broadband.money logo

Virginia’s Dr. Holmes Is On The Case: Solving The Mystery of the Missing Broadband Connections

 

Dr. Tamarah Holmes is someone who communicates in exclamation points.

It’s hard not to be infected with the Virginia Broadband Director's enthusiasm as she talks about funding projects across her state's “mountains and valleys." Her charisma and energy are evident in conversation and even through the Broadband Office’s 24-page “Bringing Broadband To Your Community: Guide for Local Leaders,” which is part of a larger “broadband toolkit” that the office makes available online. The guide is a detailed and strategic “how to” manual for local governments looking to bring subsidized broadband networks to their constituents.

Her energy is needed: Holmes’ office will be working hard over the next few years to distribute more than a billion dollars. Broadband Money estimates that Virginia will receive more than $958 million from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and more than $219 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for broadband grants. When Holmes began working at the broadband office in 2019, she had $1 million at her disposal.

Created in 2019, Virginia’s Office of Broadband is housed within the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. That puts Holmes and her staff of 13 in a prime place since lawmakers’ goal is to get the money into the hands of local communities with shovel-ready solutions to expand access to broadband. Holmes’ background is in community development, and she still has her heart there. She thrives on connecting with her fellow Virginians, whom she calls “my friends, my neighbors, my family.”

As a community development practitioner, Dr. Holmes is interested in communities’ needs on a holistic basis. She’ll often inquire about the needs of communities outside of the conversations she has about broadband connectivity.

“I'm not a one track mind,” she said in an interview with Broadband Money. “So what keeps me up is really not a worry, but how can I as a as a community development practitioner, not only come in and do my job to bring access for broadband to folks, but also how can I make sure that our agency is working with those communities that need our help?”

Push for universal broadband coverage

Virginia’s push to get universal broadband coverage by 2024 comes from the top. Former Governor Ralph Northam established initiative 10 year strategy in 2018 and later accelerated the effort to 2024, in part because of the success of the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative, the Commonwealth’s primary grant program to expand broadband access. The governor hired two broadband advisors in his office to strategize about how to achieve the goal of getting universal coverage to   Virginia’s most hard to reach places.

VATI supplements broadband providers’ construction costs to unserved areas. These are areas that lack access to speeds of 25 Mbps (Megabits per second) downloads and three Mbps uploads. 

The program requires 20 percent match, half of which must come from the broadband providers. The other half could come from a county or other public funds. 

Holmes estimates that over 70 counties out of the state’s 95 counties have reached universal coverage and the remainder are working on projects to get to universal coverage. These counties have achieved this by cobbling together funding both from the federal government as well as from the state. 

Last August, Northam and the General Assembly approved nearly $700 million in American Rescue Plan Act monies to broadband development: $479 million of that comes from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and $219 million comes from the Capital Recovery Project. The state used the VATI grant making process to deploy these funds to ready-made projects. The money will support 35 broadband projects to reach universal broadband access in 70 Virginia localities, and is estimated to provide broadband access to over 278,000 households. This was in combination with the annual $50 million state general fund money that the General Assembly dedicates to VATI.

Holmes said that she couldn’t comment in detail on Virginia’s plan for Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (IIAJ) money yet, as the plan is still under development with the new administration coming onboard this past January. The state is also still developing its broadband availability map with Virginia Tech. That is scheduled to go live in April.

“We will meet the requirements for in the IIJA, which is the same thing we did for the ARPA funding,” she said in an interview.

The state’s legislators are already on it. Both the State’s House and Senate have passed a bill earlier this year that tasks the DHCD with providing a roadmap and recommendations for delivering affordable broadband to the area’s most in need. Deadline: December 1. 
(At the same time, the application deadline for the next round of VATI funding is this upcoming August.)

Holmes’ office is currently working with Virginia Tech on the development of a new statewide broadband availability map. The map is scheduled to go live in April. Her office is also developing a public broadband dashboard. It will allow the public to track how the broadband development funds are being spent and construction progress. She estimates that more than 50,000 Virginians still lack access to broadband.

The logic behind the universal access ethos in Virginia is that the state wants local governments to be efficient about how they bring broadband to their communities. Virginia stresses that it doesn’t want providers to “cherry pick” locations because that means that areas that are left behind are some of the most costly to provide access from a financial perspective. To this end, applications that result in local areas getting universal coverage are more likely to get funded.

Help for local applicants

Local governments in Virginia may be able to rely on Holmes’ office as if it were a public consultant. The office has three engineers with expertise in wired and wireless technologies. It’s also staffed by planners with GIS expertise. So local officials at school districts, counties, towns, cities or planning district commissions who are looking for ISPs to work with can use those engineers to evaluate the proposals they receive.

“Every year, my GIS planners reach out to the 95 counties and ask them a set of questions about broadband and we triage it,” Holmes explained to Broadband. Money in a Zoom meeting.

This way, the state has an updated glimpse of which counties really need broadband. Holding up a map, she shows where the planners are reaching out to find out the locality’s status. Then they hand those findings over to the engineering staff.

The office has also put together a 24-page guide that’s written in a user-friendly, colloquial way, filled with Q&A zingers like “Isn’t Elon Musk or some other tech person going to handle this?” (Answer: “… there is currently no silver bullet technology in the pipeline …”) and “We feel a little like the latest fad diet when we say this, but this program works — but only if you put in the commitment and effort …”

More importantly, it’s a succinct document that lays out a step-by-step process for local governments to follow when applying for funding and planning broadband projects.  

