On June 8, the Commonwealth Connect Coalition distributed copies of the FY 2021 Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) Program Guidelines and Criteria detailing the process by which $19 million in state general funds will be awarded to eligible applicants seeking to expand broadband access in communities throughout the Commonwealth. VATI grants are available to local governments (including towns, cities, counties, economic and industrial development authorities, broadband or wireless authorities, planning district commissions, etc.) to extend broadband service to currently unserved areas. To be eligible the local government must include a private-sector provider as a co-applicant.
The release of the finalized guidelines follows a robust public comment period. VACo had submitted comments in favor of additional local flexibility to deploy broadband resources. The new guidelines can be read in full here, and contain the following changes:
- Unserved areas conform to the federal definition of 25/3mbps. Applicants are encouraged to prioritize areas lacking 10/1 mbps and will receive priority in scoring.
- DHCD encourages applicants to ensure all projects fit into a larger plan to achieve universal broadband for the locality or region. Applicants are strongly discouraged from submitting projects that focus on pockets of density while not including nearby unserved, less dense areas.
- Changed the public notice requirement to a notice of application.
- Timelines for awarded projects changed from 12 to 18 months. DHCD will consider longer project timelines if warranted.
- Further clarification on challenge process requirements.
Additional information on the new guidelines and how to apply can be found on the June 9 webinar and accompanying presentation from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Applicants are encouraged to reach out to VATI for application assistance by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On June 16, VACo staff participated in a webinar hosted by the Virginia Local Broadband Network (VLBN) in conjunction with the Commonwealth Connect Coalition to discus potential uses of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for broadband. As previously reported, use of CARES Act funding by counties for specific broadband projects should be done in observance of the U.S. Treasury guidelines and consultation with legal counsel. However, several localities in Virginia shared how they are using CARES Act funding to help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in their communities by expanding broadband access. Furthermore, at the June 15 meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne provided additional clarification indicating that use of funds to pay to connect people to existing broadband networks or expand networks before the end of the year would likely be acceptable, but long term investments are probably not eligible.
The Commonwealth Connect Coalition also recently announced a partnership with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to host an informational webinar on the $16 billion phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) on Wednesday, June 24, from 2pm – 3:30pm. The application window to participate in the RDOF phase I auction will open on July 1 and close on July 15, with the auction beginning on October 29, 2020. There are 211,043 preliminary eligible RDOF locations in Virginia. Registration for the webinar is open to all interested stakeholders. Please be aware, the online meeting has a maximum of 250 people. You must register to attend the webinar, which can be done here. A May 5 Webinar from the FCC detailing this process may also be viewed here.
Upcoming Events and Deadlines
- August 17 – VATI Application Deadline
- October 22 – Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I Auction
VACo Contacts: Jeremy R. Bennett and Joe Lerch, AICP