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Broadband Initiatives for Small-Town America

High-speed broadband access is a necessity, not a luxury. That’s not just my opinion, but also President Obama’s: he said as much on his July 15 visit to Durant, Oklahoma, where he pledged before the Choctaw Nation to bring high-speed broadband and wireless Internet to 99 percent of the nation's schools by 2017. [1]

This comes as part of the ConnectHome pilot program, an initiative by the federal government to make high-speed Internet available to more families, starting in 27 cities and the Choctaw Nation. The program will initially reach over 275,000 low-income households—and nearly 200,000 children. Simply put, high-speed internet enhances education at every stage, from kindergarten on up. The link between broadband access and economic opportunities is also clear, allowing businesses to grow and create jobs. Access to reliable service is a fundamental aspect of the modern economy, as crucial as physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, drinking water, and sewer systems.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is one of five locations designated by the White House as a “Promise Zone”—part of a new anti-poverty program meant to cut red tape and provide resources such as grants and tax incentives to help improve conditions in persistently high poverty communities. Broadband access is key to helping high-poverty communities like Choctaw find their economic footing and thrive.[2]

The Need: The 2015 Broadband Access Report

The reasoning for a federal broadband initiative might be self-evident, but here’s what might be eye-opening: In 2015, 55 million Americans do not have access to high-speed internet (the broadband benchmark is defined as 25 Mbps download speed/3 Mbps upload speed). This digital divide disproportionately hurts rural Americans. A report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) details what this divide looks like [3]:

The 2015 report finds that … 17 percent of the population lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.

Some more facts to keep in mind from the FCC report:

  • 53 percent of rural residents (22 million people) lack access to broadband
  • 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to broadband
  • 63 percent of Americans living in U.S. territories (2.6 million people) lack access to broadband

Initiatives and Programs to Help Close the Digital Divide

The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP)

BTOP was established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The $4 billion grant program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has helped bridge the digital divide; create jobs; and improve education, health care, and public safety in communities across the nation. And if you subscribe to their email list, you’ll find that they frequently have helpful webinars for prospective grant seekers and grantees alike, often sharing case study successes and best practices. (Previous webinar notes can be found here.)

Comprehensive Community Infrastructure (CCI) projects that the NTIA funded through BTOP led to the creation of middle-mile networks in 45 states and U.S. territories. These grantees accomplished the following:

  • Deployed more than 113,000 miles of fiber across the country
  • Connected or upgraded 25,300 community anchor institutions
  • Signed more than 860 interconnection agreements with local service providers

An overall impact study by the NTIA discovered that in two years, BTOP grant communities experienced the following:

  • An estimated 2 percent greater growth in broadband availability than non-grant communities
  • Growth estimated to generate increased annual economic activity of between $5.17 billion and $21 billion
  • Additional broadband infrastructure expected to create more than 22,000 long-term jobs and generate more than $1 billion in additional household income each year
  • Community anchor institutions, such as schools and libraries, served by BTOP grantees experienced significantly increased speeds and lower costs

The information above comes from the NTIA’s “Broadband Infrastructure Case Studies Released – How Broadband Changes the Game.” [4]

Grassroots Internet Connectivity: Mesh Networks

A wireless mesh network (WMN) is a mesh network created through the connection of wireless access points installed at each network user's locale. The advantages of this kind of connectivity is attractive to small communities, or those communities affected by natural disasters and power outages or neglected due to government bureaucracy. Basically, rooftops can serve as “nodes” to pass along a connection to other locales, allowing communities to be reliably connected and avoid high costs. These networks are “seen as a low-cost solution to the digital divide that exists there. And for many local governments, mesh networks are a relatively simple way to offer high-speed Wi-Fi.” [5]

Successful examples of mesh networks include Ponca City, OK, which enjoys one of the fastest Wi-Fi mesh networks in the world and delivers free wireless broadband to all 25,000 residents. Ponca City’s website touts the benefits of this free system on its homepage.

The Red Hook neighborhood (11,000 pop.) of Brooklyn established the Red Hook Initiative to establish a mesh network in the wake of the 2012 Hurricane Sandy disaster in order to stay connected and get emergency updates after the devastating storm. The network also helps connect residents free of charge in a neighborhood where the majority of the population lives in housing projects. Young people have gathered at the Red Hook Initiative community center to apply for jobs and complete college applications using shared resources. [5, 6]

How can grants assist in this work? Red Hook is a finalist for an Economic Development Corporation grant worth nearly $1 million. If awarded, the Red Hook Initiative would use the money to build more advanced nodes for the network and train young people in maintaining the network and creating digital content. The project could serve as a model for other New York City neighborhoods. You can read and watch more here.

Community Connect Grants

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has long assisted in bringing broadband access to rural America—through the Community Connect grant program. This program supports the deployment of broadband service to extremely rural and lower-income communities on a community-oriented connectivity basis, while stimulating economic development and opportunities in rural areas by generating practical and everyday uses and applications for broadband services. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded 74 Community Connect grants totaling more than $77 million to build broadband projects in rural areas that previously did not have broadband service. [7]

The most recent solicitation of this program states that proposed projects must:

  • Serve a rural area where broadband transmission service does not currently exist
  • Offer service at the broadband grant speed to all residential and business customers
  • Offer free broadband service to all critical community facilities for at least two years
  • Provide a community center with at least two computer access points and wireless access at the applicable speed, free of charge, to all users for at least two years

Your Link to It All

From local community activism to the White House, there has been a concerted effort to expand high-speed broadband to Americans since President Obama took office, with the private and public sectors investing more than $260 billion into new broadband infrastructure. But the digital divide remains unacceptably wide, as the statistics in this article show. Fortunately, both government and grassroots initiatives demonstrate universal support for high-speed connectivity. The Community Broadband Networks’ map (http://muninetworks.org/communitymap) shows how local governments across the nation are making broadband a priority and delivering it to their communities. I highly recommend this site for its stories, discussion threads, and plentiful resources.

So what’s your story? What are your ideas to help bridge the digital divide? Which efforts do you think are working, and which are not?

Citations

[1] Zezima, Katie. "Obama announces pilot program to expand broadband to low-income households." Washington Post: July 15, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2015/07/15/obama-to-announce-pilot-program-to-expand-broadband-to-low-income-households/

[2] ConnectHome overview from the White House: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/07/15/fact-sheet-connecthome-coming-together-ensure-digital-opportunity-all. Press release for July 15, 2015.

[3] Federal Communications Commission (FCC). "2015 Broadband Progress Report." https://www.fcc.gov/reports/2015-broadband-progress-reportAccessed July 17, 2015.

[4] National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “Broadband Infrastructure Case Studies Released – How Broadband Changes the Game.” http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/node/915Accessed on July 17, 2015.

[5] Newcombe, Tod. “Time for a New Net?” Governing: July 2014, p. 60.

[6] Scola, Nancy. “Bringing Internet To The Neighborhoods The Internet Companies Forgot.” http://www.fastcoexist.com/3042558/bringing-internet-to-the-neighborhoods-the-internet-companies-forgotAccessed July 17, 2015.

[7] U.S. Department of Agriculture. “USDA Announces Funding for Rural Broadband Projects.” http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2015/07/0212.xml&contentidonly=truePress release for July 20, 2015. 

[8] Community Broadband Networks: http://muninetworks.org/communitymap. Myriad resources can be found on the right-hand column of the page.

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