A Guide to Broadband Technical Assistance: Lessons Learned

Written by Tammy Breski, Broadband Infrastructure Manager at IEM

Breski, Tammy

As a firm committed to advancing communities through resilience building, IEM stands ready to support federal, state, local, and tribal partners in their efforts to increase and improve broadband connectivity for all.

As the former Broadband Program Manager for the Commonwealth of Virginia, I am proud to bring my experience and expertise to IEM and support our customers in addressing the digital divide and delivering high-speed internet through stronger broadband infrastructure, everywhere.

Lean on Your Resources | Broadband Technical Assistance

Technical Assistance (TA) is the process of providing specific support to an organization with a need or problem. Whether you are a state offering the technical assistance or a grantee seeking it, this process and partnership is essential to the successful planning, implementation, and launch of a broadband program.

If you are a state broadband office, provide TA. It is a critical resource and will help garner better applications. Set a process to support your subgrantees, understand the requirements of your funding source (financial or outcome based), and leverage expertise (in-house or contracted) to help oversee potential issues.

If you are a grantee, connect with whomever is providing the TA for your program at the state broadband office. This invaluable assistance is available at no cost.

From project start to finish, your state office TA is an essential resource to depend on during each step of the process, as outlined below.

  • State creates application guidelines.
  • Grantee applies.
  • State reviews applications and selects grantees.
  • Grantee begins approved construction.
  • State conducts construction site visits (varies by state)
  • Grantee completes regular reporting of construction progress to state.
  • State conducts site inspections following construction completion.

State offices provide TA support to customers, including stakeholders such as localities, community organizations, internet service providers (ISP), and even individuals. It’s also important to note, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) provides a Federal Program Officer as an added resource to states who can help amplify their support to stakeholders seeking broadband assistance.

In my experience, the more successful applications for broadband funding were from grantees that came to their state office asking questions, were willing to listen to proposed solutions, and utilized the expertise state project managers provided through the allowed TA. Each year, states publish guidelines and criteria that offer grantees additional information regarding the application fields, outlines the necessary documentation required, evaluation criteria, and the challenge process. This is an excellent opportunity to engage your state TA to address specific questions to your application to ensure you deliver an application that closely aligns with the states funding priorities. Your assigned state project managers know what they are looking for as you prepare your Five-Year Action Plan, Initial Proposal, Challenge Process, Subgrantee Selection Process, and Final Proposal.

Often, broadband funding awardees are localities or localities partner with an ISP, considered co-applicants. Given the common limitations in bandwidth and/or existing broadband experience at the local level, leveraging state TA support is critical to a successful application and eventually, program implementation.

Some TA resources available to grantees include:

  • Grants management handbook
  • Communications plan white paper
  • Risk management tools
  • Reporting templates

Why Use TA? Successful TA Case Studies

Case Study # 1

During my time with the Commonwealth of Virginia, our team assisted a locality that was receiving complaints from citizens regarding their ISP grant partner’s drop process (i.e., connecting the house from the terminal at the road). A site visit was scheduled allowing the state project manager to see first-hand the issues that had been reported to the locality. An exposed splice on a drop, a cracked driveway from a shallow bore, and general unkemptness were just some of the issues, not including missed scheduling.

Our team was able to develop a corrective action plan to get these issues under control and help the ISP understand their current process were not working as intended. After a few months of monitoring, we were able to see a significant reduction in complaints and more on-time installations through the provided TA.

Case Study # 2

In this scenario, a co-applicant (Virginia allows a unit of local government to be the applicant and the ISP is considered the co-applicant) was providing wireless service by using a localities’ structures to place the antenna. The locality was providing the ISP a discounted lease rate and wanted to use the rate reduction as in-kind match. The locality noted that they were supplying the ISP with an agreed upon $12,000 annual discount for the next 20 years. Therefore, the locality wanted to claim a $240,000 in-kind match on their application (please note numbers are an example and not true to actual application). Given the grant application rating system, that kind of match would make this application extremely competitive.

However, we all know that technology changes very quickly, and the likelihood of that ISP needing that equipment on that local tower for 20 years was slim (this is fixed wireless, not cellular broadband). In addition to the issue of evolving technology, we also understood that the typical tower leases were for five years and were renewable four times for up to 20 years.

For reference, below is an example of potential impact (amounts are theoretical)

Application A Application B
Funding from State $100,000 $100,000
Funding from ISP $100,000 $100,000
Funding from Locality $60,000 $240,000
Total Project Costs $260,000 $440,000
Number of passings 500 500
Internet Speed 25/3 Mbps 25/3 Mbps
State Share of Project 38% 22%
State Cost $200 $200

The TA provided to the applicant advised that that the in-kind match could be calculated at $12,000 for five years for a total of $60,000.

Matching funds up to 15 points – Application B would get more points due to the larger match ($160K vs $340K).

Again, using a Cost Benefit Index (a relative index created for State Share, State Cost and Internet Speed and converted to a 30-point score) – Application B would have a higher score due to the State Share being lower.

TA is Essential from Project Start to Finish

At closeout, once construction is done and subscribers are hooked up, the verification process is necessary to ensure work is completed, monies were appropriately distributed, and consumers received the speeds advertised. To efficiently complete this, most states will require a final grantee Broadband Closeout report that summarizes the project, its outcomes, success stories, and financial reporting. Additionally, a financial review, or audit, is expected at the completion of a project – if federal funding was used, grantees adherence to 2 CFR200 is also reviewed and noted during this phase.

TA offered to a grantee at this phase typically is minimal given; however, it is possible to run into a few challenges. For instance, getting all the required data could be difficult. Tackling this challenge might be as simple as helping to initiate a file transfer protocol, setting up Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) protection for sensitive company data, or it could also mean a site visit to an ISP office to review material in person due to the proprietary nature of the financial information. Once again, TA could provide critical support to ensure proper grant closeout.

My greatest advice to grantees – be prepared, ask questions, and listen. Having subject matter experts at your disposal through TA will help you have a successful Broadband Grant Program – no matter if you are a state office or a local grantee.

Looking for additional guidance? IEM is prepared to leverage our expertise to support your broadband needs.