Grant Application is a Bear. These grants require far more effort than any other broadband grant program. The required paperwork for filing is more like a formal loan application than a simple grant application. You cannot casually file for these grants, and if you omit documentation, you will likely quickly fall out of consideration.
Probably Large Awards. Past experience with this program would suggest that the RUS tends to make a small number of larger grants rather than a large number of smaller grants.
Awards Will Likely Include RUS Loans. Awards can be made as 100% grants, 50% grants/50% loans, or 100% loans. Applicants should be aware that 100% grants will be exceedingly difficult to win, so grant applicants should be prepared to accept an RUS loan. While RUS loans are at a good interest rate, many applicants cannot accept RUS loans. RUS loans will likely require a full asset pledge from a borrower, which is often impossible if you have other non-RUS debt. While these grants favor local governments, many local governments are unable to accept RUS loans because they can’t meet the pledge requirements. Standalone entities like government-owned utilities have a better chance. The loans are also made on the same basis as any bank loan, and an applicant must have a solid and solvent balance sheet and financial history.
Grant Scoring Will Eliminate Most Projects. Most potential applicants aren’t going to get out of the gate due to not scoring high on the grant rating scale. An applicant that fails in even a few scoring categories will likely not be considered. Study this scoring list carefully and be honest about your eligibility:
- Rurality. 25 Points. Grant areas must be at specified distances from existing towns.
- 25/3 Mbps. 25 Points. The grant allows serving areas that have existing speeds greater than 25/3 Mbps, but you are penalized in this scoring for serving underserved locations.
- Poverty. 20 points. Points awarded based upon the level of poverty in the grant area as measured by the U.S. Census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program.
- Affordability. 20 points. Retail broadband rates must be affordable compared to existing area rates. Participants must offer a low-income product and be willing and able to participate in both the FCC Lifeline and Congress’s EBB programs. Note that an ISP must become an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) to participate in Lifeline – not everybody is able or willing to do that.
- Labor Standards. 20 Points. While the grants don’t require paying Davis-Bacon prevailing wages, there is a hefty scoring penalty for not doing so.
- Tribal Lands. (15 points). Tribal entities or projects that are at least 50% on Tribal land will get the 15 points.
- Non-Profit Entities. (15 points) Governments, non-profits, and cooperatives get extra scoring points. For public-private partnerships to get these points, the applicant must be one of these entities and be willing to own the assets and take on any RUS loans. You can’t partner with a city in name only.
- Socially Vulnerable Community. (15 points) 75% of the proposed service area must meet the RUS’s definition of Socially Vulnerable Communities. This is related to poverty but favors communities that are economically stressed for reasons other than poverty.
- Net Neutrality. (10 points) To get these points the applicant must pledge to accept the definition of net neutrality that the FCC scrapped in 2017.
- Wholesale Services. (10 points). This is awarded to grant recipients willing to sell wholesale access to the network to other ISPs. This is generally described as open access.
That’s 175 total points to determine the most eligible projects. If you are not a tribe, aren’t partnered with a non-profit entity, or aren’t willing to offer open-access you’d already be 40 points down on the scale. If your project is too close to an existing city or town or includes some homes that have speeds greater than 25/3 Mbps, you could be down 50 more points. If you want to serve farmers instead of poor communities, you could be down 35 more points. These grants are definitely not for everybody. I recommend a realistic assessment of your likely score before you do any work towards chasing this grant. As is usual with federal grants, there will be desperate communities that will spend the time and money to pursue this grant with no chance of winning.
Require Extra Effort. These grants will also require an environmental and historic preservation review.