Over the course of the next five years, all of the states, territories and Native American tribes of the U.S., are preparing to receive and distribute a historic, unprecedented package of $42.45 billion in collective funding for broadband internet expansion projects that help close the “digital divide” within their borders.
But as they move through this process, the states will need to demonstrate to the federal government that they are not just giving the money to the “usual suspects” — large monopoly cable providers, internet service providers (ISPs) and traditional telecoms we are all familiar with — not without considering other, smaller, more local and independent, or nontraditional, alternatives as well.
That’s because this money state and territories are eligible for comes with some important strings attached: the Broadband Equity, Access And Deployment Program (BEAD), administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) as part of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Act passed in 2021. States, territories, and tribal governments can in some cases also use funding from the American Rescue Plan Act’s Capital Projects Fund to build out broadband projects, and combine these funds with their BEAD dollars. (States, territories and tribes will be used interchangeably from now on in this article.)
BEAD is the largest investment in broadband infrastructure and digital equity in our nation’s history, and it was created expressly to provide broadband connectivity to currently unserved (lacking internet service at speeds of 25 megabits-per-second download/3 mbps for upload) and underserved (lacking speeds of 100 mbps download/20 mbps upload) locations. It was also created to ensure that “community anchor institutions” receive gigabit broadband service. “Community anchor institutions are defined by the NTIA as entities “such as a school, library, health clinic, health center, hospital or other medical provider, public safety entity, institution of higher education, public housing organization, or community support organization that facilitates greater use of broadband service by vulnerable populations, including, but not limited to, low-income individuals, unemployed individuals, children, the incarcerated, and aged individuals.”
NTIA’s FAQ says that states “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments” from being considered for BEAD funding as the states move to issue it to subgrantees who will actually build out the network infrastructure and services for potential customers within each state’s borders.
In other words, states are left with a multi-tier goal: get fast broadband service offerings to individuals and communities that lack such services , but do so in a way that is inclusive and accounts for the opinions and experiences of specific underrepresented groups, while also being sure to consider the needs of smaller providers to accomplish this goal.
Based on these goals and requirements, it is clear that state broadband offices face enormous coordination and communication challenges. States need to manage and interface with a wide and numerous array of stakeholders as they go about deciding how to distribute their BEAD (and Digital Equity) grant funds.
Looking at the number of smaller ISPs that could be potential BEAD award recipients, there are actually quite a few for state broadband offices to choose from: in total, there are at least 2,201 ISPs in the U.S. that offer residential internet service at speeds of at least 200 kbps in at least one direction, according to a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Only 11 of these ISPs offer internet service to areas encompassing 5% or more of the total U.S. population, according to Telecompetitor. That means the remaining 2,190 ISPs offer smaller service area footprints, and therefore are likely to be smaller regional companies, utilities, cooperatives, utilities, nonprofits, municipal networks, and other entities that the states should consider when reviewing BEAD subgrant applications.
These smaller ISPs are found across the entire country and go by many names and use many different organizational structures. New York City, for example, is home to the volunteer-run NYC Mesh. In addition to gas and power service, the Ohio-based utility Consolidated Cooperative offers internet service to customers in the Midwest. In Oregon, the cities of Monmouth and Independence joined forces to launch MINET, “a fiber-to-the-home provider of internet and voice services.”
Clearly, there are plenty of existing small and local internet service providers that have demonstrated the ability to build out the infrastructure and possess the organization, knowledge and expertise necessary to connect customers, even in the shadows of more well-funded and better-resourced larger ISPs.
On the surface, these facts seem excellent for states looking to hand out BEAD money, as it means there are many smaller providers to evaluate as potential subgrantee award recipients.
However, the sheer abundance of these smaller providers actually makes it tough for states to identify and include them in their BEAD subgrantee process.
There are fundamental questions that each broadband office must address — How can and should state broadband offices identify the smaller ISPs, reach out to them, and make them aware of the BEAD funding opportunity? How to get them to submit an application to the state broadband office in accordance with the state’s deadlines, timelines, and processes? And how to ensure that these providers comply with all of the state’s and federal government’s numerous regulatory and compliance requirements for BEAD funding?
States will undoubtedly find it challenging to connect with, keep track of, and keep smaller providers informed, updated, appraised, and included in their BEAD and other broadband funding opportunities, especially when these smaller providers may not all use the same communications channels — yet states cannot afford to leave them out of their process, or risk the ire of NTIA or ineffectiveness of the BEAD program
A state that only included large telcos/cable giants/ISPs in its list of subgrantee award applicants to the NTIA would likely be viewed as exclusionary and anti-competitive.
