National Telecommunications and Information Administration is closing the digital divide with a grants management system on the cloud.
A mission of digital equality.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is a bureau within the Department of Commerce that is responsible for advising the President on telecommunications and information policy issues. In November 2021, President Biden signed the $1.2T Infrastructure Investments and Job Act, which included $65 billion in grants funding to help ensure that all Americans have access to reliable, high speed, and affordable broadband to close the digital divide. The grants initiative is a flagship program of the Infrastructure Bill, as a way of leveraging broadband access to address some of the nation’s most pressing issues, such as improving education, healthcare, and public safety.
The NTIA was given exactly 180 days after the bill was signed to launch the first round of programs; prompting the shift to the cloud to quickly build a scalable, user-friendly solution. The organization was chartered to develop a total of five online grant programs with the goal to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet. Through these programs, NTIA supports the partnership between the federal, state, tribal and local governments; along with broadband providers, nonprofit organizations, and community institutions to close the nation-wide digital divide.
Overcoming the digital divide.
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on national disparities pertaining to the digital divide. Having internet access became the fundamental way of communicating with loved ones – in addition to participating in online school activities, accessing routine healthcare services, working from home, and so on. This unfortunately led to the identification of those who had access to telecommunications and internet service in-home and those who did not. Nationally, households with incomes of $50,000 or higher were 45 percent more likely to have broadband internet access than households with incomes less than $25,000 (93.5 percent vs. 64.3 percent). 1
In other words, COVID-19 was the catalyst for change, and the government took action. This meant that NTIA had to distribute the resulting grants funds in a way that was:
Fast: When laws and bills are passed federal entities are expected to respond quickly and remain in lockstep with the direction of the government. In the case of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the NTIA had 180 days to establish a system to accept grant applications nationally; compelling them to identify a solution that was agile and nimble enough to keep up with changes in governmental requirements.
Scalable: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act appropriates funding to multiple, national broadband grant programs which will fund projects to a diverse set of stakeholders—States, local and tribal governments, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, and community institutions. As a result, the NTIA infrastructure had to support the large number of grant applications, system logins, application reviews, NTIA responses, and overall grants management processes. Legacy and disparate systems had limited bandwidth to effectively serve the cause; prompting the development of a grants application and management system that was flexible and designed specifically to support NTIA’s management of five different grant programs.
Transparent: When a department or agency is taking action on a statutory requirement, there tends to be a heightened level of visibility, meaning teams have to be ready to answer data calls for Congress, press briefings, public inquiries, and more. Thus, NTIA needed a way to provide reliable, real-time, data-driven progress reports.
NTIA had urgent deadlines that required a streamlined, customer-focused system to support effective applicant engagement; in addition to operationalizing the grants management process. To support their mission-critical goals it was essential to build new system infrastructure to align with the NTIA vision of nation-wide broadband access and making that possible through the cloud.
Creating a unified user experience with cloud-based grants management.
The NTIA team launched an end-to-end grants management system on FedRAMP-authorized Salesforce Government Cloud Plus. It gives NTIA – and its customers! – the digital tools they need to apply for broadband grant programs and support the government’s management of the broadband projects funded with the grant awards.
Grant applicants log into the system via an online community portal, built using Public Sector Solutions and Experience Cloud. Similar to a Turbo-Tax experience, grantees are guided through a series of fields that capture information and generate the standard federal grant forms on the backend automatically, making the applicant experience both familiar and intuitive.
Any grant program that the NTIA manages will use this portal to enable people to apply, empowering the NTIA team to review requests and approve the proposed grant projects. It also satisfies the government requirement of being multi-operational—supporting both the customers applying for grants and the NTIA employees managing the programs.
The system uses Marketing Cloud to manage pre- and post-award communications to the NTIA mailing lists, Tableau to support the review, award, post-award, and MuleSoft as the integration layer to connect critical systems both inside and outside of the Department of Commerce.
The solution will initially support the two largest grants programs including the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and the Digital Equity Act Program, before being rolled-out to the remaining three grants programs. As the government leads the charge in making more and more advancements towards digitizing citizen services; the launching of NTIA’s cloud-based grants management portal merely aligns with the direction of this digital revolution.
Impacting change and addressing nation-wide issues digitally.
With the roll-out of the NTIA Grant Portal, the visibility that will be provided into the grant requests and awards that flow into each congressional district and the capability of identifying how many Americans are actually receiving resources is highly anticipated. This will ensure that the mission of closing the nation-wide digital divide is on track; by monitoring and measuring the socio and economic impact of those underserved communities once access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet is provided. It will also assess the wealth of opportunities that the Internet access will provide to jobs, education, and other resources.
NTIA has positioned itself as an organization to be an example for other federal agencies to transition from legacy systems to the cloud when faced with large projects and tight government timelines. They are the benchmark for how impactful an organization can be if business processes are designed with the customer in mind, and the willingness to make the necessary infrastructure changes to do really big revolutionary things in the world of technology and operations.