by Angelina Panettieri and McKaia Dykema, National League of Cities
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) was signed into law in November 2021 and directs approximately $65 billion dollars to help close the digital divide and ensure Americans have access to reliable and affordable broadband. Enabled by this historic funding, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will implement six separate programs aiming to address the broadband needs of the nation. On May 13, NTIA released three Notices of Funding Opportunity (NOFOs) for more than $44 billion in federal funding for three of their programs:
- The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program;
- The Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program;
- And the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program.
While the majority of the funding announced in the recent NOFOs will flow to or through state governments, there is still an important direct competitive grant opportunity for local governments, specifically through the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program. Local governments are directly eligible to apply for available federal funding in the Middle Mile Program, which has a high degree of flexibility.
Direct Funding Opportunity: Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program
While local networks provide essential high-speed internet to communities, middle mile infrastructure is also needed to connect those local networks to robust, high-capacity national and regional networks. Middle mile broadband infrastructure is any broadband infrastructure that does not connect directly to an end user, such as a home or business. The Middle Mile Program aims to expand and extend the middle mile infrastructure across the nation. In many communities, the lack of nearby middle mile infrastructure has made a broadband connection either unavailable, insufficient for community needs, or unaffordable due to lack of competition. Publicly owned middle mile infrastructure can bring numerous benefits to communities, by offering a possible revenue source to local governments through leasing arrangements with last-mile providers, reducing the cost to providers to serve their residents, and increasing communications network resilience against disasters.
NTIA plans to make awards in amounts of $5-100 million with the period of performance running for five years after the funds are made available to the grantee. The federal cost share may be no more than 70% of the proposed project cost, and the local match may be in the form of cash or in-kind contributions. Additionally, proposed projects must include direct interconnection for any anchor institution within 1,000 feet of the project capable of 1Gbps symmetrical broadband service to that anchor. NTIA also plans to prioritize projects with commitments from last-mile providers who can connect to any funded middle-mile infrastructure to provide direct service to communities.
While the funding distributed under this program is flexible there are certain eligibility restrictions for costs associated with middle mile infrastructure. These include construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment for the broadband infrastructure, costs associated with planning, design, and permitting for the infrastructure and associated environmental and historical reviews, some pre-applications costs, and a variety of other expenses.
- September 30, 2022: Applications for the Middle Mile Program are due online by 11:59 p.m. ET. You can download the application information and checklist on the program’s webpage.
- February 16, 2023: NTIA expects to complete the review of applications.
- March 1, 2023: NTIA expects this to be the start date for the Middle Mile Program awards.
To be successful in an application to this program, local governments should be aware of the different requirements for eligibility and ensure they are prepared to put together a sustainable, achievable project, or partner with other organizations or government agencies with experience in broadband and/or utility management. Overall, partnerships will be an important aspect in being successful in leveraging any of the NTIA’s broadband funding. Key partnerships should be explored with experienced providers (such as regional coalition of governments, an electric utility, a rural electric or telephone co-op, or local internet service provider) as well as with your state’s broadband office to ensure that local needs are communicated and all projects are well-coordinated among stakeholders.
Resources are available now to help your community get ready for the middle mile grant opportunity and become a more competitive applicant. This week, NLC released a new brief on Broadband Expansion Through Middle Mile Infrastructure. The brief includes case studies from across the nation, covering a variety of approaches to building a regional broadband backbone, and highlighting how these investments can serve as critical infrastructure, an engine for economic development, and provide a valuable source of ongoing revenue for municipal owners. These valuable lessons learned from case study communities can help guide local leaders through the process of making sound decisions reflecting local needs, partnerships and capacities.
In addition to this written reference, interactive technical assistance is available. NTIA is hosting a series of technical assistance webinars focusing on a variety of topics, including specific grant programs, the application process, and practical concerns such as supply chains and workforce development.
NLC will also hold the latest installment of its Digital Equity Webinar Series on Wednesday, June 15 at 2:00PM ET, focusing on best practices for middle mile broadband development, lessons learned from communities who have done the work, and information about the new federal grant program.