The NTIA further wants a state’s broadband office or other similar entity in charge of distributing the funds to document all local coordination and outreach activities by providing a detailed description of its efforts to engage local governments, community groups, underrepresented population as part of the state’s requisite Five-Year Action Plan and continue throughout the entirety of the program, including the state’s Initial Proposal and Final Proposal.
Throughout it all, NTIA will be evaluating states to see how transparently and effectively they are coordinating and collaborating with these local stakeholders.
Clearly, building a process that only includes large telecom companies will not fly if a state wants to remain compliant, and receive and deploy its funds without risking running afoul of the federal government requirements.
Historically, large cable companies, telecom giants, and major internet service providers have failed to deliver results when given broadband grants, as newspapers have reported. Smaller, non-traditional, and local providers bring variety, innovation, and a willingness to get the job done.
Yet working with small, local and non-traditional providers can be a real challenge without a data-centric platform. States will need to get very good at outreach and provider relationship management very quickly.
The Ready Grantor Platform from Ready.net is a secure, one-stop-shop web application that helps states ensure that they reach small, local, non-traditional providers.
By directing smaller non-traditional ISPs and local groups to a state’s Ready Grantor Platform, states can ensure these smaller entities will have a chance to participate in the BEAD allocation process.
That’s because the Ready Grantor Platform includes easy-to-use interfaces, clear standards, application guidance, direct messaging and tools for connecting the state broadband office with any of its authorized intermediaries, stakeholders or potential BEAD applicants — and vice versa.
Applicants can see exactly how their proposed projects align with state objectives and scoring criteria. Applicants and states can utilize Ready’s underlying geospatial data sets to make informed choices, for instance, socio-demographic information.
It delivers expert knowledge to applicants when and where it’s needed most – in the application portal and throughout the application process. Applicants will be able to follow along in real-time as they prepare, submit, receive feedback or questions on, and ultimately learn the fate of their application.
Applicants can use the Ready Grantor Portal to connect with the grantor, submit challenges, apply for grants, and manage their grant reporting.
Thanks to the clear interface and easy built-in communications tools between the state broadband office and applicants, both parties can stay in constant contact.
Applicants can see how well their project plans align with the state’s priority broadband objectives, and can make adjustments necessary to secure their fair share of the grant funding needed to connect their communities.
For states, Ready Grantor makes it easy to manage the influx ofBEAD subgrant applications from a diverse pool, performing an “apples to apples” comparison of them, objectively evaluating hundreds or thousands of applicants efficiently and equitably.
It is 100% customizable to a state’s vision, guidelines and identity for its BEAD funding. It follows the NTIA’s relevant and applicable guidelines, and allows states to get and stay on the same page with their stakeholders.
With tools including built-in messaging and the Broadband.io Community channels and support for processes ranging from Applicant Experience to Local Coordination and Letters of Community Support, the Ready Grantor Platform makes it easy for states to engage in direct communication with applicants and stakeholders — one on one, one to many, many to one, and all permutations that a state and applicant may need.
States can also hold recurring Office Hours with prospective applicants. States that leverage this technology will do a better job engaging applicants more inclusively.
Little wonder the states that are already using Ready Grantor Platform, like Mississippi, have rave reviews for it: “Ready is such an asset for BEAM (Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi),” says Sally Doty, Mississippi’s broadband director. “We work closely with their team on a daily basis and continue to be impressed with the tools customized for our State. Their team is responsive and provides an innovative platform for the entire grant process.”
Make sure skilled, capable providers of all sizes have what they need to apply for your state’s BEAD funds.
The Ready Grantor Platform is a comprehensive solution that offers built-in strength tests, mapping, speedtest and socioeconomic data layers, geospatial information from the U.S. Census and multiple additional sources, organized tab views, private and public messaging, and more.
It provides a fully guided grant journey customized to small business owner requirements. The platform has a state-specific scoring algorithm that ranks applications based on their suitability. It also allows for seamless communication with grant applicants. The platform offers scalable local coordination, including chat support, user forums, and DMs with applicants. It is an all-in-one solution and platform that simplifies the entire grant process for BEAD.
Use it for your state broadband office now.
Ready is a Public Benefit Corporation led by a team of computer scientists, data scientists and NTIA alums devoted to helping broadband professionals solve the digital divide.