President Biden has released a “Rural Playbook” for how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) will invest billions in rural communities. This playbook identifies all of the programs and sources of funding set aside for rural communities and provides an overview of the key flexibilities and other benefits available to rural communities under the BIL.
Bottom Line: The BIL provides billions to help strengthen rural communities on multiple levels, notably the BEAD Program will provide $42.45 billion to fund broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas. Rules on how states will apply for these grant funds will be issued on or before May 16, 2022.
The BIL invests $65 billion to help deploy high-speed broadband to more rural Americans, provide technical assistance to rural and Tribal communities seeking to expand broadband, and help lower internet costs. The BIL provides funding for key programs such as: the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the ReConnect Program; the Middle Mile Grants Program, Digital Equity Grants, the Tribal Connectivity Broadband Program, and the Affordable Connectivity Program. Rural communities are encouraged to also work with state legislators and infrastructure coordinators to make use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that are currently available for broadband deployment.
- Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program
The Department of Commerce’s $42.45 billion BEAD Program, to be administered by the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA), provides grant funding to states and territories, which in turn will provide subgrants to entities for eligible projects. In order to implement this program, NTIA is required to release a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) on or before May 16, 2022 pursuant to the statutory deadlines established by the BIL. The NOFO will dictate how states apply for grant funds and will set limitations on how they can award subgrants. The BEAD Program has a 25 percent matching requirement that can be waived in certain cases. More information about this program is available here.
- ReConnect Program
The BIL provides $1.9 billion for the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Program, which offers loans, grants, and loan-grant combinations directly to states, territories, local governments, Tribes, and other eligible entities to build the necessary infrastructure and equipment for high-speed broadband in rural communities. Projects are prioritized based on the rurality of the service area, the economic need of the community and the level of existing service. Funds provided by the ReConnect Program can cover the cost of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment to provide broadband service capable of 100/20 Mbps. Under the BIL, Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, and projects serving persistent poverty counties and socially vulnerable communities will receive waivers of the matching funds requirement for this program. It is anticipated that the window for filing applications for this program will open in the third quarter of 2022. You can learn more about the application process here.
- Middle Mile Grants Program
The BIL provided $1 billion for this NTIA grant program to fund the construction, improvement, or acquisition of middle mile infrastructure, purposed with lowering the costs of connecting unserved and underserved areas. The grant program is authorized for five years, from FY 2022 through FY 2026. To be eligible, an applicant must prioritize: (1) connecting middle mile infrastructure to last mile networks that provide broadband service to households in unserved areas; (2) connecting non-contiguous trust lands; or (3) offering of wholesale broadband service at reasonable rates. NTIA is required to release a NOFO on or before May 16, 2022 to be able to open the application window and outline the rules of the program. Awards will be made no later than 270 days after the NOFO is issued. You can find more information about this grant program here.
- Digital Equity Grants
The BIL created three digital equity grant programs to be administered by NTIA. The first program, the State Digital Equity Planning Program, is a $60 million formula grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans. This program is expected to be launched in the second quarter of 2022. After the state digital equity plans are developed, NTIA will launch the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, which is a $1.44 billion formula grant program designed to support the implementation of the state digital equity plans. The formula for determining grants will consider a state’s overall population, the number of individuals likely to be impacted by the digital equity plan, and a comparative ratio of availability of broadband in that state compared to national averages.
Lastly, after awards are made for the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, NTIA will release a NOFO for the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program. This $1.25 billion discretionary grant program will distribute funds over a five-year period to foster broadband adoption in underserved areas and supplement other relevant grant and loan funding. Eligible applicants include community anchor institutions, educational groups, agencies, and nonprofit entities. More information on these programs can be found here.
- Tribal Connectivity Broadband Program
An additional $2 billion has been allocated to NTIA’s Tribal Connectivity Broadband Program to fund broadband deployment on Tribal lands to promote telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability and digital inclusion. The BIL also granted extensions of certain deadlines (e.g., commitment and expenditure deadlines) within the program.
- Affordable Connectivity Program
The BIL allocated $14.2 billion in funding for the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, replacing the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. This program will provide up to a $30 discount for lower-income households per month on internet services as well as a one-time $100 discount on eligible devices (e.g., laptop, desktop, or tablet). Eligible households for this program include households with income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, those with at least one member eligible for the National School Lunch Program, and those with at least one member that receives benefits through SNAP, WIC, SSI, Medicaid, and other federal assistance programs. More information on how households can obtain this benefit can be found here.
- American Rescue Plan Act Funds
ARPA made $350 billion in funds available to help rural communities respond to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding broadband deployment is among the eligible uses of these funds. The State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, administered by the Department of Treasury (USDT), provide funding to states, territories, and localities to fund expansion of broadband in rural unserved and underserved communities.
Additionally, the $10 billion Capital Projects Program, administered by USDT and funded by ARPA, includes broadband deployment projects and digital connectivity projects as eligible uses of these funds. Each state has been allocated more than $100 million, each territory has been allocated more than $14 million, and each Tribal government has been allocated $167,000. States and territories must submit their grant plans explaining how they will distribute funding by September 24, 2022. Further information on the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds and the Capital Projects Program is available online.
Other Available Funding for Rural Communities
The BIL also provides billions in funding to: (1) clean up pollution in rural communities; (2) improve rural Americans’ transportation options; (3) repair rural roads and bridges; (4) ensure clean drinking water and basic sanitation in rural communities; (5) increase resiliency to weather-related hazards; (6) assist rural communities combat cyber threats; (7) upgrade electricity and transmission infrastructure; and (8) support regional commissions and other locally-based authorities.