealth center if the federal agency will match it with $5,000.     

  • In-kind grants (also called a non-cash grant) are agency programs that allow a contribution of goods to take the place of a matching dollar amount. For example, if Agency Y requires a community to contribute 20% of the project budget (e.g. $1,000), the agency may allow a local office furniture store to donate an “in kind” contribution of $1,000 worth of desks.  
  • Block grants shift grant management to the states, which in turn shift these responsibilities to local governments. Three of ARC grant programs use formulas to determine grant budgets proportionately among the states. Each state has its own plans, rules, and compliance procedures for how they allocate funds to local jurisdictions. The jurisdictions determine which entities receive awards. 

The particulars of these categories can be open to interpretation, which is one reason the NOFAs are so important. Whether it’s for broadband infrastructure, apps, or support activities such as digital literacy and adoption programs, a plan is highly advisable. That plan should govern your grant pursuit. 

Government assistance for broadband and telehealth is enormous. However, there’s uncertainty over the dollar amount because Congress hasn’t officially approved annual budgets yet. Election uncertainties are also problematic, and ad hoc efforts to address needs created by Covid-19 can effect funding. Nevertheless, some agencies are moving forward and accepting grant proposals starting this month. 

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author.