Broadband Funding Options: Show Me the Money!

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The federal government’s recent largesse has made broadband infrastructure development a focus of discussion in many communities. The pleasing number of zeroes contained in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and more recent infrastructure bill may, however, distract from other available sources of broadband development funding. There are several existing state and federal loan and grant programs that may ultimately be better suited to certain projects or needs. It is critical for anyone exploring broadband expansion or improvements to understand the full spectrum of funding opportunities now available and whether you meet the qualifications.

Maine now has two primary grant-making agencies—the ConnectMaine Authority (ConnectME) and the Maine Connectivity Authority (MCA). ConnectME offers two types of grants to counties, municipalities, and community groups seeking to invest in broadband expansion. Community Broadband Planning Grants are made available to help communities plan for broadband service expansions. Those seeking a Planning Grant must first complete ConnectME’s Startup Grant program, which provides a small infusion of funds and support services to help the recipient build the community and legislative support necessary for a successful broadband project. ConnectME’s Infrastructure Grants are made to support investment in physical infrastructure through provider expansion or community-driven broadband projects. Infrastructure Grants are typically made to service providers that partner with community groups or municipalities to expand or improve broadband service within a given area. In addition to its grants, which range in size depending on the scope and nature of the proposed project, ConnectME provides a level of experience and expertise that makes it a valuable initial or supplemental funding source for anyone exploring local or regional broadband development projects.

The recently established MCA is charged with deploying $150 million Maine received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The MCA was created to ensure that all Maine people have access to secure, affordable, and reliable broadband access. The Maine Legislature has given the MCA expansive powers to improve broadband infrastructure, to provide funding directly or through other State agencies to others for the same, and to operate its own broadband networks. The MCA is still developing its rules and funding process and will likely not begin distributing funds until mid-2022.It will surely, however, serve as an important source of funding for local and regional broadband initiatives moving forward and we are paying close attention to MCA’s activities.

In addition to the well-publicized ARPA funds made available to counties and municipalities, the federal government has reinvigorated several existing programs that offer loans and grants for broadband development projects. These include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service which administers the Community Connect Program (CCP) and Rural E-Connectivity Program (ReConnect). The CCP provides grants for broadband expansion within eligible rural communities. The RUS has recently reserved and solicited applications for 10% of its CCP funding, approximately $60 million, for multi-jurisdictional projects, while ReConnect has received an additional $100 million to provide loans to local governments within eligible service areas for the construction or improvement of broadband infrastructure and facilities. Though both programs are limited to certain rural communities, the CCP and ReConnect offer significantly more funding than ConnectME grants. As a result, the CCP and Reconnect programs have been important resources for larger broadband infrastructure developments, including those in Roque Bluffs, Cranberry Isles, Arrowsic, and Monhegan Island. And, well, as they say, with great financing comes onerous compliance. CCP and ReConnect recipients must be prepared to perform significantly more compliance and reporting work than they would under Maine programs.

As more funding becomes available for broadband infrastructure development, knowing which funding sources are appropriate and beneficial to any given project, and available to the applicant, will be more important than ever.