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NTIA Says Primary Awards For Middle Mile Grants to Fall Between $5 Million and $100 Million

The long awaited notice of funding opportunity laid out the system for how each applicant program will be scored.

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Photo illustration from Radius

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2022 – In addition to releasing its rules on the highly anticipated $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, on Friday the National Telecommunications and Information Association also released the rules governing the $1 billion made available by the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program.

Commerce Department’s NTIA Releases Details for Funds Distributed Under IIJA

The NTIA, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department, released the middle-mile Notice of Funding of Opportunity, and addressed technical expectations, best practices, program priorities, and cost sharing and matching expectations, among myriad other aspects of the middle mile program.

The NTIA wrote that it expects the primary awards to fall between $5 million and $100 million, but added that this is not a fixed range and entities can apply for grants outside that range provided they supply documentation to potentially justify additional spending.

Want to know more about this game-changing document, and the powerful tools it brings to U.S. last mile broadband? Visit Broadband.Money‘s tools and resources, including four themes to watch for in the BEAD NOFO.

In the middle mile NOFO, the NTIA repeatedly deferred to standards established by the Federal Communications Commission when outlining what is considered “reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband.” For applicants to qualify, their programs must undergo a “merit review,” which is divided into two sections: project purpose and benefits, and project sustainability.

Both sections assign specific point values for various features, such as its technical capabilities, and whether it commits to an open-access model and carrier neutral interconnection facilities as part of the project purpose and befits section (60 points), and the reasonableness of the proposed budget and its fiscal sustainability as part of the project sustainability section (40 points)

If the project is able to score at least 80 out of 100 points on the merit review, it will be prioritized for the “programmatic review.”

Amounts of funding and general framework

The agency released the rules for the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure and State Digital Equity Act programs on Friday, in addition to the BEAD program.

The IIJA allocated $65 billion in funding for broadband spending, with at least $45 billion allocated to the NTIA through these three programs. The $42.5 billion for BEAD is designed to address last-mile broadband connectivity. The $1 billion for middle mile spending addresses the “secondary highways” — in between data centers and individual homes — that allow our internet to work. The additional $1.5 billion is for states to engage in programs designed to address digital equity.

Definitions for underseved and underserved households

Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, an “unserved”household is defined as a location not capable of receiving broadband internet access at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC’s current definition of broadband.

IIJA also established a second definition of “underserved” as a location not capable of receiving broadband at 100 Mbps x 20 Mbps.

In the middle mile NOFO, the agency laid out distinct speed requirements for fiber builds that connect to anchor institutions. The NTIA stated that anchor institutions within 1000 feet of middle mile fiber infrastructure must be provided with 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) symmetrical service.

Additionally, to qualify for a middle mile grant, the applying entity must commit to completing the buildout within five years from when the funding is made available, though entities can request a one-year extension if they are able to demonstrate that their plan is underway or there were extenuating circumstances that prevented the build from being completed.

Without a waiver, entities must be able to demonstrate benchmarks after the second, third, fourth, and fifth years; the project must have 40 percent of its project miles completed by the end of the second year, with 20 percent benchmarks every year thereafter.

In terms of cost matching, middle mile awards cannot exceed 70 percent of the total cost.

If an entity is unable to meet these deadlines, the NOFO also lays out the NTIA’s ability to claw back funds as established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

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Fiber

North Carolina Officials Tout Recent Investments in Rural Fiber

North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens.

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Screenshot of Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division

September 9, 2022 – With $260 million being awarded by North Carolina to several fiber deployments, a key state official highlighted his strategy toward broadband infrastructure, community engagement, mapping and digital literacy initiatives.

Speaking on Wednesday at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast event, Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division, said that the Tar Heel State allocated more than $1 billion from its American Rescue Plan funding for different facets of broadband deployment.

Dubbed the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, $260 million of an anticipated $380 million is to be awarded, including $206 on August 31, 2022.

According to Denny, the $260 million already allocated will span 92 counties and connect more than 115,000 new homes and businesses.

Additionally, the private sector has provided $120 million in matching funds to the $260 million in public funds already spent, Denny said.

GREAT is a reimbursement program, Denny explained, and grantees have two years to complete projects under state supervision. Grantees thus far include major national companies – including AT&T and Charter – as well as small regional providers and cooperatives.

Beneficiaries of GREAT funding are expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on monthly internet bills and eligible device purchases to low-income households.

Denny said that North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens in the next few years. Besides GREAT, the state’s American Rescue Plan–funded broadband programming includes the Stop Gap Solutions program, which provides targeted solutions such as satellite coverage to hard-to-reach locations. It also includes a broadband mapping initiative and a $50 million digital literacy effort.

In addition to current funding programs, Denny expects North Carolina to be the recipient of more than $800 million in upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program grants. He said that the state plans to funnel BEAD moneys into existing programs that have proven themselves effective.

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Funding

NTIA Middle Mile Director Stresses Need for Infrastructure to Withstand Climate Events

The director of the middle mile program said applicants must show “climate resilience” to get funding.

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Screenshot of Sarah Bleau, NTIA Middle Mile program director

WASHINGTON, September 8, 2022 – The director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s middle mile program on Wednesday stressed the importance of ensuring projects can withstand natural events, such as storms, to get funding from its $1 billion program.

Sarah Bleau said Wednesday on a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event that – despite the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act not mentioning climate resilience, the notice of funding opportunity for funds requires that a plan be in place for infrastructure resiliency against climate- and weather-related events.

Applications for funding are due September 30.

