The first set of rules concerns the amount of grant funding. Since the IIJA passed Congress, the industry has been talking about BEAD grants offering 75% grant funding. It’s not that simple.
The NOFO says that states are required to incentivize matches of greater than 25 percent from subgrantees. That means states must make every effort to award less than a 75% grant. In fact, if two entities request building fiber to the same geographic area, the one asking for the smaller amount of money will automatically win, assuming they meet the basic grant requirement. This makes sense and will stretch the grant money further, but ISPs should be prepared for a sliding scale where the less the borrowing the greater the grant points.
The original Congressional language also held out a big promise for the layering of grants. The legislation specifically promised that an ISP could use ARPA or CARES funding from states and localities as matching for the BEAD grants. But the NTIA rules turn that promise on its head. States are encouraged to require a match from the subgrantee rather than utilizing other sources where it deems the subgrantee capable of providing matching funds. If a grant applicant has the ability to fund the grant matching, the NOFO rules suggest states should not allow the layering of local monies as grant matching. When that sinks in, it’s going to put a lot of public-private partnership discussions on hold.
The more disturbing requirement in the grant is that applicants must provide an irrevocable letter of credit along with a grant application. During the application process, prospective subgrantees shall be required to submit a letter from a bank . . . committing to issue an irrevocable standby letter of credit, in the required form, to the prospective subgrantee. The letter shall at a minimum provide the dollar amount of the letter of credit.
I have to wonder if the folks at NTIA understand what an irrevocable standby letter of credit (SLOC) means. Consider a grant application for $40 million, with a $10 million grant match. A bank must treat an SLOC as if were a bank loan. When the bank issues the SLOC, it ties up the $10 million on its balance sheet in the same way it would if it made a loan. The bank can’t loan that money to anybody else – it is frozen. While the bank is still holding the cash, it is not treated as a bank’s cash reserve since it is pledged. The bank will charge a minimal amount of interest on the letter of credit. In recent years that’s been something like 2% – hard to know what that might be with rising interest rates. If the interest rate is 2%, and the grant process takes a year to process, the ISP will have spent $200,000 in interest expense – even if it doesn’t win the BEAD grant.
It gets worse. When an ISP wins a grant it must then produce an irrevocable letter of credit for the life of the grant. This is even worse than the first letter of credit. Bank loans for fiber projects typically use construction financing – the same kind of financing used if you build a house. For a project built over four years, the ISP would take a draw each month as it needs funds and would only start paying interest on money that has been drawn. If a letter of credit must be created on the first day of a grant award, then using my example, interest rates for the full $10 million of matching would start when the letter of credit is issued. That completely negates the primary advantage of bank construction financing. My back-of-the-envelope math tells me that for a $10 million matching, the two layers of letters of credits could add $1 million to the cost of the project – all flowed to banks in the form of interest. None of this money is recoverable from the grant funding and comes out of the grant winner’s pocket.
To make matters even worse, a lot of smaller ISPs will not be able to obtain the letter of credit needed to apply for the grant. It’s a typical chicken and egg scenario. A bank won’t give an ISP a SLOC unless their existing balance sheet supports that much of a loan. But the ISP’s balance sheet won’t justify the SLOC until it wins the grant. This rule will definitely discriminate against smaller ISP – and by smaller, I’m including some fairly large companies like regional telephone companies and cooperatives.
The NOFO says there will be additional language coming to describe how municipalities will deal with the letter of credit issue. The NTIA is probably struggling with this because bond financing is more complex than a bank loan. A bond doesn’t exist until the day that bond buyers agree to buy the bond. It’s always possible that a bond issue won’t sell, so there can be no bank guarantees tied to future bond issues. I can’t wait to see this solution.
I don’t want to be dramatic, but this seems like massive overkill. It would appear that the NTIA is so fearful of having a few grant winners who will default on projects that they are imposing a billion-dollar industry cost to solve a million-dollar problem.