How the Appalachia Digital Accelerator will build connected communities

Preparing 50+ communities for next generation broadband networks

How the Appalachia Digital Accelerator will build connected communities

As broadband champions across the US work furiously to prepare for the biggest government broadband investment in our history, the theme of this year’s Digital Inclusion Week — Building Connected Communities — couldn’t be more appropriate.

Achieving our shared mission of #InternetForAll isn’t only about building infrastructure; it’s also about building and strengthening the communities of people whose collective work will ensure that every person in America has access to a broadband connection, a suitable device, and the skills they need to thrive in our digital world.

Supporting these connected communities is the north star of the Appalachian Digital Accelerator — a program I’m leading at Connect Humanity to prepare 50+ of Appalachia’s least-connected communities to build next-generation broadband networks.

Meet the first cohort of grantees

Building Connected Communities in Appalachia 

With support from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Accelerator is working with communities across 12 states to build holistic Connectivity Plans that will enable them to secure the partnerships and financing they need to expand internet access.

Just as every state needs a broadband plan, individual communities also need a plan that addresses their specific challenges and opportunities and builds towards sustainable, long-term solutions that meet their digital needs.

Accelerator communities will receive grant funding, technical assistance, and additional support to enable them to write Connectivity Plans which cover digital equity programming, technical design, and financial planning. We hope to position many of these communities to secure grants from the unprecedented funding available through the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, as well as other federal and state broadband funding opportunities currently on offer.

Beyond preparing communities for better broadband, the Accelerator is crucially about building local power and capacity so that they can lead their digital future for years to come. To support this goal, we’ve joined forces with local partners — which we call Lead Community Agencies (LCAs) — who are each supporting a cohort of grantee communities in their geographic footprint with this planning work.

This is a new way to do broadband planning. Rather than consultants going into single communities and writing Connectivity Plans for them, the Accelerator creates systems of support to grow local knowledge and skills to empower communities to lead the creation of their  own plans, with support from LCAs and other local and national stakeholders. By doing this, Connect Humanity is supporting the development of local capacity that will not only position communities to be engaged in the BEAD deployment process, but will drive the thought-leadership of their regions around connectivity long-term. 

Introducing the Accelerator partners

We’re thrilled that the following LCAs have joined the Accelerator to lead this work: Buckeye Hills Regional Council,  Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI), Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, People Inc, SEDA-COG, Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), and the Southwestern Commission.

The guidance provided by these organizations is layered with support from technical assistance partners who can provide the expertise, tools, and skills necessary to build robust Connectivity Plans. Our technical assistance partners include, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Reid Consulting, Breaking Point Solutions, Impactful, and Connect Your Community Institute.

Ready, set, accelerate

Last month, these partners came together in a two-day workshop where they shared stories, strategies, and policy concerns, co-created plans and participated in workshops to get ready for the sprint ahead.

While the group was excited to start this work, we have no illusions about the scale of the challenge in Appalachia. As Chris Michell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at ILSR said:

“There are a lot of different challenges and this work can feel overwhelming for communities to get a handle on. It can feel so difficult and expensive that a lot of communities don’t even start. It is important to get going, get a few early victories, and make sure communities see that there is a path for hope and a reason to put in the work.”

Chris Mitchell presents during the Appalachia Digital Accelerator two-day workshop

We are working towards those victories now. Over the next two months, partners will work with the Appalachia Digital Accelerator grantee communities to gather and assess their existing broadband assets and capacities in order to identify the gaps and greatest areas of need.

This diagnostic period will provide insights to inform phase two where communities will work with LCAs and TA partners to develop a plan to meet their digital equity, broadband infrastructure, and financial needs. Finally, in the third phase, communities will write their Connectivity Plans and prepare fundraising materials and grant applications to help secure the funding they need to put their plans into action.

This work isn’t easy, but it can and it must be done. Every community needs fast, reliable internet in today’s world. We can’t leave communities behind just because the terrain is difficult, or the town is low-income, or the economics don’t work for traditional broadband providers. The internet must be truly for all — and we’ve never had a better opportunity to make this a reality. It is a privilege to bring together local champions and leading experts who will accelerate this work in Appalachia.

Over the months to come we will bring you progress updates, learnings, and stories. Stay tuned.

The Appalachia Digital Accelerator is majority-funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) which contributed $6.3 million (80% of the total project cost).

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