NTIA wants letter of credit, proof of area in need

Bleau also emphasized the need for applicants to show proof of an area to be served and to get a letter of credit, which will be requested by the agency from the bank. A letter of credit is a letter that’s addressed by a banker to a correspondent stating that the person named can draw upon the writer’s credit up to a chosen amount.

Screenshot of Sarah Bleau, NTIA Middle Mile program director

The letter of credit is intended to help the NTIA evaluate what level of risk the applicant is at. Bleau has had to address controversies surrounding the letter of credit during a virtual session on the program, saying it is “not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment.”

Bleau also fielded questions about extensions to apply to the program, saying there currently will be no extensions.

Among the other most-asked questions about the program, she said, include the use of matching funds to facilitate infrastructure grants. In almost all cases, applicants are required to provide a 30 percent match for grant proposals.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022, 12 Noon ET – Assessing the NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Application Process, an Event Headlined by NTIA’s Sarah Bleau

Most of the attention from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been focused on last-mile broadband deployment. But the deadline for IIJA’s Middle Mile grant program is coming up on September 30, 2022. In this special Broadband Breakfast Live Online session, we’ll begin with a brief headline presentation by Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, speaking about the $1 billion program, how the agency is handling the program, and how Middle Mile grants will impact the $42.5 billion last-mile broadband program.

Panelists:

  • Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
  • Doug Maglothin, Executive Director, Diamond States Network
  • Mark Goldstein, President of the International Research Center
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Sarah Bleau (center) joined the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in February 2021 as the Middle Mile Program Director. She took on this leadership role for the Broadband Infrastructure Program in Fall 2021 and saw the program through to the award recommendations and announcements made in February 2022. Sarah has extensive industry experience from spending the better part of her career buying, building, and selling fiber networks Sarah holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Doug Maglothin (left) is presently serving as the lead on the Diamond State Networks middle mile project which is the largest and fastest networks of its kind in all of Arkansas. Founded by electric cooperatives, DSN’s goal is to make Arkansas the most significantly connected state in the country by promoting fast and affordable broadband to every corner of the state. Working alongside the coops, Doug helped to develop Diamond State Networks from its inception in 2020 as a consultant by way of his firm, Leverage Broadband Strategies where he serves as a Partner and Chief Strategy Officer.

Mark Goldstein (right) is chairman of the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council and president of the International Research Center.

Drew Clark (moderator, not pictured) is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative in Illinois. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Photo from the National Association of Counties

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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Fiber

In ‘Office Hours’ Sessions, NTIA Addresses Questions of Middle Mile Grant Applicants

Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that the Middle Mile program is not for last-mile grants.

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Photo of middle mile project

WASHINGTON, September 7, 2022 – With the deadline for the application of Middle Mile grants three weeks away, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has held six of 12 “office hours” question and answer sessions.

Among the questions raised by prospective applicants during these sessions include the use of in-kind contributions, the role of the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 in demonstrating broadband availability and speeds, what role anchor institutions play in middle mile projects, and addressing concerns about the required letter of credit.

In a Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast on Wednesday, September 7, 2022, at 12 Noon ET, Sarah Bleau, middle mile program director at NTIA, will headline a discussion of “Evaluating the Middle Mile Grant Application Process.”

Broadband Breakfast on September 7, 2022 – Assessing the NTIA’s Middle Mile Grant Application Process

With $1 billion in funding under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Middle Program is among the smaller broadband funding measures offered by the NTIA. But with a September 30 deadline, it is one of the first programs available for award.

Unlike NTIA programs for last-mile broadband, or for state digital equity grants, Middle Mile grants are open to individual companies and institutions that apply. NTIA will receive the applicants directly. NTIA officials have been responding to these questions during “office hours” sessions held on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. See information about the 12 “office hours” sessions.

Role of the FCC’s Form 477

During one “office hours” discussion, NTIA officials addressed how applicants may use evidence of underrepresented and unrepresented people by drawing on broadband data available through the FCC’s Form 477.

The FCC’s Form 477 has been much-criticized and is headed for a revamp. On Friday, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that the agency is aiming for November to release the first draft of its new broadband map.

Rosenworcel, who previously said that the map is expected to emerge this fall, said in a note from the FCC that it has completed the first filing window for submitting “extensive location-by-location data” on broadband availability, after service providers were required by the agency to submit such data by September 1 – the day before the release of the note.

But because that new broadband data won’t be available until after the September 30 Middle Mile grant deadline, “office hours” panelists and presenters addressed how existing broadband data can at least provide basic information about locations and broadband speeds being provided at particular locations.

This can help applicants visualize the availability of broadband. And  speaking at one of the sessions, Alec MacDonell, telecommunications systems specialist at the FCC, highlighted the Urban Rate Survey. It is a report published annually by the FCC compiling data on the fixed voice and broadband service rates being offered to consumers in urban areas.

In addition, MacDonell and others participating in the “office hours” have said that applicants for the middle mile grant program should pay careful attention to the role that anchor institutions – typically universities, schools and libraries – play in planning for an implementing middle mile grants.

Letter of credit and no last-mile funds

During multiple “office hours” sessions over the last three weeks, Sarah Bleau, Middle Mile Program Director at NTIA, reminded attendees that this program is only for middle mile grants. Last-mile projects will not be considered and are not eligible for funds.

Addressing controversies over the required letter of credit, Bleau said that the letter is issued as a guarantee for payments. financial transactions among two separate parties, usually not taking on any risk in the process.

“It’s not so much protecting the money and so far as helping to determine and do a risk assessment,” Bleau said.

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