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NTIA Brings a Comprehensive Approach to Community Broadband

September 11, 2014

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) last week hosted the second in a series of stakeholder workshops as we launch a new initiative to leverage the success of our Recovery Act broadband grant programs and support communities nationwide seeking to build their broadband capacity.

Over the past five years, NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and State Broadband Initiative have invested more than $4 billion in network infrastructure, public computer centers, digital inclusion projects and broadband mapping. These programs have taught us that closing the digital divide is a multi-pronged challenge that demands a comprehensive, holistic approach.

Addressing existing gaps requires not only network availability and robust bandwidth, but also affordable computer equipment and monthly service, effective training and useful applications. It also requires collaboration among many stakeholders, including local, state and federal officials, community leaders, industry executives, private foundations and broadband advocates.

Last week’s workshop, held in Minneapolis, brought together more than 100 stakeholders for a series of informative panel discussions, presentations and networking opportunities. Participants also met with NTIA staff, who will be providing guidance, technical assistance, funding leads and connections to help communities expand broadband access and adoption.

The agenda featured speakers from a number of successful broadband projects in the Upper Midwest, including projects funded by NTIA in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and North Dakota.

Elwood Downing, vice president for member relations at Michigan’s Merit Network, stressed the importance of stakeholder outreach and community engagement. Merit used NTIA funding to expand its research and education network across the state’s rural northern reaches, including Michigan’s economically distressed Upper Peninsula. “Outreach and education… you can’t do enough of this,” Downing said. “People will not collaborate if they don’t feel you are communicating… There needs to be a level of trust.”

Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Minnesota’s C.K. Blandin Foundation, said the key to attracting philanthropic investment lies in showing how broadband can advance goals in areas such as economic development, telemedicine and distance learning. Blandin used an NTIA grant to promote a culture of broadband use and drive economic vitality in rural Minnesota by supporting community technology planning, supplying refurbished computers and discounted Internet access for low-income residents and offering digital literacy classes and e-commerce training for small businesses.

“It’s not about broadband,” Joselyn said. “It’s about what broadband can do. Broadband is the means to the end… Internet access is fundamental to everything philanthropy cares about.”

Last week’s workshop included speakers from the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, who talked about federal grant and loan programs that subsidize broadband, and speakers from AT&T and CenturyLink, who shared the industry’s perspective on how communities can attract private-sector investment.

Keith Adams of USDA said that carriers applying for federal support should ensure that corporate visions align with community needs. And CenturyLink’s Patrick Haggerty encouraged communities to ease tax burdens, reduce permitting requirements and grant access to rights of way and video franchises to give carriers an incentive to invest.

The workshop also included a panel focused on Minnesota, which offers a great example of what can happen when state and local officials, business leaders, phone and cable companies, foundations, community activists and others promote a common vision.

In 2010, the Minnesota Legislature set an ambitious goal: all state residents and businesses should have access to Internet connections with download speeds of at least 10 to 20 megabits per second by 2015. To get there, Gov. Mark Dayton has established a subcabinet of state agencies to work on broadband issues, as well as a task force charged with ensuring “border-to-border” high-speed Internet and cell phone access – the third of three state broadband task forces in recent years.

According to the task force’s 2013 annual report, Minnesota has made good progress toward the state goal. Nearly 75 percent of Minnesotans had access to the targeted speeds, up from 62 percent a year earlier. But that still leaves 25 percent of the state lagging behind – and the gaps are most pronounced in the least-populated, most-expensive-to-serve places.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, chairwoman of the governor’s task force and head of the Minnesota High Tech Association, explained that promoting broadband is a bipartisan issue in Minnesota that resonates with many rural lawmakers who view it as a matter of equity. It is also a priority for the state’s business community, which sees high-speed Internet as key to economic competitiveness, said State Senator Matt Schmit.

So the work continues. Minnesota lawmakers recently established a $20 million grant program to fund high-speed infrastructure in underserved and unserved areas. Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development is managing the new grant program and Danna MacKenzie, who heads that office, said it presents both an opportunity and a challenge to align Minnesota’s efforts with federal initiatives.

NTIA’s broadband programs have taught us are that there is no one-size-fits-all path to building broadband capacity and that the federal government works most effectively in partnership with strong local and state players. The best approaches come from the communities themselves, based on their own unique needs, resources, barriers and challenges.

So in the year to come, NTIA will mobilize our resources and leverage our expertise to work hand-in-hand with communities nationwide striving to move the needle on broadband. After all, last week’s workshop made clear that we all share a common goal.