NRECA is offering detailed summaries of two new federal funding programs, Enabling Middle Mile Grants and Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment, to help co-ops in deciding whether and how to pursue $43.5 billion in federal assistance from the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The $1 billion “middle mile” grant program available from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration opened for applications June 21 and closes Sept. 30. The term “middle mile” refers to the long-distance fiber installations that link local broadband operations with broader regional networks.

Electric co-ops already using fiber to connect their substations and build a communications backbone may be eligible for these grants if they assist rural retail internet providers in connecting customers.

The bulk of the new infrastructure law’s rural broadband money—$42.5 billion—is going to BEAD, which will provide funding directly to interested states—a minimum of $100 million each to disburse as grants for rural broadband. States must develop a plan for disbursing the funds subject to NTIA approval. BEAD funds may not be available until early 2023.

“Co-ops should be evaluating the rules for these new grants and what areas may be eligible,” said Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior regulatory director for broadband and telecom. “A feasibility study may show a broadband project does not pencil out, but that could change when grant money is involved.”

To determine eligible locations for BEAD grants, the Federal Communications Commission is collecting data to map areas that are unserved or underserved by broadband. Unserved areas are those lacking internet download/upload speeds of 25/3 megabits per second, and underserved are below 100/20 Mbps. The maps are unlikely to be completed before year’s end.

In the meantime, co-ops are encouraged to meet with their state’s rural broadband office to convey their needs and become familiar with the BEAD grant process, said Katie Culleton, NRECA legislative affairs director.

“States can start planning now how they will disburse their BEAD funds, but there are a lot of steps involved in applying for these grants,” Culleton said. “Planning will be key to address supply chain issues in obtaining fiber and meeting the grant program’s five-year buildout milestones.”

While there are a lot of requirements, such as matching funds, for these competitive new grants, O’Hara said co-ops interested in broadband are encouraged to apply, especially those in the most rural areas where deployment costs are high.

“Getting a grant can change the equation of whether pursuing broadband is economically feasible,” he said. “Talk with your state and local officials. If co-ops don’t apply and win it to serve their area, someone else will.”