Building Community Broadband in the Upper Midwest

August 04, 2014 by Douglas Kinkoph, Acting Associate Administrator, Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications

Today, we are announcing the second in a series of workshops to share lessons we have learned from our broadband grants programs with communities nationwide seeking to build their broadband capacity.

Over the past five years, NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) invested $4 billion in innovative projects that are expanding access to and adoption of high-speed Internet services across the country. From the ranchlands of South Dakota to the northern reaches of Michigan to remote corners of Arkansas, these projects built broadband networks in rural communities that lacked adequate infrastructure and supplied critical capacity to schools, hospitals and other anchor institutions that need robust bandwidth. In inner-city Philadelphia and the West Virginia countryside, these programs installed or upgraded computer centers in libraries, housing projects, fire stations and other public buildings to provide Internet access for those who don’t have it at home. Across New York City and California’s Central Valley, BTOP investments supported broadband adoption programs to teach digital literacy skills to people who are not comfortable going online, and helped low-income families acquire discounted computer equipment and sign up for affordable broadband service. And in working-class neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, our grantees provided online job search assistance for the unemployed and worked with small businesses to integrate technology and expand their reach on the Web.

At the same time, in every state across the country, NTIA’s $300 million State Broadband Initiative program has supported local efforts to expand broadband capacity and helped states collect data for the national broadband map, an interactive, online database of neighborhood-level broadband availability.

As these grant programs wind down, we are focused on building on the collective wisdom that we have all gained working together on these exciting initiatives. We want to share lessons learned and best practices from across our grant portfolio with state, local and tribal officials; community advocates and local leaders; broadband providers and industry executives; and others on the front lines in the ongoing battle to close the digital divide. Our upcoming workshop, to be held on September 4 in Minneapolis, is an important part of that effort.

The workshop, which is open to the public, will focus on the nuts and bolts of building an effective community broadband program using examples from our own grant portfolio and other successful efforts. Discussion topics will include: how to align community, government and private sector interests to support a common vision; how to pick the right business model; and how to identify and apply for funding.

The Minneapolis workshop, the second in a series, follows a workshop held in Washington, D.C., in May that focused on the planning needed to lay the groundwork for a successful community broadband project. Among the key takeaways from that conversation:

  • It is essential to line up community support and establish stakeholder buy-in early, when a project is still being mapped out. And it is important to engage with a broad cross-section of stakeholders since many can be strategic allies and crucial partners. Potential partners can range from regional electric cooperatives (which may own vital network infrastructure) to local entrepreneurs (who see broadband as critical to driving economic development) to public schools and libraries (which may be network customers, as well as locations for public computer centers and digital inclusion programs).
  • The key to cultivating stakeholder support often lies in tying the benefits of broadband to goals like workforce development (with more tech-savvy, digitally literate employees), education (with enough bandwidth coming into schools to support one-to-one classroom computing) and healthcare (with telemedicine applications to connect patients living in remote areas with doctors in urban centers).
  • There is no single path to success since different communities have different needs and bring different resources to the table. While one rural town may be able to attract private-sector network investment by cutting red tape and offering incentives to a local phone or cable company, another may find that the most practical option is to build its own system. While one low-income neighborhood may have plenty of local non-profits eager to serve as partners in a digital literacy program, another might have to rely primarily on government institutions.

The May workshop was a valuable starting point as we ramp up our efforts to share what we have learned from implementing our broadband grants programs. We hope other communities just setting out down this path will benefit from the know-how and expertise of those who have gone before them. And we look forward to continuing the conversation in Minneapolis.