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Leveraging Federal Broadband Funding to Solve the Digital Divide – A Step-by-Step Guide

June 29, 2021 | Ed Barrett

As communities begin to envision their new, post-pandemic normal, a key part of most strategies is the development of new approaches to improve broadband services. Once viewed as primarily a nice-to-have for entertainment purposes, the pandemic made reliable high-speed internet critical to people working from home, attending school through remote learning, and conducting telemedicine appointments with their doctors.

With more than $40 billion in federal funding earmarked to fix broadband connectivity in the coming years, counties and communities around the United States must act now to position themselves to receive funding to solve the problem. HR Green has worked with proactive leaders around the country and recommends a three-step process to prepare.

Improved Funding Alternatives Are Available Today to Start the Journey

Recent American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) grants to counties and communities include broadband as an allowable expense, and many of our clients are currently deploying these funds to begin the process of creating “shovel-ready” projects that can be quickly deployed to meet unaddressed community needs.

These steps include:

  • Step 1: Understand your Eligibility for Funding.  Historically, the Federal Communications Commission viewed speeds of 25/3 (25mbps upload/3 mbps download) as “served.” The new funding vehicles now consider those receiving up to 100/20 as “underserved” areas, which are eligible for grant funding. This is a major change for areas traditionally served by wireless and DSL technologies. It also clarifies that data is not limited to state/federal maps (which are notoriously inaccurate based on incumbent data and methodology) but can include the results of interviews, surveys, etc. We believe the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) new mapping will open the doors to improved broadband for large swaths of rural America.
  • Step 2: Quantify Middle Mile Network Needs. ARPA and treasury funds can be used to establish middle-mile networks if the end goal is to facilitate end-user connectivity. For many counties, inexpensive access to backhaul is a key barrier to the completion of last-mile broadband networks to homes and businesses.
  • Step 3: Create Master Plans to Become Shovel Ready. Local matching ARPA funds can be used to develop master plans and feasibility studies related to broadband, as it includes planning and studies as qualified expenses. Conducting a feasibility study or broadband master plan now arms your community with data you need to move to “shovel ready” status for ARPA or for federal broadband stimulus being considered in the current Congress.The federal emphasis on broadband expansion has been compared by President Joe Biden to electrification of the country and pushes not just private sector funding but also makes broadband grants available to governmental entities and cooperatives. States are currently finalizing five-year plans and will be responsible for roll-down grant processes.

Enhanced Community Today for Funding Tomorrow?

We believe the most important first step is the creation of a broadband master plan or feasibility study. Studying current conditions, creating preliminary designs and associated costs and financial feasibility will allow you to come to the grant table with “shovel ready” projects and can help to improve your chances of receiving federal funds. Doing so will enhance your ability to position for the incoming flood of federal infrastructure dollars to create lasting change in your community.

Let’s have a conversation to help quantify your community’s needs, establish a vision to guide a path forward, and create a master plan that achieves your future needs. Communities that not only adopt but deploy broadband infrastructure resources to solve connectivity challenges are at a significant advantage to those who merely hope the private sector will work towards the same goals.

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