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Navigating the NTIA Digital Equity Capacity Grant Application

NTIA Opens Applications for the First Round of Funding

On March 29th 2024, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the availability of $811 million in funding to states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, native entities, and territories to bolster digital inclusion efforts through the Digital Equity Program. States, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, must submit their applications by May 28, 2024, while U.S. Territories, other than Puerto Rico, must submit their application by July 31, 2024. The application window for native entities will open on September 25, 2024, and close on February 7, 2025.

The Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program is available as part of the “Internet for All” initiative, which aims to ensure everyone in America has access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet service. In 2022, states, territories and tribal entities formed ambitious plans to close the digital divide while also navigating the complexities of planning for the historic $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. Upon completion of both planning processes, states learned in early 2024 that they would have to quickly revise their plans when Congress failed to renew the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in 2024. Now, the ever-changing funding landscape presents both opportunities and challenges for those states and territories accessing funding.

Bringing Digital Equity Plans to Action

The recent announcement of the $811 million Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program requires states, territories, and tribal entities to pivot quickly to meet federal requirements, hit aggressive timelines, keep stakeholders engaged, and juggle multiple priorities in their pursuit of digital equity. Tilson has partnered with entities across the country to support the successful outcome of these programs. We’ve seen programs succeed through several key approaches:

Engage Key Stakeholders

In the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), the NTIA outlines what it expects for meaningful engagement of stakeholders: “Stakeholders who are directly affected by the proposed strategies and interventions should be involved to encourage ongoing feedback regarding the effectiveness of the interventions and to seek input on potential solutions and improvement.”What this means is the entity looking to secure and administer funding needs to have a deep understanding of the population that will be impacted by the program. Not only that, but they need to prove that their digital equity plan will serve and meet their needs. The states that have done this well are those that intentionally broke down information and communication silos that previously separated various stakeholder groups. Tilson has seen leading states do this successfully through Digital Equity councils, formal coalitions, surveys, focus groups, and webinars.

What this means is the entity looking to secure and administer funding needs to have a deep understanding of the population that will be impacted by the program. Not only that, but they need to prove that their digital equity plan will serve and meet their needs. The states that have done this well are those that intentionally broke down information and communication silos that previously separated various stakeholder groups. Tilson has seen leading states do this successfully through Digital Equity councils, formal coalitions, surveys, focus groups, and webinars.

Design Equitable Grant Programs

Broadband grant programs must be designed through a “fair, transparent, equitable, and inclusive process,” as dictated by the NOFO. West Virginia, for example, has paved the way with its draft program procedures, which provided a clear, public process for digital equity and workforce programs. While they initially created these procedures for the BEAD program, West Virginia will turn to these established procedures to draft their Digital Equity Capacity Grant application, maximizing efficiency within a tight deadline.

West Virginia has also taken the extra step of partnering with the Grant Resource Center to ensure interested grant applicants, such as nonprofits and community organizations, have the support they need to apply for funding. This intentional approach ensures the needs of applicants and subgrantees are being met and should serve as a model for other states and entities applying for the Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program.

Find the Right Partner

Not all states, territories, or tribal entities have the background or the resources to tackle the complex planning and oversite needed to design and implement a digital equity plan. Understanding the evolving landscape of federal funding makes bridging the digital divide a major challenge in the United States.

The entities that implement truly transformative digital equity programs are those that know when to ask for help. In addition to digital equity planning and implementation, Tilson’s Broadband Consulting team partner with states and tribal nations to plan, design, and maintain viable and cost-effective broadband networks. We have a full and comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by stakeholders and can alleviate the pressures of navigating complex broadband plan design and federal funding.

Tilson agrees with NTIA that this is “a matter of social and economic justice.” Done well, the Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program will help address systemic barriers and sustainably improve outcomes in health, education, economic stability, and quality of life among covered populations. Reach out to learn how Tilson’s Broadband Consultants can help you secure federal funding to deliver high-speed broadband and close the digital divide in your area.

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