The 2015 N.C. Rural Assembly was a great primer for rural North Carolina leaders interested in developing and implementing strategies to improve broadband access in their communities. It was an information-packed day, highlighted by a powerful luncheon keynote delivered by Jonathan Chambers, chief of policy and strategy for the Federal Communications Commission. Watch his Assembly keynote address.
Chambers gave the attendees a call to action. He stressed that attracting better broadband (and specifically, fiber) to rural communities is in the hands of local leadership. The attendees also heard a stark reality: the presence of better digital infrastructure will delineate the communities that experience job growth, better healthcare, higher educational attainment and greater overall prosperity, from those that do not.
Much information was presented and passed. Side conversations between rural leaders and presenters were the norm, and there is no simple way to summarize all of the information. However, there are some fairly straightforward initial steps that communities can take to begin laying the foundation for attracting fiber service to citizens and businesses.
1) Use the resources offered by the N.C. Office of Digital Infrastructure to map the current state of your community's broadband service. Every county in North Carolina has some fiber-based infrastructure because every public school in the state is served by fiber. The Office of Digital Infrastructure maps broadband availability in the state and has conducted several detailed studies of fiber availability.
2) Inventory the needs of your community's largest broadband customers and have them join together for a meeting. Consider inviting:
a) The superintendent of schools and her/his technology director
b) The head of the local hospital or healthcare clinic
c) The leadership team from your largest private employers
d) Your local librarian
e) Higher education leaders (two-year and four-year)
f) Government IT leaders
g) Your broadband service providers
h) Representatives from wireless providers/cell phone companies who service your area
i) Association heads from large neighborhoods and housing developments
j) Faith leaders
k) Other key leaders
Encourage participants to bring information about how they are receiving broadband service today and have them express their opinion regarding the desire to get better service. Log the current status, expiration date and bandwidth details of their service, and see if you can gain commitments to aggregate the broadband demand of several entities into one procurement. Finally, have these customers project their future demand for bandwidth and assess their confidence in the current service providers’ ability to meet these needs.
3) Contact the North Carolina Office of Digital Infrastructure and the Federal Broadband USA program to gain an understanding of state and federal funding sources for broadband. Explore funding sources from:
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
- FCC Universal Service — Connect America Fund, E-rate, Lifeline, Rural Healthcare, and Telecommunications Relay
- NTIA — FirstNet
- State funding resources
- Foundation and nonprofit funding resources
Log the funding resources that may be applicable to your region/situation. Contact these funders to better understand how each resource may be leveraged in your community.
4) Share the results of the broadband gathering and make the minutes publicly available. Form a task force that meets regularly to talk about aggregating demand and tracking progress. Map the locations of these customers and chart their projected future demand. After the meeting, reach out separately to your current broadband service providers and to local electric and telephone membership cooperatives. Structure a dialog with local broadband service providers after gathering the demand information and grant, loan, reimbursement or subsidy information. Propose to these providers an open and competitive process that will allow them to respond to how they will meet the community’s future demand for bandwidth, preferably with fiber deployments.
5) Don’t settle for the status quo. Assess the responses received from service providers with respect to customer demand and the funding information, and if there are still gaps, expand the search for an entity to meet the community's fiber/broadband needs. The Rural Assembly featured dozens of speakers who highlighted a variety of business models and innovative public-private partnerships for delivering broadband service to rural communities. Pick a few that resonated with you and reach out to those speakers to learn more about how they are addressing the gaps in their communities — the Rural Center is always willing to help facilitate these connections.
These steps may seem difficult, but remember, the stakes are high. The Rural Center stands ready to help get communities on the path to better connectivity. Expect to receive regular communications about future funding opportunities and important advocacy and policy updates. And finally, be sure to keep the Rural Center posted on your progress so we can continue to track best practices and share learning between communities.