NASHVILLE, Tenn.—With historic amounts of federal funds coming to bridge the digital divide, state broadband officers at PowerXchange offered a key piece of advice for electric cooperatives entering the broadband space: Show how the community supports your efforts.

“We need to see more community support in application rounds, where everyone is a viable [internet] provider,” said Taylre Beaty, state broadband director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Beaty, BJ Tanksley, director of Missouri’s Office of Broadband Development, and Jake Varn, principal associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Initiative, participated in a session moderated by Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior regulatory director. The panel focused on states’ perspectives on federal broadband grants.

Tanksley told co-ops to include meaningful letters of support when applying for these competitive grants. Demonstrating community need “is something you can start doing now before the next grant window opens,” Beaty added. “It can be super impactful when it comes to the grant scoring process.”

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program, created by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, is the largest pot of grants and will be overseen by the National Telecommunications Information Administration. NTIA has set up BEAD offices in each state to allocate at least $100 million per state.

In the meantime, co-ops should get in touch with state broadband officials, who are racing to develop plans for allocating these competitive grants, Varn said.

“It requires a lot of you all to step up and have your voice heard,” he said. “Know what your state is doing; who to contact; engage in very critical points of this process.”

O’Hara said co-ops should also consider ways to match grants.

“The panel discussion brought home what co-ops can do now to prepare for and even help shape how the BEAD program is implemented in their state,” he said. “First, contact your state and NTIA federal broadband offices, then engage with local leaders and policymakers. Electric co-ops have a solid reputation, but acting now will go a long way in a new competitive grant process.”

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