The writing is on the screen. The digitalization of the world has been underway for some time, and the world is waking up to the reality that digital infrastructure is a necessity, not just a luxury.
When it comes to tech, broadband networks wound up being one of the unsung heroes of the pandemic. These digital thoroughfares provided vital relief during lengthy lockdowns. Even after restrictions started to ease, online services like telehealth and videoconferencing platforms were an important component of life returning to normal and keeping our society afloat.
To that end, there’s a wealth of opportunities for federal funding and grants to continue expanding and improving our broadband infrastructure. Broadband federal funding programs are helping subsidize projects that contribute to expanding our connectivity as a whole, and improving broadband access to underserved communities and areas.
These are excellent opportunities to take advantage of, particularly in a market where private investment and capital comes at a premium.
Broadband Federal Funding & Grants
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, also called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL) was signed into law on November 15, 2021. The bill allocated $1.2 trillion for transportation and infrastructure investment, with a heavy focus on new projects and developments; roughly 45% of the funding is for new programs.
Included in the IIJA was a whopping $65 billion focused on broadband expansion, and closing America’s “digital divide” in telecommunications.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is responsible for distributing more than $48 billion of the broadband allocation in the IIJA. This massive investment is primarily spread out across 4 programs.
Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program
The BEAD Program pledges $42.45 billion to broaden high-speed internet access across all 50 states, Washington D.C. and several American territories. These monies will fund the construction, infrastructure deployment, mapping, and adoption programs needed to successfully install broadband services, with the first priority targeting underserved municipalities.
The NTIA will set rules on a state-by-state basis, taking each state’s needs and abilities into consideration. Some areas will be better positioned to enact BEAD Program funding. As part of the five-year plan, states will be required to seek assistance from better-equipped entities, whether it be local utilities or regional telecom partnerships through the state.
Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program
The Middle Mile Grant Program is allocating $980 million in grants to eligible entities to reduce the cost of broadband deployment in underserved communities. The “middle mile” is defined as digital infrastructure that does not connect directly to an end user.
Eligible entities include non-profits, the industry sector, and counties, and give them the ability to create and deploy alternative network connections to counter single points of failure within networks. The Middle Mile broadband program is designed specifically for local service providers that otherwise would lack the ability to expand upon existing infrastructure to benefit individual customers.
Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP)
The TBCP will receive an additional $2 billion that will flow directly to tribal governments for broadband deployment. This will greatly increase Wi-Fi affordability and help expand online education and telehealth accessibility. For more information about the TBCP and a comprehensive overview of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program Awards Map, you can access it at the NTIA’s official website.
While telecom companies won’t be directly receiving funds and therefore won’t apply, providers should be aware of continuing developments here.
Digital Equity Act Programs
Creating digital equality and inclusion was at the very core of these broadband grant programs. The NTIA is dedicating $2.75 billion to create three separate grant programs. These programs are designed to ensure that low-income communities, elderly populations, the disabled, minorities, and those overcoming a language barrier have online access to educational platforms to support the skills needed to become a part of our digital economy.
How To Apply
With the exception of the Digital Equity Program, the window for applications has passed. At the time of writing, the applications for tribal and territorial participants are still being reviewed, with updates likely to follow.
In all cases, however, detailed information and applications can be submitted via the NTIA’s grants portal online. It’s highly recommended to keep an eye out for updates and future funding opportunities. In many cases, applications are still being reviewed, and funds are yet to be disbursed. It’s also possible that application windows could reopen.
Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program
The Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is designed to serve the needs of rural areas. According to the USDA, “The ReConnect Loan and Grant Program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.”
In two rounds of funding, $656 million was awarded in the fiscal year of 2019, with another $853 million in 2020, totaling $1.5 billion. In 2022, the third round of ReConnect Program funds offered up over $1 billion more to continue broadband support in socially vulnerable areas.
The funding is disbursed in a variety of ways, including 100% loans, 100% grants, and combination funding, some of which are specifically dedicated to certain territories or disadvantaged communities.
How To Apply
Applications can be submitted online via the USDA portal. At the time of writing, the funding window is still open. Particularly for providers that serve eligible areas, it’s highly recommended that telecoms take advantage of the program.
The Importance of Broadband Infrastructure Expansion
Broadband networks include Wi-Fi, fiber, satellites, and DSLs (Digital Subscriber Lines) and allow for the transmission of wide bandwidth, high-quality data to flow quickly and effortlessly. Almost every industry now relies on some form of digital computing or cloud storage to sell goods and services. And while broadband expansion has increased on a global scale, with the number of internet users skyrocketing from 413 million in 2000 to over 5.03 billion in 2022, there is still an urgent need to expand broadband technology to satisfy demand.
For many Americans, access to the internet is commonplace, but that isn’t the case for all Americans. Only recently have the benefits of broadband internet been realized and ultimately addressed. According to The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly 14.5 million Americans still don’t have access to broadband internet.
There is no denying that having access to broadband internet touches every rung of the social and economic ladder. Widespread broadband infrastructure can democratize access to vital educational services and resources that will, over time, prop up marginalized communities so they can be more self-sufficient.
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