Fiber optic splicer. (photo by Shawn Poynter)

Before Covid-19, pursuing Federal broadband grant funds was orderly and straightforward. Some grants paid for broadband infrastructure that was restricted to school premises. Federal grants funded healthcare-related broadband in public hospitals and clinics. Other agency programs funded broadband in city and county offices, libraries, and public facilities. A couple of smaller agencies funded residential and business broadband limited to a few states. 

Then the pandemic hit. The internet groaned under the strain of massive re-routing of data traffic as office workers became permanent telecommuters, widespread distance learning became an overnight reality, and medical need caused the seemingly counterproductive rules to miraculously vanish. 

Federal spending soared, often wrapped within CARES Act block grants. The needs of the digitally disconnected minimized over-zealous bureaucracy. Money moved quickly into place.

As CARES money gets used up, last week started the Federal 2021 fiscal year. But agencies’ funding processes may face some uncertainties for grants targeting broadband, telehealth, and education. 

John Campbell is the board chair of OpenCape, a federally funded public middle-mile network for the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. The Cape is comprised of 15 small towns, many having trouble getting last mile access. Campbell stays current with broadband trends and he   

sees four things that currently challenge funding broadband and broadband-related projects.

“Telehealth is huge!,” Campbell says. “But you can’t participate in telehealth if your area is un-served or underserved with broadband. Or if your constituents can’t afford broadband, a mobile device or a monthly broadband plan.” 

But how can you plan for or fund telehealth success if an agency has no experience funding broadband planning?

Education put a big strain on planning. Many K-12 students bounced from “Everybody go home” to to “What are we doing today?” Even in big cities, 50% of K-12 students don’t have internet at home. Many other homes don’t have enough computers when parents, grade school kids and college students are all at home. And if everyone is home all the time, how can network capacity keep pace? What’s the role of government funding in these scenarios?

A third factor impacting planning is the number of people working from home. “I think we’re not going to put the genie back in that bottle,” says Campbell. “A lot of employees and companies haven’t figured out if employees continue working at home long-term. That impacts decisions they make such as renting, leasing or buying computers, internet contracts, etc.” Again, what’s the role and rules of government spending to address these challenges?

Campbell says an additional funding challenge is “Covid-19 caused a huge spike in internet usage. Broadband providers are always planning ahead, building capacity for the future. Home internet usage has consumed that capacity. We’re hitting the cap.” 

Depleted rural broadband capacity, plus the tattered economy, set the table for a huge stimulus spending package, and rural broadband will benefit. But how will the the funding process survive the various challenges of a huge influx of billions of new dollars?

Federal Agency Lineup

There are at least 15 federal agencies that fund broadband or broadband-related projects. Are there plans for meeting evolving needs, maximizing the funding process and minimize overlapping spending? Here are some of agencies that will meet these challenges.

The Appalachian Regional Commission

The ARC is a regional economic development agency that represents a partnership of federal, state, and local government and is composed of parts of 13 Appalachian states (West Virginia is the only state located entirely within the ARC’s service area). The first three funding programs are block grants, meaning ARC uses a formula to determine how much money each of the 13 states can receive. ARC directly selects winners of the fourth program’s grants.

The Department of Education

The department has 11 grants primarily for for K-12 schools, institutions of higher learning, and tribal entities. These grant programs don’t specifically target broadband, but in many cases broadband is one of the uses for which recipients can use the funds.

Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development (IEED)

This is the first year the agency did broadband funding. They solicited proposals from Indian Tribes for grant funding to hire consultants to perform feasibility studies for deployment or expansion broadband. IEED awarded 23 grants between $40,000 and $50,000.

Delta Regional Authority (DRA)

The Delta Regional Authority (DRA) makes strategic investments of federal appropriations, including funds for broadband infrastructure, into projects in parts of the eight states that make the region: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. 

U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration (EDA)

EDA programs provide economically distressed communities and regions with comprehensive and flexible resources, including broadband, to address various economic needs. The agency’s mission is to create jobs, so a proposed broadband network has to create jobs.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

The FCC has broadband grant programs, which are among the most popular, that have been making big impact in rural communities for years.

The E-Rate program helps schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband. Its funding process is easy to describe but the details involved with each step can be burdensome. 

The Universal Service High-Cost program expands access to voice and broadband services for areas where they are unavailable. This next fiscal year, one-third of the program will be distributed through reverse auction in which smaller ISPs, co-ops, and municipalities can compete.

The Rural Heath Care Program (RHCP) provides a flat 65% discount on an array of communications services to both individual rural health care providers and consortia. Consortia may include urban healthcare providers as long as a minimum of 51% participants are rural.

US Department of agriculture (USDA)

The USDA is particularly noted for their rural broadband funding programs.

Rural Housing Service offers a variety of programs to build or improve housing and essential community facilities in rural areas. RHS offer loans, grants and loan guarantees

The Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect) offers for grants, grant and loan combinations, and low-interest loans for broadband infrastructure to A rural area is eligible if it currently does not have sufficient access to broadband. 

Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) 

 Many of the agencies have the same set of grant programs every year. HRSA rolls out new programs every month or so, and it’s advisable to check in with their website regularly.  Telehealth and broadband can be brought in to address various healthcare issues, such as opiate addiction, maternity care, women’s preventative care, and chronic illness treatment.

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

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