Dedicate 2023 to Building Community Support in a Competitive Grant World
Grant funding for infrastructure continues to be front of mind for many in the broadband industry, and with this, the need to be competitive. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dedicated $65 billion towards broadband, supporting a variety of programs that have only just begun. The largest portion of that funding—$48.2 billion—has been given to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Of that amount, $42.45 billion is in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program—a formula funding grant program which will provide dollars directly to states for planning, adoption, and infrastructure deployment programs.
At Learn Design Apply, Inc. (LDA), we are consistently asked two questions about BEAD. The first: When will I see BEAD money? The answer is always an educated guess, as there are many processes in play that will affect the distribution of these funds (including the notorious FCC maps). The NTIA has recently declared they will announce BEAD funding allocations in June 2023. This means, realistically, states will not have BEAD funded grant programs until mid-2024 at the earliest. While this is disappointing for some, it should be treated as welcome news. This means you can dedicate 2023 to the second question: How can I be competitive for BEAD money?
There are many factors that can make an organization competitive—from financial stability to tenure and experience to the construction timeline. These are certainly important, but to be the most competitive, an applicant must address all scoring criteria. Community support—the support of your broadband project by residents and businesses, gathered through in-person and virtual engagement with community members—has long been a part of grant applications, but the emphasis on community support has grown substantially in broadband grants. Check out these real-life examples:
- This past fall, the Missouri Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program asked applicants to demonstrate public support and community approval by submitting letters from local leaders, feedback on the project gathered from public outreach, and community benefit agreements.
- The NTIA Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program asked applicants to discuss their approach to involving local communities in the project, identifying partners from public, non-profit, and private sectors, with a focus on community anchor institutions, and potential benefits community partners will receive.
- The Connect New Mexico Pilot Program, which may see a third round in January 2023, requires multiple narratives, one of which specifically requests a description of the breadth and depth of community support and an overview of letters of support detailing the number, sources, degree to which the letters are personalized, and the process of collecting the letters.
In the past, agencies have awarded grants to applicants who merely provided one letter of support from a city official, usually the mayor. In this time of BEAD, the mayor’s support alone is no longer enough. This new insistence on community support and engagement is expected to grow across grants (broadband or otherwise) for the foreseeable future.
Three Community Engagement Tips
The specificity for which grants are asking for can seem unrealistic or unattainable. Great news: it’s not. Whether you are looking for a grant to build in a new market, or a grant to expand your infrastructure in a current one, take the time in 2023 to follow these simple tips to build community support and make your application more competitive.
1. Utilize City Contacts
If looking at a new market, tap the city council members or city officials you’ve likely already connected with about your proposed build. These individuals will have contacts with the groups and institutions that can assist with community engagement and support.
One of the best first introductions you should request is leaders of the school district. There is no other group that had to pivot as drastically, problem solve as quickly, and struggle as greatly during the early pandemic days as schools. If you are bringing faster connectivity, chances are, the school district wants in. Schools are key anchor institutions and influence all sectors of a community. You’re more likely to receive a letter of support after a conversation, so set up talks with the superintendent of the school district to discuss your grant project. After discussing the benefits to the district, ask him or her to write a letter of support you can include to strengthen your funding application. From here, you can get letters of support from principals, school boards, and even the PTAs.
LDA worked with a client in New Mexico, who had a contact on a local economic development board in a new market. The contact, like many individuals who sit on boards, had an extensive network. The individual was able to provide introductions to not only the school district and school board, but the public library administrators, local business leaders, public works committee, and other community leaders. The relationships built by the client have resulted in comprehensive community support and allowed for a competitive application.
If you are looking to expand in a current market, seek out ways to partner with schools or community groups in that area. A great example comes from a provider in Southern California who partnered with the County Office of Education and Partners in Education to host a Teachers Appreciation award. Relationships such as these read very well on a grant application and help persuade your reviewer that the community needs and wants your organization’s proposed project.
“This means, realistically, states will not have BEAD funded grant programs until mid-2024 at the earliest. While this is disappointing for some, it should be treated as welcome news. This means you can dedicate 2023 to the second question. How can I be competitive for BEAD money?”
2. Find the Local Experts
Many towns and counties have organizations that promote broadband and digital equity in their communities. Digital equity/inclusion—the activities necessary to ensure equitable access to and use of communication technologies—goes hand in hand with broadband deployment. It is very likely your city contact and the superintendent are aware of these organizations and can make an introduction. If not, a quick Google search can provide insight into what groups in the area are actively involved in digital inclusion efforts. Have a discussion on the work they currently do and how your grant project could help.
Organizations that have an interest in expanding access in the community understand the need for quantifiable data. Opening channels of communication with these groups can lead to their sharing granular local data that you can integrate into your grant application. If it makes business sense, find a way to partner with them or supplement the work they perform in your project’s scope.
The State of Washington is a good example. Local Broadband Action Teams may include individuals who are committed to digital inclusion. These teams monitor the pulse of the community and possess the ability to reach out to local businesses and minority neighborhoods. Some of LDA’s clients have joined Broadband Action Teams in their service areas and successfully leveraged their connections to improve their grant applications and gain meaningful letters of support. Every letter, every person, every name matters. For community support, more is more.
3. Community Benefit Agreements
Community Benefit Agreements (CBA), long the standard in real estate development, have now become commonplace in the infrastructure world. The CBA is an agreement between an outside entity—in this case an ISP or WISP—and a community organization, outlining the benefits which the entity will provide in exchange for community support. The connections you have with the city council and school district can help you identify the organizations which can enter into a CBA.
The benefits in a CBA can include many things already required by grant programs, such as local hire provisions. CBA commitments can provide reduced pricing for a certain period, agreements to net neutrality, or provide support and assistance for those wishing to utilize the ACP. Consider as well what digital inclusion efforts you may be able to commit to—these efforts are viewed favorably by agencies.
Best Practice for the Long Term
Federal and private investment in broadband has boomed since the start of COVID-19. It is important we use these funds correctly and keep in mind the people served by projects. Regardless of whether you seek grant funds, community engagement is a best business practice. With increased competition, customer retention and customer take-rates are an important consideration for any market. A proven way to ensure both: be a difference-maker in the community you serve.