digging ditches for broadband

The NTIA released a 54-page notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) early this morning for the nearly $1 billion Middle Mile program established in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Today’s notice details the requirements that funded projects must meet, as well as the criteria NTIA will use in making the awards, which will cover no more than 70% of project costs.

Unlike the $42.5 billion BEAD program, whose funding notice also was released today, the Middle Mile program rules call for the NTIA, rather than the states, to make decisions about who should receive funding.

Middle mile networks are defined as those that “do not connect directly to an end user location and include leased dark fiber, interoffice transport, backhaul, carrier-neutral internet exchange facilities, carrier-neutral submarine cable landing stations, undersea cables, transport connectivity to data centers, special access transport, and similar services,” as well as wired or private wireless broadband infrastructure, including microwave capacity, radio tower access and other services.

Any funded middle mile networks will be required to prioritize at least one of the following:

  • Connecting middle mile infrastructure to last mile networks that provide or plan to provide broadband service to households in unserved areas
  • Connecting non-contiguous trust lands
  • Offering wholesale broadband service at reasonable rates on a carrier-neutral basis

Additionally, award recipients that receive middle mile grant awards for fiber projects must offer “interconnection in perpetuity where technically feasible without exceeding current or reasonably anticipated capacity limitations, on reasonable rates and terms to be negotiated with requesting parties.”

Middle Mile NOFO Selection Criteria

NTIA will score middle mile applications using a 100-point scale to determine the project’s “merit review score.” For applications scoring 80 or higher, the merit review score will be multiplied by a weighting factor between 1 and 1.8 based on several additional criteria.

Projects’ merit review scores will be based on:

  • The extent to which the project will either facilitate deployment of high-speed broadband to unserved or underserved areas or improve affordability in already-served markets (20 points)
  • Whether the project will offer non-discriminatory interconnection in perpetuity, which must include both the ability to connect to the public internet and physical interconnection for traffic exchange (10 points)
  • Whether the provider commits to offering access to the funded middle mile infrastructure, in perpetuity, on an open access basis (10 points)
  • The extent to which the project will otherwise benefit the proposed service area, including but not limited to facilitating development of carrier-neutral interconnection facilities, improving the resiliency of existing middle-mile infrastructure or including direct interconnect facilities that will facilitate the provision of broadband to anchor institutions within 1,000 feet of the middle mile infrastructure at speeds of at least 1 Gbps symmetrically (10 points)
  • Comprehensiveness and appropriateness of the proposed technical solution for meeting the community’s needs. Reviewers will favorably score projects that are “shovel ready” and capable of completion within a two-year period (10 points)
  • Applicant’s organizational capability to complete the project (5 points)
  • Reasonableness of the applicant’s proposed budget (10 points)
  • Project’s fiscal sustainability beyond the award period (10 points)
  • Applicant’s commitment to contribute a non-federal cost share of more than 30% of total eligible project costs (5 points for a non-federal share between 30% and 40%, 10 points for a non-federal share between 41% and 50%, 15 points for more than 50% non-federal share)

The weighting factor applied to the strongest applications will be based on applicants’ proposed use of community benefit agreements and on applicants’ ability to demonstrate:

  • The likelihood of material reduction in end user broadband prices resulting from the project
  • The likelihood of material reduction in latency for end users in remote or insular areas
  • Substantial benefits stemming from the middle mile network that will accrue to high-poverty counties, persistent poverty counties and/or a substantial number of end users that have household income at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines, that have one or more household members meeting the qualifications of certain government support programs or that qualify for a participating provider’s existing low-income internet program
  • Substantial benefits that will accrue to previously unserved locations or Tribal lands
  • That the project route is designed to enable connection of unserved anchor institutions
  • Compliance with certain fair labor, skilled and equitable workforce, job quality objectives and civil rights and non-discrimination law compliance
  • The climate resilience of the project

Applications are due by September 30, 2022. NTIA expects to make middle mile awards by February 16, 2023.

The full IIJA middle mile NOFO can be found at this link.

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