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How to Secure Federal Broadband Grants (Contributed)

Federal funding will soon be available to local governments and nonprofits to expand broadband for telehealth and at-home learning in the wake of COVID-19, but competition will be steep.

young students learning from home on a laptop during COVID-19
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Federal grant funding in the upcoming COVID-19 relief plan has $10 billion earmarked to go toward expanding broadband and related technologies. But when the starting gun goes off, the goal is to distribute all of the money as fast as possible to local organizations that can use it to improve services for telehealth, at-home work and school. As it was during this past summer’s CARES Act funding distribution, it’s an environment that gives few applicants a second chance to make a good first impression.

So how do you improve your odds of winning a federal broadband or technology grant? You need to sell it.

I wrote in 2009: “At some point, your proposal is going to sit in front of a tired, blurry-eyed federal employee who has more proposals with the same technology, similar engineering designs and the same goal as yours. But this person may only be able to fund one that day. All other things being equal, the ability of your opening sentence to grip the imagination and stir the heartbeat of the reader plays a big role in raising your proposal above all others.”   

Furthermore, more than 15 federal agencies might disburse these funds, plus another $20 billion collectively in the annual technology grant programs. Cities, Internet service providers and others hope to fund broadband, telehealth and distance learning, as well as digital training, adoption and literacy. You might have to sell a different package to various audiences.

“You can impress the committees evaluating grant applications by offering turnkey health-care service delivery or education capabilities as opposed to ‘just plumbing’ for broadband,” says Mark Noble, executive vice president of business development for telehealth vendor ViTel Net. 

For government loan providers, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “impress them with the significant impact the end product delivers,” says Noble. “For example, besides telehealth benefits, municipalities and co-ops can offer higher-value, over-the-top services to care providers and patients, thus expanding their ARPU [average revenue per user], and make their bids for future grant dollars more attractive.” 

Singleness of Purpose Can Breed Success    

Every element of your grant proposal is important. But does your opening statement grip the imagination and stir the heartbeat? Your project’s goal is to create something that didn’t exist before. Your opening statement sells the goal. 

Thomas Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) in Brooklyn, N.Y., guided his organization to winning a digital inclusion grant that “helped seniors learn and use technology so they could live better in the digital age.” He learned a critical lesson shepherding his community’s project into fruition.     

“Your main goal shouldn’t be simply to win the money and spend the money,” Kamber said. “Have a goal to build something that is ongoing as it achieves tangible good for communities. Generate revenue and outcomes by building an infrastructure within the community. Build an ecosystem with local partners. And be sure to create and retain community intellectual property.” 

There are many winning broadband and digital projects out there creating infrastructures and services that hadn’t been available before. Those are the type of “goals” that you sell to agencies that grant funds that can make your goal a reality. 

Learn about them. Emulate them. Sell the sizzle. 

Chattanooga, Tenn., created the first program of its kind the country to take over 28,500 low-income school children across the digital divide at no charge. Pottsboro, Texas, raised $20,000 to become a role model as the first library in Texas, if not the U.S., to transform its facility into a telehealth center. One of the first organizations awarded CARES Act money from the Federal Communications Commission was Neighborhood Family Practice (NFP) of Cleveland, Ohio, which was given $244,000 to bring the first telehealth programs for low-income families in the city.        

Sometimes the best way to seal the deal among grant reviewers is to display a “singleness of purpose” while building an infrastructure within the community. For example, anyone can lay fiber cable, but it’s a special kind of project that delivers an array of health-care services to a low-income urban community. 

“NFP serves 21,000 people,” said Jean Polster, NFP’s president and CEO. “Often I would think about those 21,000 people as we went through everything we did to get the FCC grant and switch over our practice to telehealth.”

Telehealth enables NFP to offer primary medical care to a diverse population, midwifery care for pregnant women and behavioral care. “There are so many people living in poverty who have a lot of issues with trauma, anxiety, depression and substance abuse,” Polster said. NFP also has a small dental program, its own pharmacy, and puts on wellness activities. It also is the only designated refugee medical service provider in the area. 

The Changing Nature of Technology Funding

Since COVID-19 hit, federal agencies are evolving how they fund broadband and related technologies. Pre-pandemic, Department of Education broadband grants mostly had to support servers and applications running at school campuses. Now they worry about broadband at students’ and teachers’ homes. Health and human services departments wanting to increase telehealth deployments now have to facilitate connectivity between homes and health-care facilities. Corporate IT departments have to shift resources to support employees at home.        

As lines blur between what is a broadband funding application or a health-care funding application, proposals need to be multifaceted, and require several agencies to meet the budget. “One thing we don't need is to think we know everything an agency needs to make a decision, but we haven't communicated with them well enough to know their needs” says Cameron Broadnax, principal at Transcending Healthcare, a telehealth systems integrator.

How a community wins grants that maintain a singleness of purpose while building a multifaceted infrastructure is by accepting that “the proposal that you win today isn't necessarily what you may need 16 months or two years from now,” Broadnax cautioned. “So what you sell to the agency — or agencies — are digital projects with expandability, the capacity for growth. A city or a county is huge, it’s multifaceted.”      

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.
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