Broadband feasibility studies are a step toward grant applications, RFPs, getting networks built!

Last week, the MN Broadband Task Force heard from practitioners on the utility of feasibility studies. I’m on the Task Force and found the topic interesting and worth a deeper dive, especially given Blandin Foundation’s experience with and commitment to the feasibility study as a key step in moving a broadband project closer to reality.

Since 2007, Blandin Foundation had provided matching grants totaling $718,321 to 24 rural Minnesota communities to support the cost of a broadband feasibility study through its Robust Network Feasibility Fund. This grant program requires communities to produce a one-to-one cash match for awarded grants.

In 2013, Blandin Foundation published Lessons from Rural Minnesota Broadband Feasibility Studies: What can rural communities learn about broadband expansion, based on feasibility studies completed to date?” It looks at grants made between 2007 and 2012 to 11 communities to fund broadband feasibility studies, and identifies some best practices and recommendations for maximizing the effectiveness of such studies.

Five of these funded communities have gone on to deploy broadband networks; six have not.

The difference: access to capital.

Four of the five communities were able to build networks based on their completed studies due to ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding. (Actually four networks were deployed, as two communities with feasibility studies became one ARRA project.) Having feasibility study results in hand played a key role in positioning the awarded communities to be competitive for federal funding.  The studies provided the communities with the data required in the application process and demonstrated that they were shovel-ready projects, which was a major requirement of projects seeking ARRA funding.

One community, Red Wing, successfully deployed a fiber optic network without ARRA funding, through partnership with Hiawatha Broadband Communications. HBC applied for ARRA funding, but was not awarded funds. Despite this setback, HBC moved ahead with the Red Wing project using their own source of funds.

State broadband funds were not available at this time, so that was not an option for communities.

In 2013, Blandin Foundation made three more broadband feasibility study grants:

As communities and counties increasingly feel the pain of being left behind, Blandin Foundation is experiencing increased demand for feasibility study grants.

In 2015-16, Blandin Foundation funded broadband feasibility studies in 10 communities.

The grant applications for this round of feasibility studies all emerged from an inclusive community engagement process.  Community members identified the need to conduct a study in order to move ahead on their technology goals and then shaped the study’s purpose, goals, and scope, and selected a consultant.

Broadband networks are now being built in six of the 10 communities that conducted feasibility studies in 2015-2016; four with state grant dollars, and two without.

Some conclusions I draw from this experience:  

  • Feasibility studies can be an effective tool in helping communities advance their broadband goals.
  • Feasibility studies inform both sides of prospective partnerships: public sector leadership and private sector providers.
  • Feasibility studies should be designed to drive decision-making throughout an interactive and iterative process defining public sector role, technology choices and partnership options.

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