There has never been a better time for communities to collaborate to fund better broadband solutions. It almost seems like it’s raining grant money this year, and there is likely a lot more in grants coming over the next few years.
Communities are going to get the biggest bang for the buck with a collaborative effort. If each stakeholder in a community seeks its own solution, the community will see a wasteful overlap of broadband construction instead of seeing money spent wisely to make sure that everybody gets the broadband solution they want.
What do I mean by collaboration? I mean coordinating funding efforts to take the best advantage of grant monies that available to different community stakeholders right now. Consider the following sources of funding available today:
- In the most unexpected grants of all, local counties, cities, towns, and townships got a share of the $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund that can be used for broadband.
- Schools can fund some fiber infrastructure through the E-Rate capital program.
- Libraries have more grants headed their way than ever before.
- Rural health care grants through the Universal Service Fund are higher than ever.
- A $1 billion grant program for tribes is just now closing, but more will be on the way.
- States have announced huge amounts of state grants, with funding from the ARPA being added to existing state broadband grants.
There are also huge amounts of more traditional broadband grant funds to consider:
- Many rural communities have areas that will hopefully get broadband through the RDOF awards. But these awards rarely cover everything in an area and are often a strange checkerboard of RDOF and non-RDOF Census Blocks. The FCC is still wading through the long forms for the RDOF winners, and once funds are released, the winners will have four years to build infrastructure.
- A $288 million grant program with the NTIA just closed.
- There is a $3 billion grant program that will be coming from the EDA later this year.
- There is a second round of ReConnect grants that will likely commence before the end of the year.
- Some areas saw awards made in last year’s CAF II reverse auction. If these areas are not already under construction, they will be within the next year or two.
Smart communities are going to organize the many stakeholders to take the best advantage of this funding. There are a number of ways that collaboration can make for the best broadband result:
- Communities need to make sure that somebody is going to somehow fill in the checkerboard of grant areas awarded in the RDOF and the CAF II reverse auction. Those two grants relied on faulty FCC mapping data, and there are huge swaths of equally needy areas nearby to most of these grant areas. Areas that don’t get covered by good broadband in the next few years could be left behind for a long time.
- There is a huge opportunity for anchor institutions to get a long-term facility-based fiber solution. If all of the anchor institutions in an area join together, they can collectively negotiate for long-term IRUs for a private fiber network that can connect schools, libraries, health care facilities, city and town anchor institutions, non-profits, rural electric substations, and tribal facilities together. A collaborative network is the ultimate way to cut long-term costs through the collective purchase of transport and broadband. Such collaboratives will be even stronger if they stretch across multiple counties. These collaboratives will be great for the companies building RDOF or other grant-funded networks – they get a large long-term revenue stream.
This is the time for communities to have these discussions. The big grant monies are going to be awarded over the next few years – so it’s not too late to figure this out. I think communities will be surprised to find out how much buying power all of the anchor institutions and other stakeholder have when they combine forces.