The New e-Connectivity Pilot Grants

In March Congress passed a new $600 million grant/loan program to build rural broadband. The project has been labeled as the e-Connectivity Pilot and it’s expected that the specific rules for seeking the funding will be released early on 2019. The USDA sought public comments on the program in September and is now working out the details of how the awards will be made.

Anybody interested in these grants should get serious about it now, since it’s likely that the grant application window might not be any longer than 60 to 90 days. Getting ready means having a detailed and solid business plan as well as already having a source of funding for any parts of a project not covered by these grants. The grants are also likely to include provisions like getting a professional engineer to approve the network design – so designs need to be specific and not generic. It’s likely that the USDA will stick with their existing grant application process – and those forms have always been a bear to complete.

There is one huge hurdle to overcome for this program since an application can’t cover an area that has more than 10% of households with access to broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. Considering that the CAF II awards and more recent CAF II reverse auctions awards already will supposedly provide this kind of speed to huge swaths of the country, there are not a lot of areas left that will meet this requirement.

Claiming that an area meets the 90% unserved threshold will be also be difficult because grant applications can be challenged by carriers that serves the grant area today. I have to assume that CAF II reverse auction winners will also be able to challenge. The big rub is that the original CAF II award winners still have until 2020 to complete their build-out and they will certainly challenge awards for any CAF II area that has not yet been updated. The CAF II reverse auction winners have ten more years to complete their buildout. The USDA will likely be obligated to reject an application that encroaches on any of the CAF II footprint – even if those areas don’t have broadband today.

This gets even more complicated since the CAF II reverse auction awarded funding to fixed wireless and satellite providers. They were funded to serve specific little pockets of unserved homes, but it won’t be hard for them to claim that the CAF II award dollars will allow them to serve much larger areas than the tiny boundaries they bid on.

The process of proving a study area isn’t served will be further complicated by the USDA’s reliance on the FCC’s broadband maps, which we all know to be highly inaccurate in rural America. This all adds up to mean that an applicant needs to prove the area doesn’t have broadband today and will not be getting it over the next decade from one of the CAF winners. They will also need to overcome any errors in the FCC maps. This is going to be hard to prove. I expect the challenge process to be brutal.

From the instant I saw the 90% unserved test, I’ve assumed that the most likely candidates for these grants will be somebody that is already planning on building broadband across a large footprint. If such an applicant is careful to only identify the scattered homes that meet these grant rules, then this funding can help to pay for a project they were going to build anyway. The other natural set of applicants might be those companies that already took CAF II funding – they could use these grants to fill in unserved homes around those build-out areas. The industry is going to be in an uproar if a lot of this funding goes to the big incumbent telcos (who won’t challenge their own applications).

Another issue to consider is that the USDA can award funding as a combination of grants and loans. These awards will surely require matching funding from an applicant. Anybody that is already planning on funding that matching with bank or other financing might find it impossible to accept USDA loans for a portion of a project. USDA loan covenants are draconian – for example, USDA loans usually require first priority for a default, which will conflict with commercial lenders. It’s always been nearly impossible to marry USDA debt with other debt.

rant applicants should also be aware that the USDA is going to be highly leery of awarding money to start-ups or somebody that is not already an ISP. The agency got burned on such grants awarded with the stimulus grants and has indicated that they are looking for grant award winners to have a strong balance sheet and a track record of being an ISP. This will make it nearly impossible for local governments to go after the money on their own. Chances of winning will be greatly enhanced by public/private partnerships with an existing ISP.

I know my take on the grants sound highly pessimistic. Congress saddled these grants with the 90% unserved test at the coaxing of the big telcos who wanted to make sure these funds weren’t used to compete against them. Past USDA grants had the opposite requirement and could consider awards to areas that didn’t have more than 10% of houses with broadband. However, if you are able to identify a service area that can survive the challenge process, and if you have the matching funded lined up, these grants can provide some nice funding. I’m not taking any bets, though, on the USDA’s ability to award all of the money – there might not be enough grant applications that can make it through the gauntlet.

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