“I like to say that we walk alongside them as they’re working out what their proposed project will be,” Holmes said during the interview. “We don’t give them answers, but we can basically walk them through the process as they’re building their applications because as a e a community development agency and that is a normal course of business for us.”

The office even goes through grant applications with groups that failed to land the money to figure out what elements of the applications need improvement.

Planning

Grant applicants should pay close attention to their maps when submitting their applications. Everything should be clearly labelled. 

Provide as much detail and context as possible so that the broadband office can tell how many locations will be covered, and what kind of internet connection will be made available to those locations. 

To get regions universally covered, Holmes’ office recommends considering partnerships with ISPs that have won money through previous funding sources. The advantage: VATI funded projects can accelerate development of other federal projects because VATI timelines are shorter.

An analyst in a “how to” video for Holmes’ office also points out: “Having more passings in an application will help you with scoring, but you’re also scored pretty heavily on cost per passing… which is your total request for VATI funds divided by your number of locations to be provided broadband access in the per application. 

That also provides an opportunity to include some of the costs that it’s going to take to reach those areas that received funds through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which we know weren’t funded at the level needed to build out those areas with just the RDOF funding.”

(For more on how this can work in practice, watch the office’s “How to Apply” webinar.)

One thing that gets Holmes talking is the state’s law on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption. She says that her life as a director changed radically and streamlined operations when the state passed a law that provided broadband providers the ability to seek FOIA exemption when submitting proprietary materials as a part of the office’s programs. What this does is protect companies’ proprietary, competitive information from being accessed by stakeholders asking for the information through Freedom of Information Act requests.

This worry has led, famously, to bad mapping data on the federal level and poor planning. Washington State also has such a law. Its broadband plan also mentions how useful this has been for the planning process as companies feel safer providing the information to public officials who will only use that information in order to better target grant awards.

Local connections

Holmes said that her office acts as a kind of a matchmaker for broadband service provision.

What she means is that her office actively encourages local officials looking for broadband expansion for their areas to reach out to broadband providers and vice versa. 
“We used to joke in the beginning that we did a lot of eHarmony connections, like ‘Meet folks in the local government!’”

Often local government officials haven’t reached out to find out what local ISPs’ expansion plans are, or ISPs haven’t reached out to their local governments, they found.

“We often connect them with the great folks at the companies, so that they can have a frank conversation about what's been happening in a locality, what are the areas that still lack coverage, and then hopefully they will identify some strategies to address the need in their respective communities.”

What you should know: Application advice, tips and scoring criteria

Project description and need: Up to 85 points
Project readiness: 40 points
Budget and cost appropriateness: up to 135 points
Commonwealth priorities: Up to 40 points

Project description and need: Overview, area map, demographics, existing providers if any, any existing federally funded projects. Project overlaps: 10 percent allowed for wired projects; 20 percent allowed for wireless.

Passings form: Total number of passings per project

RDOF passings form: Passings in projects funded by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund must be listed independently on the RDOF passings form

Project details: Does the project cover 95 percent of the locations in a region? What kind of speeds will be offered in a network?

Project Readiness: What’s the status of development? Who is on your project management team? Provide a timeline and construction schedule. What is your organization’s level of experience? What is the status of your matching funds? Does your project have any non-match leverage, like volunteer help?

What are your marketing plans for the network? Virginia looks for active marketing efforts. The state broadband office wants specifics on how your project will market internet service locally. Will you be hosting town halls? Sending out flyers? Putting on door hangers at people’s doors?

What kind of digital literacy marketing will your project be engaging in? Talk to libraries and schools. Think about partnering with them in your applications.  

Budget and cost appropriateness: What is your budget narrative and what are your project costs?

Local impact: Will your project have a partner with a large local institution that could have a big impact on the area, like a university or an electric utility?

Digital equity: What efforts are you making to ensure low to moderate income households will have affordable access?

Attachments: Make sure you include all attachments required by the application – including attachments to show that there’s no federally-funded  projects in the area. Make sure all attachments are clearly labeled.

Freedom of Information Act exemptions must be explicitly requested in applications. And you must explicitly specify which materials and data you want exempted. Provide as much detail as possible. Do not submit any materials you want exempted until you have received a written determination from the DHCD.

Other tips from DHCD on using its Centralized Application Management System (CAMS:)

  • Create your application early on as a working document. I.e. Get started early and keep working on it and revising it.
  • Set up profiles. Read the “User Guide.”
  • Do not share passwords. The system assigns roles to people. So do not try to all log in as the same person – it might affect what you’re able to do in the system.
  • Save your work often.
  • Google Chrome is the recommended browser. If you use another browser, the system may not save the work properly and hours of data entry could be lost.
  • Make sure you watch the office’ “How to Webinar” for other esoteric tech quirks of the CAMS system that, if not heeded could sabotage your application by not saving the information correctly.
  • Do not get a consultant to submit your application. The primary applicant must submit it.

General tips and questions:

  • Make sure you understand the questions. Call the office if something is unclear. For example, the terms “digital literacy” and “digital equity” are two separate issues. So make sure that you answer both questions separately.
  • Give yourself and your team some time to go away and come back again to read your application again to make sure that it is clear, and makes sense. 
     

More Articles

Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher: A community and consensus builder takes charge Thumbnail Image

Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher: A community and consensus builder takes charge

November 21, 2022

Butcher’s work at the Maine Broadband Coalition is about empowering Mainers with solutions to get everyone connected

Broadband.money

White House celebrates one year anniversary of bipartisan infrastructure law Thumbnail Image

White House celebrates one year anniversary of bipartisan infrastructure law

November 16, 2022

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has become a signature item of the administration of President Joe Biden.

Benjamin Kahn