Tried and True Tips When Stakes Are the Highest
President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (PL 117-58) on Nov. 15, 2021, delivering $65 billion to ensure every American has access to high-speed Internet. Whatever word or phrase you prefer—unprecedented, historical, once-in-a-lifetime—this is a substantial sum of money and will go a long way towards providing digital equity.
The competition for these funds will be high; not all grant applicants will be awarded. As was seen with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) and the NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, $1 billion runs out fast.
The BIP program had an initial funding amount of $230 million, yet they received more than $2.5 billion in application requests. They awarded 13 grants from over 230 applications. The NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program had an initial funding amount of $980 million, and it received over $5 billion in requests. NTIA is announcing awards for the latter program on a rolling basis. The program statute requires that every tribe receive at least some funding, but not all projects will be granted their full budget.
How can you submit the best possible broadband grant application? You must ask yourself important questions: What makes your company stand out from the crowd? How can you distinguish your project amongst your competitors?
Keep in mind, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law appropriates funds into national discretionary programs (such as the NTIA Middle Mile Grant Program) and non-discretionary programs (i.e., NTIA BEAD program) which provides funds directly to states based upon a formula. Simply put, current and upcoming broadband grant programs will have a fraction of the total $65 billion. The high demand for smaller pots of money will mean fierce competition.
How do you ensure you submit the best possible grant application? You must ask yourself important questions: What makes your company stand out from the crowd? How can you distinguish your project amongst your competitors? Follow these five tips to develop a competitive broadband grant application.
Read the Fine Print
It is tempting to flip to the middle section of a notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) or application guidance. That is where the instructions are—the key points on what to include in your executive summaries, statement of need, project descriptions, budgets, evaluation plans, etc. The more overwhelming NOFOs can be over 90 pages. Who wants to read all that? You should.
The end pages of NOFOs and guides often details critical information. Without a full understanding of the program, you may miss operating rules and allowances that can benefit your project. Things such as the ability to request funds for one year past the performance period to close out reporting. Or you may miss more exacting narrative rules—such as the required citations for a specific map or environmental resource. Footnotes can give you clues on what exactly reviewers are looking for—things not mentioned in the middle pages.
Make note of the terminology and phrasing of the guidance. Your project narrative should reflect the NOFO tone. Find specific words or phrases that are used and make sure they are addressed in your narrative. This can let reviewers know that you are fully aware of all requirements of the program.
Remember Your Audience
A grant application is read by multiple people throughout the review process. For some—telecom pros and those with an engineering background—the following paragraph will make complete sense.
We have secured a 10 Gbps optical transport Layer 2 Ethernet connection from Beta Company at the colocation facility that leaves their network at the Bank Center, where the traffic will then traverse our Layer 3 Core Router to an existing direct Internet access circuit provided by Beta. The GPON will use single mode fiber with C++ optics and a loss budget of -32 db.
Others will read the paragraph two, three, or even four times and not fully grasp the meaning. Some reviewers have spent years in telecom; others were only recently introduced to broadband infrastructure. With the drastic increase in funding, we may see more reviewers with less industry knowledge.
When writing your network or project overview, you must ensure a reviewer, no matter their background, can easily understand what you write with only one read-through. This means leaving out unneeded details and explaining abbreviations that may not be self-evident.
Picture your network diagram. How can you describe that image without being overly technical? Imagine describing it to a student in an “Intro to Broadband” course.
Paint a Picture
Don’t just state the statistics, paint a picture with them. Your project will focus on building in unserved and underserved regions. Underserved is defined by NTIA as anywhere where 80% of residents are not receiving 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload, and unserved as areas with no access to 25/3 Mbps. These areas typically have high socio-economic needs. Grant programs have, rightfully so, prioritized these areas. This means your project area may have similar statistics to those of your competitor.
Differentiate your proposal from your competitors through your descriptions. Our brains react differently to sensory descriptions and emotive words. Contextualizing your project in this way creates a more compelling application. Note the difference between these two sentences:
The 2019 fire burned 72 homes in the area.
The devastating 2019 fire destroyed 72 homes in the area, causing $10 million in damage and displacing 50 families.
The high-level of need is a common factor across applicants. The use of active verbs and adjectives will help humanize your project. You are serving a community, individuals who are more than just statistics. Painting the picture will help the reviewer see you understand the people in the households your project will pass.
Clarity is important as well as a bit more nuanced. An unclear application can result in a quick dismissal, and thus this point deserves its own attention.
Clarity in your grant application means three things:
- Your narrative flows logically. I have read grants that make points jumping from paragraph three to paragraph seven then back to paragraph one. Avoid this confusion by composing a narrative that follows a logical path.
- Use consistent terminology. This is especially important if you have multiple people contributing to a narrative. For example, CPE, ONT, and ONU can often mean the same thing. Choose one term and stick with it.
- Include all steps of your project. What work happened to get you from task A to task D? Those steps may seem self-explanatory but including them presents a well-thought-out project. Show the reviewer you know what you are doing.
Take a break. Put your proposal aside for a day or two. When you return to it, you may have a clearer perspective.
Edit, Then Edit Again
It seems an obvious part of the process, but it is worth reiterating. At Learn Design Apply, editing is both a substantive review and a grammatical review. Multiple people will spend multiple days reading and re-reading a grant application. This is the best way to guarantee you’ve met the requirements, have grammatically correct sentences, and have successfully incorporated the above tips.
While the programming is getting better, Microsoft Word and Google Docs can still miss a typo of three and tree, or thee and the. Re-read your narrative slowly. Brains are great at predicting what word should be present, and unless you read slowly, you may miss these mistakes. Both Google and Microsoft will read your document out loud to you. If you can’t stand the robot voice, try reading your grant backwards. This forces your brain to concentrate on each word. Both methods are a great way to catch wording errors.
If you’re like me, sometimes you think faster than you can type. This can result in very strange sentences with missing words, too many words, or such a jumble that it makes no sense at all upon review. In other cases, a sentence may seem logical to you, but would confuse another. Avoid this “Wait, what?” moment by calling upon members of your immediate team and those in other departments to read your proposal. This will ensure what you intend to say is perceived correctly by the reader.
Don’t let the fierce competition for these funds deter you—the current and upcoming opportunities are a great avenue for securing financial resources to build broadband infrastructure. The NTIA Middle Mile Grant Program (open now), USDA ReConnect Loan and Grant Program (open this summer), and NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (open this fall) are federal programs worth chasing. State programs funded from BEAD are on the horizon. Whether it is for a state or federal grant, the tips above will help you create a well thought-out and well-written proposal and give you the edge you need to win.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Beresford is the Director of Broadband Programs at Learn Design Apply, Inc. She joined the company mid-pandemic as the digital divide became glaringly evident. Previously, she worked in Washington, D.C., assisting state and federal officials address pressing issues, from emergency preparedness to healthcare inequities. Megan is an avid-reader and whiskey enthusiast. For more information, please email [email protected] or visit www.learndesignapply.com. You can also follow Learn Design Apply, Inc. on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/learn-design-apply-inc/