Preparing for the New Federal Broadband Grants

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The benefits of broadband are widely known and generally accepted by all – some of us were making these same arguments over 20 years ago. As a result, you don’t need to spend a lot of time describing the generic benefits of broadband.
Winbourne Consulting Federal Broadband Grant

Soon the National Telecommunications and Information Agency will release their final guidance on how to apply for the new federal broadband grants created in the Infrastructure Act. Savvy government leaders will use this time to increase their chances of getting a share of these funds by getting their grant strategy in place. Having served as an expert and outside reviewer over several years for a government broadband grants program, it has become clear there are consistent areas where many applications are weak, leading to low scores from reviewers and ultimately, being denied the grant. Broadband grants are highly competitive – paying attention to the following areas will, I guarantee, substantially improved your odds of success!

Start the Process Now
If you haven’t already begun, you’re behind. A good grant application will reflect that a substantial amount of organization and preparatory work has been done before the application was even started. While we don’t know what the ultimate grant program will look like, we do know what areas are universally included in broadband grants, so you should begin to develop, or enhance, those areas now. Too many grant applications that look like they were afterthoughts put together only after the grant applications were released.

Comprehensive Program
Grant programs like to see approaches that are “shovel-ready”. You should have a comprehensive program in place now with these pieces at a minimum: a strategic plan; people and organizations with roles and responsibilities; a good understanding of your status quo based on research, studies, or surveys; and an overall project plan. Applications that state they “will” develop a program or describe one that was obviously slapped together at the last minute will compare very unfavorably against your competitors – they’ve been holding meetings for months.

Your Community’s Vision
The benefits of broadband are widely known and generally accepted by all – some of us were making these same arguments over 20 years ago. As a result, you don’t need to spend a lot of time describing the generic benefits of broadband. As a reviewer of your grant, don’t know is how it will help your particular community? Your vision should describe how your community will leverage the grant to improve education, health, economic development, public safety, etc. Include all areas that are relevant to your approach and leave out what is not.

Be Credible
A surprising number of grant applications can best be described as being “fanciful”. Common among the mistakes is overstating the number of jobs created or retained; incredibly high broadband take rates; unreasonable timelines for completing the necessary bidding and contracting; and construction schedules that could never be met. Another is the “If we build the network the ISPs will come” argument. Unless you have proof of interest otherwise, such as the results of an RFI, avoid this argument. There are many factors in commercial ISP decisions, and you offering dark fiber for lease will not necessarily change their calculation. Remember, the granting authority has a responsibility to only approve funding for programs that are judged likely to succeed. Your approach has to be credible – incredible applications are rarely approved.

Develop Partnerships Now
Partnerships are crucial, but they take time to develop. They help with your credibility, sustainability, and overall capacity, and are required in some grant programs. Partnerships should be diverse and reach beyond the government sphere. For example, local colleges and universities often have technical resources that they can bring to bear. Likewise, publicly-owned utilities make excellent broadband partners – they have rights-of-way, network management, billing, and customer support in place already. Local chambers of commerce and other non-profit organizations are usually more than happy to support the effort. Try to establish two types of partners – those that will play a role in program execution, and those that will provide letters of support. A successful technique is to have the Mayor or County Executive host a briefing with the project team for all potential partners.

Think Sustainability
Sustainability to some degree depends on future events that you can’t control. So, reviewers look for reasonable assumptions in judging how sustainable your approach will likely be. The key to broadband sustainability is generally take rate and monthly fees. If your application is for an extension of an existing solution, you can extrapolate those numbers from there; otherwise, a survey documenting the level of interest would assist your sustainability score. Merely positing that x% will take the service at x$ without data to back it up will lead to a poor sustainability score every time. Additional factors to address include technical support, tech refresh, and ongoing network management.

Write it Right
Poorly written grant applications are a common problem. In some cases, poor writing can make your argument difficult to comprehend, and suggests a cavalier attitude to the process. While you won’t be rated on your writing style per se, anything that makes reviewing your application more difficult can lead to lower scores. Also, have one person do the writing of the entire application so it is in the same voice and style.

There are few applications that nail each of these perfectly. Fortunately, you don’t need a perfect “A” to get approved, many “B” applications get funded, but “C” and “D” applications don’t. If you follow the above advice, you should be able to produce a Grade-A application and maximize your chances of success.

This article was written by Mike Hernon, Director of Smart Cities for Winbourne Consulting. He has served as a city CIO and has over 20 years of experience as a consultant focusing on wired and wireless broadband, public safety systems, and strategic planning. He has served clients at the federal civilian, DoD, state, and local government levels. His broadband experience includes several years working as an outside expert reviewing broadband grant applications for a federal agency.
 
Winbourne Consulting has assisted numerous public safety organizations apply for grants. If you are interested in having Winbourne Consulting assist your organization in a grant application, contact us at info@w-llc.com
 

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