I took part in a webinar last week for the NRTC that talked about the good, the bad, and the money issues with the upcoming BEAD grants. It was one of the better webinars I’ve participated in, and the panelists were full of great ideas and perspectives. At the end of the session, the last question asked, “How do you reconcile some of the impractical aspects of the BEAD grant processes with the reality of the market?” That question referred to the long list of issues with accepting the BEAD grant funding that was highlighted during the webinar. To mention just a few of them:
- There are a number of grant provisions that are going to increase the cost of the grant. This includes things like getting an irrevocable letter of credit, having to pay prevailing wages, having to conduct an environmental and historical review, having to comply with Buy America, and an extensive (and probably expensive) grant preparation process. These might significantly increase the amount needed for matching funds.
- The grant NOFO rules encourage States to award grants that offer the highest amount of matching funds. This brings in a reverse auction feel to the grants where ISPs willing to contribute more can likely win the grants.
- There is a possibility of big issues with the FCC mapping that an applicant will have to navigate.
- Grant funds are considered to be taxable income.
Any potential applicant is going to have a problem with these or other aspects of the grants. The question is really asking how far an applicant ought to go out of their comfort zone.
My response to the question was to get immediately get involved with your State broadband grant office. The various State broadband grant offices are in communication, and there is hope that if enough States push back that the NTIA might soften some of the most troubling aspects of the grant rules. States also have another option, which is to build friendlier rules into the State grant rules since, at the end of the day, each State gets to decide who wins the grant funding. ISPs need to provide specific feedback to State grant offices now so that they understand how troubling some of the grant rules are for potential applicants.
I still stand by that advice, but the instant the webinar was over, I realized that is only half of the answer. At some point, an ISP is going to have to determine if it can live with all of the grant requirements.
I haven’t talked to any ISP that isn’t uneasy about some aspect of the grant rules. My first advice to an ISP considering the BEAD grants is to take the time to consider the aspects of the grants that you find troublesome – then categorize them. Some grant issues are just annoyances that will make it harder to ask for the grants. But other issues are more serious, and every ISP will have its own list. You should separate the troubling issues into two categories – issues that will cause big headaches and issues that are potential deal stoppers and might make you decide not to bother with the BEAD grants.
Obviously, an ISP needs to publicly communicate about the issues that might cause you to bow out of the grant program. The States and the NTIA need to hear this because it will be a national embarrassment if good ISPs don’t ask for the grant money. The NTIA does not want to be labeled as having created the next RDOF plan.
But this list also means that an ISP is going to have some hard decisions to make. I already know ISPs that have decided that it’s not going to be worth jumping through all of the hoops to pursue BEAD grants. I’ve advised them to at least wait until their State files a plan that might take the edges off of the provisions that are troubling.
But at the end of the day, an ISP should not take grant money that will ultimately harm your business. For example, you can’t take a grant if you know the math doesn’t work. There are plenty of examples of ISPs that have gone south because they bit off more than they could chew by entering a market where they were not successful. If the numbers look bad, don’t assume that some future magic will somehow turn that around.
The final gut check before saying no to the grant funding is to understand what happens if the grant goes to somebody else. For example, if you are an electric cooperative, will you be okay if the grant instead goes to AT&T, Frontier, or a giant wireless carrier? It’s highly likely that somebody is going to pursue and win the grants in most of rural America. If you are a rural ISP and you don’t take part in the BEAD grant, you may never have another chance to expand your rural footprint. This is what makes this such a hard decision – for many ISPs it’s going to be either take grant money that includes a lot of problems and issues or else be locked out expansion in the areas around you.