Community connectivity providers (CCPs) tend to build networks in places that lack sufficient internet access because commercial operators have judged them as not profitable.
Working in such challenging environments means they struggle to access commercial financing. Instead, CCPs have relied on grants, in-kind donations, and in many cases, contributions from residents. While these are welcome sources of capital, CCPs must be able to access a broader pool of financing if they are to build and scale effectively.
Here, we demonstrate how CCPs can move beyond philanthropic capital and how blended capital stacks and other tools can enable investors to sustainably fund community connectivity providers.
Community connectivity providers have traditionally struggled to access commercial sources of financial capital.
Commercial lenders often see community connectivity providers as high-risk investments.
This may be because of a perceived lack of operational and management experience, a limited addressable market for services, a challenging regulatory environment, or insufficient assets that can serve as collateral.
Traditional investors often lack the technical expertise to due-diligence network design and owner-operator business models, which leads to overestimating CCP risk.
Instead, CCPs have relied on grants from civil society or technical organizations to serve their communities.
Even CCPs that mature beyond the initial stages can struggle to access larger pools of commercial capital.
There is a limit of grant funding available, preventing the growth and scaling of community-focused networks.
Financing at different stages of development
The capital that an operator can access depends on its stage of development.
Early-stage community connectivity providers are likely to be dependent on grants.
Grants offer operators income that does not need to be repaid, but can come with downsides like burdensome reporting requirements and restrictions on use. There is also a limited pool of grant funding available to support CCPs.
More developed operators with reliable revenue streams have better access to equity and debt finance.
Equity allows operators to raise equity capital in exchange for a share of the ownership of the network. For CCPs, equity investors may come from the community, development finance institutions, or more traditional equity investors.
Debt can provide operators access to fixed-cost capital. However, current underwriting methods can make it difficult for CCPs to access loans.
There are strategies that can help reduce the risk of investing in community connectivity providers and provide operators with more options to finance their networks.
These protect investors against regulatory, liquidity, and sometimes technology and execution risks, making investments in community-focused networks more attractive.
De-risking strategies to encourage commercial investment
There are several ways that governments, impact investors, philanthropic donors, multilateral institutions, and others can help to re-risk community connectivity providers so they can access commercial funding sources. These include:
Anchor tenant contracts: Securing an early large institutional customer — such as a university or a local government — can offer a reliable revenue stream.
Technical assistance: Providing specialized technical support can build the capacity of an operator. This may include funding a digital equity master plan to provide the technical design, community engagement, and financial analysis needed to make a project shovel-ready.
Loss guarantees: Governments or other institutions can provide guarantees against the failure or unprofitability of a project to help encourage private investors to lend at sustainable rates.
Digital literacy and community engagement: Supporting grassroots organizations to engage community members in efforts to develop digital literacy skills, produce local content, and remove other barriers to access increases the potential customer base.
These are just some of the strategies that can be used to increase the likely success of a community connectivity provider, reduce the risk of a project, and make these networks more attractive investments for commercial capital.
Blending capital to create more sustainable networks
Another way to help community-focused networks access the finance they need is by blending different sources of capital.
Combining grants, equity, and debt — paired with de-risking strategies — can bring different organizations together to invest in a sustainable capital stack for a network while achieving their separate financial or developmental objectives.
A foundation grant or a below-market rate investment helps catalyze commercial investment. This loan then supports a network to reach its goals, strengthening the impact of the grant and concessionary capital. Blended capital improves the viability of community connectivity providers and can ultimately lead to more communities getting the fast, reliable internet they need.
The capital structure and funding mechanisms of a CCP will likely change based on its maturity and risk level. As it grows and moves towards sustainability, investment risk decreases and commercial capital will make up a greater portion of its capital stack.
- Community connectivity providers have historically struggled to access the capital they need.
- Grants are helpful at certain states but relying on grants alone rather than blends of finance has limited the growth of community-focused networks.
- De-risking strategies can reduce the perceived risk of community connectivity providers and open up more commercial finance.
- Blended capital can bring together philanthropic funding, impact investing, and commercial finance to create sustainable capital stacks that can enable the success of community connectivity providers.
This content is based on the Financing Mechanisms for Locally Owned Infrastructure report.
This content was created in partnership between the Association of Progressive Communications (APC), Connect Humanity, Connectivity Capital, and the Internet Society. To find out more and read the full report, visit https://connecthumanity.fund/report-financing-ccps/