5 things philanthropy should know about federal broadband funds
Digesting the BEAD and Digital Equity Act NOFOs
When the federal government committed to a $65 billion investment in digital equity last year in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), it created a once in a generation opportunity to ensure all communities have the digital infrastructure they need to participate fully in our digitizing world.
Over the past few months, I’ve read all the summaries, attended countless meetings and webinars, and read the entire notices of funding opportunity (NOFOs) for BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment Program) and DEA (Digital Equity Act) so you don’t have to! (Kidding; you still should go and read the meat of it.) There are some great resources. NDIA has great summaries covering each NOFO, Broadband.money has a series of posts, and the NTIA, the agency implementing these funding programs, has the NOFOs and short factsheets for each funding pool on its Internet for All website.
While these summaries are geared toward States or potential subgrantees, I was curious about what philanthropy needs to know to help communities take advantage of this opportunity. And how can we best prepare our communities to compete for funding?
Here’s what I see as the five most important things foundations need to work on:
1. Fund the development of digital equity master plans, now.
Help your communities understand and prepare to build the digital infrastructure they need, whether they get government funds or not.
Both the BEAD and Digital Equity NOFOs lay out the requirements states must meet for their connectivity and digital equity plans. Communities should get started developing their own master plans so that they are armed with the information they need to actively engage at the state level. Getting to work on planning grants now is critical:
- Planning now means empowering communities with the information they need to engage and advocate once funding starts flowing (the ability to advocate for one’s community will be hugely important throughout the funding process).
- There are a limited number of consultants actually qualified and able to deliver a real plan. You will want to make sure your community is partnered with someone who can do good work.
- Whether or not your community ultimately receives government funding (and, unfortunately, because the funding isn’t actually enough to connect everyone in the US, the majority will not) you will still need the information laid out in a master plan to secure other kinds of funding and build the networks your community needs (philanthropic, CRA, or otherwise).
We have funded several master plans and are adapting our current planning framework to include the few additional points required to apply for BEAD and Digital Equity funds. In the coming weeks I will write a blog post summarizing what we fund in a master plan and rough costs, but feel free to reach out if you would like a template, or guidance on finding consultants. This is something that should be started ASAP.
2. Encourage your grantees to get involved.
Both BEAD and Digital Equity Act NOFOs require community engagement, and the resulting plans need to be deeply intertwined. In fact, the Digital Equity Act plan is supposed to be integrated into each state’s Five Year Action Plan developed via BEAD funding. State broadband offices across the nation must engage with stakeholders. Your grantees can reach out to the state broadband office to learn about their planning activities and help inform community needs assessments.
The state broadband office wants to know about successful digital skills programs and community connectivity initiatives, but they won’t, unless you and your community tell them. They will hear from the lobbyists already hard at work to make sure incumbents maintain local monopolies. Communities need to work to be heard.
I encourage all funders to get to know your state broadband office, understand their plans and timelines, and the key points of engagement, and then encourage your grantees and their constituents to be heard. A master plan helps to organize and engage people across a community, and will produce a deliverable that can tie directly into the state level plans and any needed advocacy.
Here’s a handy list from our friends at Broadband.money with information about state broadband offices and other fun facts (like the amount of anticipated federal funding for each state), plus a link to the NTIA’s list of state broadband offices.
3. Promote sharing speed tests and internet bills.
Funding will prioritize: (1) unconnected, meaning current speeds of less than 25 Mbps download / 3 Mbps upload speeds (you’ll hear people say, ”25 down / 3 up” or simply, “25/3”; check out this EFF article for an awesome intro to broadband); (2) underconnected, meaning less than 100 down / 20 up; and then (3) community anchor institutions with less than 1 gig up / 1 gig down, or “1 gig symmetrical” (a “gig” is a gigabit per second, or Gbps. This transfers billions of bits per second, versus millions of bits per second in Mbps).
If the communities you serve don’t fall within one of these three groups, then the community is unlikely to get funding. There are many nuances here. Even if a community can technically receive 100/20 speeds, this doesn’t mean it actually receives these speeds or that residents can afford them. While BEAD requires that any network built with BEAD money has an affordable option, it does nothing to address affordability of already “served” areas, and it leaves states to define what “affordable” means. Further, we still don’t know how good the forthcoming household-level service maps will be. These Broadband DATA Maps (DATA = Deployment Accuracy and Technology Availability. Clever, right?) will dictate BEAD state allocation amounts. If they are as inadequate as current Federal Communication Commission (FCC) maps, it will be a real challenge to allocate funding appropriately to communities.
