34 Million Americans Are Without Broadband Access: Can We Connect Them?

The below was first published on connectmycommunity.org in November 2017. It was republished here on May 10, 2018. 

Because of my mother’s health, I will become her caregiver. Having high-speed internet will allow me to work from home.

Lack of high-speed internet in our area poses a significant and growing hurdle to our ability to do business and maximize my children’s educational experience.

Small towns are falling behind in internet capacity. This makes it more difficult for young people to stay as the world becomes more connected.

My family and I are tired of going to McDonald’s to check our e-mails.

The above are just some of the hundreds of comments Connected Nation has received in the more than 350 communities it’s worked in to improve broadband internet access.

Chris Pedersen is our Vp of Development and Planning

“The reality is that about 10% of the U.S. population does not have access,” said Chris Pedersen, VP of Planning and Development for Connected Nation. “But when you look closer at the numbers, you’ll find that 39% of the people in rural communities do not have access, so that’s a place we really need to make a difference. It’s an uneven playing field to have such disparity.

It’s a problem Connected Nation, a non-profit with a mission to expand access, adoption, and use of broadband, has been trying to solve in rural and urban areas since 2001.

“Early in our efforts, we worked with western Kentucky communities to help connect more people to the internet,” Pedersen said. “As we talked with residents and businesses, it was like peeling back an onion—each response led to a new and often basic question—What do you mean by high-speed internet? How does it work? What can it mean for my life? That grew into a grassroots community engagement process that we now use to identify challenges and opportunities within a region or community.”

“What we learned very quickly is that we can’t fix the problem without knowing where we are,” said Eric Frederick, Vice President of Community Affairs for Connected Nation. “If you don’t know where you are as a community or region, then you can’t start solving the problem, and in most places there is no strong data that truly tells us where a community is in its access, adoption, and use.”

Connecting More Americans
Connected Nation’s solution to the lack of data comes in the form of the Connected Community Engagement Program (ConnectedSM). It’s a facilitated planning program that measures and evaluates the state of technology and broadband access, adoption, and use in a town, city, county, or region. The information gathered is used to develop a community-specific Technology Action Plan.

Eric Frederick heads up the Connected team

“What sets it apart from other approaches is how comprehensive it is,” Frederick said. “We look at all sectors specific to a community or region—from business to schools to residential needs to agricultural. We also look at who may be left out and what could be done about digital inclusion and training.”

It’s also something that can be tailored to any size community. In 2017, Connected was used in individual small towns and in regions as large as eight counties.

“One of the reasons this works so well is that there is no community too big or too small,” Pedersen said. “We can look at how you define your community in different ways. The only thing that really matters is that all communities are working toward a plan to close the Digital Divide.”

It begins by forming a local broadband team with people from the area who have a stake in what’s uncovered—those who care about their neighbors and businesses.

Connected Nation’s staff works with this local team to identify areas of importance for the community and the best data collection parameters. Then, they map and assess a town’s or region’s technology and broadband landscape.

That data is used to form the Technology Action Plan which identifies what can be done immediately and in the future to improve access, adoption, and use. It’s something that’s been done in more than 350 communities across the United States.

But Does It Work?

Paul Griffith is the Executive Director of Michigan Works! West Central. He works out of Big Rapids, Michigan, and his organization, a workforce development group, understands the need for good internet access, adoption, and use.

Connected Nation’s Digital Divide Map from early 2017

“The kind of work Connected Nation is doing is so important to our area’s development and survival,” he said. “Companies are going to go where they know people have access to the internet and understand how to use it. It’s good for our schools, it attracts businesses, and it means our residents can stay here.”

Griffith also said expanding broadband is important to tourism in the region—which boasts picturesque waterways and landscapes. He says people will extend their time in the area if they have reliable access.

“Even if they are on vacation, they’ll stay longer and choose to extend their time away, if they can work when needed. The bottom line is if we don’t have reliable broadband then we’re essentially encouraging people to go elsewhere.”

The west central offices of Michigan Works! cover more than 8 thousand square miles, which encompasses 13 counties and a population of 1.5 million people. Four years ago, the governor’s office divided the state into 10 “Prosperity Regions” and provided funding for those regions to address specific needs for their communities.

Michigan Works! and its regional partners decided to use its funds to bring the Connected Community Engagement Program into the region and identify ways to improve their technology and broadband landscape. It was so successful that the group is now leveraging the program again to assess how well communities are doing several years after developing the region’s first Technology Action Plan.

“What Connected Nation brings to the table is invaluable,” Griffith said. “Among other things, they know their way around the regulatory process, they understand the necessary questions to ask our communities, and they have relationships with service providers. We know our community wants broadband but don’t give us a quiz on it. We don’t know the landscape like Connected Nation does.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Greg Moon, the Executive Director of Wyandot County Office of Economic Development located in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. The area’s Technology Action Plan was released on June 21, 2017.

“The Connected Community Engagement Program has led Wyandot County to a better understanding of its local broadband infrastructure than ever before,” Moon said. “With the detailed information garnered from the program and aggregated in the Technology Action Plan, Wyandot County stakeholders now have the information to justify where efforts can be made to better enhance broadband availability and adaptability among residents and local businesses.”

“Connected Nation is one of the easiest, hands-on, personable, helpful, and get-it-done organizations that I have ever worked with,” said Teresa Burnett, Executive Director, Monahans Chamber of Commerce.

Located in west Texas, Monahans was part of a Connected assessment that took place in Ward County. The assessment program was launched in Ward and a couple other west Texas counties in early 2017.

“I appreciate the staff for all the dedication that they showed in getting this project done in a fast, professional, and efficient manner,” Burnett added. “I would encourage any community to enlist the help of Connected Nation for any of their projects.”

You’ve Got Data, Now What?
“What our experience has taught us is that we can examine the pipes in the ground and wireless access in the air. But it doesn’t mean anything unless a community gets behind it and leverages the information we give them,” Frederick said.

Jim Stritzinger, Executive Director of Connect South Carolina, and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

The Connected program officially launched in 2011. Since that time, Connected Nation has helped more than 350 communities assess their landscape. Harbor Springs, Michigan is one such community. The leaders there leveraged what they learned and eventually realized they needed to help remote workers. So, more than a year later, they opened a space created for the unique needs of teleworkers to keep more people in the community.

One of our most recent Connected engagements was completed in South Carolina’s Promise Zone, which covers the southern portion of the state or what’s dubbed “Lowcountry.” Promise Zones are high poverty communities where the federal government partners with local leaders to increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, and address other priorities identified by the community.

“With an estimated poverty rate of about 28%, and an unemployment rate of just under 15%, there is no question that the Lowcountry Promise Zone deserves sustained, visionary, and focused leadership,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Federal Communications Commission, who attended a November 27 event held to unveil the final plan to stakeholders.

“Each of you is here, because not only do you recognize this, but you refuse to accept inaction,” Clyburn added. “It makes absolute sense, that your top-line transformational idea for incenting positive change in the Promise Zone is bringing high-speed, affordable broadband to citizens throughout these counties.”

“Our goal here is to empower these communities with information and targeted action items so that real, positive change can happen,” Pedersen said.

“We really define a success as when the local broadband team we helped create has representatives from all important sectors of the community,” Frederick added. “And those people are actively engaged in moving their technology plan forward—closing that Digital Divide.”

It’s something people in the communities where Connected Nation has worked say can’t come soon enough.

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