Funding for Broadband Expansion
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a historic amount of money has been appropriated by the federal government for infrastructure projects. Funding for broadband projects has been made a key priority of both the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Billions have been appropriated and a focus has been placed on both rural communities and on digital equity.
Funding through the Washington State Broadband Office
The Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) provides information on both state and federal funding opportunities. WSBO has matching grants available for federal infrastructure financing opportunities and also works with the Washington Public Works Board and the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB).
The Public Works Board has a broadband service expansion grant and loan program (established under RCW 43.155.160) which provides loans and grants from the Statewide Broadband Account to expand broadband infrastructure (see 2022 grant award recipients).
CERB’s Rural Broadband Program administers low-interest loans and grants to finance the cost of building broadband infrastructure in rural communities.
Federal Broadband Funding
Broadband funding will be available from several federal agencies. Some of the programs are new, while others are existing. An easy place to search and view the various federal funding programs for broadband is on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s BroadbandUSA website. Searches can be refined by federal agency, eligible recipients (local governments, libraries, nonprofits, etc.), and program purpose (planning, infrastructure, digital inclusion, etc.).
Local governments that have received funding in the past from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development for other infrastructure projects should check out the USDA’s Telecom Programs webpage. Funding opportunities are available for broadband projects focused on distance learning and telemedicine as well as projects working to foster economic growth and enhanced educational, health care, and public safety benefits.
Tips for Applying for Federal Funding
The National League of Cities recently held their annual conference where they offered the session, Moving Fast on Broadband Expansion in Your City. Steve Hahn, President of AT&T's Central States, noted three takeaways from the panel:
- Take advantage of funding now,
- Choose a public-private partnership model, and
- Pick the most future-proof technology available.
This injection of massive funding opportunities for broadband is unprecedented. Local governments, if they haven’t already, should begin planning and learning the rules and nuances of the various funding opportunities. Although some funding opportunities have already passed for ARPA and BIL, there will be funding opportunities in the future and application deadlines for those will be here before you know it.
Additionally, partnering with a private firm with the experience and expertise can likely help a network get built quickly. Planning should also include consideration of the best technology to invest in — which will provide the best returns in the future and provide reliable speeds necessary for future improvements.
Grant Writing Assistance Through Commerce
Since many of these funding opportunities are competitive grants, some local governments with limited staff or staff inexperienced in grant writing might feel they have little chance of being awarded one of these competitive federal grants.
Currently, the Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce) is offering grant writing services for local governments applying to a federal agency for broadband funding. The grant writing services are provided by Learn Design Apply, Inc. (LDA), which has a contract with Commerce through June 30, 2023. These services are available to local governments, including ports and public utility districts, and nonprofit agencies. Local governments wishing to request these services should contact Connie Rivera at Commerce.
Commerce will review the requests with priority given to agencies with low capacity and the greatest need. Once a local government is selected to receive grant writing services, Commerce will coordinate with LDA based on their capacity to provide the services.
Grant Application Bootcamps for Cities
The Local Infrastructure Hub was created in response to the BIL to help small to mid-sized cities navigate the nearly 400 infrastructure funding opportunities. One of the great resources provided through the Local Infrastructure Hub is their Grant Application Bootcamps. At least 30 bootcamps will be held over the next two years, each of which will focus on a specific category of the BIL.
Bootcamps require several hours of active participation by elected and key staff members each month, last around three-to-four months, and are intended to enable a city to submit strong applications for competitive grants. The most recent registration deadline for bootcamps was December 9, 2022, but be on the lookout for future opportunities.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.