This is where community engagement and self-advocacy become important. I’ve heard many people ask, “What if the maps show my community is ‘served’ when we know from experience it’s not?” The best answer I’ve heard is to gather your own data to demonstrate community experience. Read: take speed tests, whether run by the state broadband office, M-Lab, Ookla, or otherwise, and survey the community about their greatest barriers to access (another good resource is NTIA’s Broadband Indicators of Need map, which includes speed test data). Build up the community data — both quantitative and qualitative — that is needed to fight, now. Because there will be a fight. In fact, a “challenge process” is written into BEAD, which is both for internet providers to say that an area requesting funds is already served and for communities to raise their hand and say, “Hey, that’s not right; we need the internet.”
I’ve been working on a project in South Carolina where the state is running an “I Need Internet” survey to understand people’s actual experience with using (or not using) the internet. The survey asks about access, affordability, device usage, and conducts a speed test (for those taking it online). The state broadband office wants people in SC to take the survey so that they have data on real community experiences. Having this data will be an important tool in advocating for funding.
I also encourage people to share their internet bills to show affordability (or, more likely, not). In a meeting with the state broadband office, a leader at the local public utility department, representing a majority Black and digitally redlined community, shared his internet bill. The broadband officials audibly gasped. Share your internet bill, encourage your grantee communities to share their bills. States are defining affordability, and we all need to share what we believe is affordable or not.
4. Start thinking about that minimum 25% match.
The BEAD NOFO lays out a minimum 25% match for any sub-grantee receiving funding. The match can be waived in areas where there are extremely high costs to deliver connectivity, with the definition of “extremely high” to be defined by the state and approved by NTIA. If there are multiple proposals that meet the “Priority Broadband Project” criteria and all other NOFO requirements, decisions will be made using a scoring system that awards points to projects that minimize BEAD outlay.
Imagine that a rural town, after developing a master plan, decided to build a community-owned open access network. But a large national operator, known for leaving communities disconnected for 45 days during the pandemic and generally providing poor service at high cost, also applied to serve that town. Here is where that match amount becomes very important. The national competitor has the reserves and credit needed to more easily build out financing options to surpass the matching requirements. There’s a good chance that the community operator doesn’t secure enough matching funds and so the BEAD funding goes to the big operator — which may provide a far worse service.
Philanthropy can help. Consider creating a fund that provides financing for community networks. Work with organizations like Connect Humanity to learn about how your philanthropic funds can unlock additional low-cost capital. These are the kinds of conversations that follow a master plan. Seriously, get your communities a planning grant, already!
5. Prepare your grantees to accept federal funding.
Don’t get caught scrambling at the last minute to meet federal funding requirements. There are a bunch of little, time consuming things that organizations need to do to accept federal funds such as:
- Have an active SAM.gov account (System for Award Management) and get an organizational UEI (Unique Entity Identifier, previously known as a DUNS number).
- Read all the relevant Codes of Federal Regulation, or CFRs. An important one for all federal grantees and sub-grantees to know (and love) is 2 CFR 200. The NOFOs reference several others. Federal reporting can be burdensome, but if you know what the rules are, it can be built into budgets and timelines.
- Listen to NTIA’s webinars, be informed, and ask questions.
- Contact your State Broadband Office and let them know who you are and that you want to be part of the State’s planning process, and check out other great state broadband websites for inspiration.
- Find like-minded organizations or coalitions so that you can see what others are doing.
- And of course, consider funding a planning grant to deliver a digital equity master plan in the communities you and your grantees care about.
Finally, we would love to hear from you.
Are there other points you think are critical? What questions do you have?
This really is a once in a generation opportunity and philanthropy can play a critical role in seizing it. We are here to help you if you’ve read this far! Meeting this moment will require lots of us working to take advantage of the BEAD and Digital Equity funding, and to prepare for what happens if our communities don’t receive funding. They need better connectivity either way. So please, reach out with questions, to brainstorm, or just to talk shop for a bit – we’re all in this together. We’re all on Team Internet.
Erica Mesker is the Director of Partnerships at Connect Humanity. She’s worked in the nonprofit sector for over 15 years, mostly focused on capacity-building, tech for good, and access for all, and has several years of experience writing and managing federal grants. She participates across Master Plan working groups, and leads Connect Humanity’s program and partnership development. You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.