The US government is serious about bridging the digital divide and has allocated tens of billions of dollars to combat the issue. The multitude of programs and variety of requirements makes navigating the application process complex and confusing for telecom operators looking to leverage all the available resources. Ceragon’s Vice President of Sales, Mark Pelletier, walks us through how he and the Ceragon team have helped operators with the application process.
Jeremy Ladner: There are now billions of dollars of government funding available to deal with the Digital Divide. You can get access to it and Ceragon can help - find out how on this episode of The Backhaul Lounge.
“Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA.”
So, there are billions of bucks on the table in government funding for broadband expansion thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA.
The goal is to bridge the Digital Divide for unserved and underserved communities. The challenge for telecom operators is navigating a complex and sometimes confusing grant submissions process. Luckily, our guest today has already helped other telecom operators with their submission process and is ready to share his hard-won wisdom with us. Mark Pelletier is the Vice President of Sales for Ceragon. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today.
Mark Pelletier: My pleasure.
Jeremy Ladner: Excellent. So how about we start with a high-level thousand-mile-up overview of the amount of funding available? Maybe who qualifies and some of the oversight bodies involved?
“$65 billion worth of funding.”
Mark Pelletier: Sure. There is a lot of money available to solve this problem. This particular IIJA is $65 billion worth of funding. That's on top of other programs that are already in place. That makes this whole pot of money, so to speak, very, very large. What's historic about this particular act is that NTIA, which is managing the process traditionally doles out the money for the previous programs. They'd get the grant submissions and they would manage everything. They've taken the impressive step of getting the states involved. And so now the states have the authority and the grant approval to figure out what is the best option for those individual states.
And that, in turn, makes this a more complex process, but it also gets the decision makers and the owners, what can we do for our markets? Much more local, which is a very positive step.
Jeremy Ladner: Okay, so you mentioned that there's now state-level oversight, which has the obvious benefit of understanding what the local population needs but brings with it the potential for an additional layer of bureaucracy. And that could slow down the grant submission process. You also mentioned that there are several programs available, each addressing different types of unserved and underserved markets like BEAD, for example. Can you talk about some of the programs and are you finding that the variety of programs is making the application process simpler or more complex in complexity?
“The federal government
is never easy to do business with”
Mark Pelletier: Yes, the federal government is never easy to do business with. So though this is a positive step to let the states get engaged and determine what's best. Now we have the states determining their rules of engagement, so to speak. What are the requirements that they feel are most important? How are they defining an unserved market or an underserved market?
We also have states that have done their own funding, so that money is also on top of the BEAD program. There's also a Middle Mile program, which is exactly how it sounds, solving the Middle Mile issue of getting from point A to point B to point C. There is a Tribal Connectivity program. So, each of these is kind of specific to a unique need that they want to address and not just lump it all together.
With that is certain requirements. And so we've worked with multiple service providers to determine how they can qualify for a grant for each of their respective programs, including BEAD and with the state engagement. It is again more complex, but it's just it's also more tight with the community to making sure that we are providing the service that is needed in those respective markets.
So, yes, lots of programs, lots of regulations, and a lot of things to figure out, and that's why the Ceragon team has been spending so much time on this space.
Jeremy Ladner: Okay, great. So, we have state-level oversight and several targeted programs. Would you say that the states now have a clearly defined procedure in place with detailed requirements, or is it more of a moving target in terms of the application process?
“Some states are further ahead than others”
Mark Pelletier: Yeah, I'd say that's a definite maybe. I'd say some states are further ahead than others and they have grants already submitted and so they have figured out what they want their process to be. Most of them have determined the minimum requirements. What is the speed that is needed? What's the reporting structure? What is the service level that you need to have? What are the unserved or underserved markets?
What will you need to do after you install it? - Tracking and managing that? So, they've made significant progress and there's a lot of the grants that are already involved. In fact, we did a grant locally here with a client, did the whole process with them, and they submitted it and they're very much farther along in that process. So, I think the states have done an excellent job. The state administrators are involved in this, and so that's an important part of that as well, is working collaboratively with them.
Jeremy Ladner: Okay, Mark, so you have been through this entire process before. You've helped other people through it as well. What would you suggest to people who are just getting started? Where's a good place to begin?
“Network Design is big”
Mark Pelletier: Yeah. Planning is always the word. And I'll use that a couple of different times in answering that question.
Building a plan of where you want to build your new network and determine the geography for that and the requirements for that is always important because you have to define what is unserved, what is underserved and make sure you're clear on that geography in that state. Or if you're moving into a new state, they're requirements for that.
So, determining that I guess, is the very first step. The next big important item is the Network Design. What is that design going to do to cover that area and geography? Network Design is big as well. Fiber is primarily what most people will be using, and it's a great solution to accomplish the goal. But you can't always use fiber if it's in a mountainous area or if it's such a long area that you're going to trench or add and it's quite expensive.
So trying to be the most effective way of solving this is usually wireless and fiber together. Plus, fiber is really getting expensive and some of the lead times on this are quite long. So, there are benefits of getting the network up sooner so you can serve these clients quicker.
There are multiple technologies as well. You could be looking at a private 5G build, maybe LTE, some Wi-Fi in regard to the local community and the neighborhood parks. CBRS is a very good technology as well that's very cost-effective. So, looking at all of that and what's the best way to design the network is complex in itself. Ceragon has multiple relationships with all the third-party vendors in this case and that we're more of a system integrator.
“We help them with the grant process”
We were working with a client recently. I just had a call with them yesterday that we actually did this whole process. They wanted to cover a particular county and they're like, What is going to be the best answer, and what is going to be the best solution based on the budgeting that they had for this grant? So we help them with the grant process, but we also designed the network for them, deployed the network,
and now we're managing the network as well. So it's a bit complex, but build in that plan for how your network will be built for that area is a second really important critical component.
Jeremy Ladner: Okay. So, you mentioned planning, obviously incredibly important. Network Design is something that Ceragon has a quarter of a century of experience and expertise with. How else can Ceragon help people with the application process?
“we're doing a free [grant] assessment”
Mark Pelletier: I think using our expertise is probably the most important part, meaning we've done this, we've done grant work, we've done network design. In fact, we're doing a free assessment for people that are interested. If they want to reach out to us, our team will take a look and help guide you and say, What markets are you trying to cover? I have service providers that would like to get into other geographies to expand their reach, and this is one way to do that a bit more cost effectively than either acquisition or just building it on their own.
So I'd say reach out to our team and let us give you a free assessment and talk about what your needs are
and how the grant process could solve some of those particular needs.
Jeremy Ladner: So you mentioned a free funding eligibility assessment. That sounds fantastic. What's the best way for people to get in touch with you? How would you recommend that they reach out?
Mark Pelletier: Send me an email. I'll get it to my team. You can hit us up on LinkedIn. You can go to our website.
Any of those avenues are simple and yeah, we'd love to help.
Jeremy Ladner: Great. Mark, thanks for joining us. Thanks to everyone for watching. And for anyone thinking about beginning the grant submission process. Best of luck to you. Feel free to reach out to Mark and the Ceragon team. They'd be happy to provide guidance and share their experience. Thanks for watching The Backhaul Lounge. I'm Jeremy Ladner. Bye for now.
Click here for a free funding assessment