When rural communities take on broadband projects, they face unique challenges. And even when the challenges seem similar on the surface from one community to the next, the solutions often differ in important ways. 

Despite these differences, there are a few elements that are essential in every community. Our experience working on broadband projects with rural communities across the country has taught us some important lessons for successfully navigating a rural broadband project. 

Below, we highlight the three crucial levers to overcoming common challenges and share other key factors that can ensure positive outcomes:

1. A local champion

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of having a champion leader in the community who is committed to seeing this work get done and won’t give up. 

This leader doesn’t have to be an elected official, but someone with the social and political capital required to get people to pay attention and to do the work, and has the authority to put the pieces into place. Above all, the ideal local champion can provide continuity — often for years — until the project happens. That’s why a mayor or other official with a term-limited position usually might not be the right person to play that role. 

2. Money

This lever probably seems the most obvious of all but it is still worth mentioning. 

Chances are that any community seeking to build or expand a broadband network is looking to overcome an existing market gap that’s led to the area not being served properly. But without a pathway to some subsidy to change those dynamics it is highly unlikely that anything will happen. 

Between federal grants, municipal bonds and taxes, and commercial sources, there are many ways to unlock funding — and once a community has done that, it’s one step closer to making that new network a reality.

3. Finding the right partner

Nine times out of 10 — or more often than that — rural broadband work has to be done in partnership with an experienced internet service provider (ISP). If a community has found the right partner ISP, it can be a huge asset in accelerating the work.

How do you find the right partner? Our advice is to talk to every ISP within an hour in every direction to understand if they’re interested in a partnership to expand, get a sense of their values and capabilities, what partnership structures they would consider, and how their current customers feel about them.

The other option, if a partnership doesn’t feel achievable, is for a community to do the project itself. It’s been done in many places, but it is definitely the more ambitious route to take.

Other key factors that contribute to success…

  • How accurate is your data? The more concrete a community is about its gaps and needs, the better. Do you know, down to the house, the level of service? This information impacts the economic viability of the potential network expansion, grant eligibility, and the go-to-market strategy. 
  • Are state and local policies in your favor? There are other forms of leverage, beyond monetary resources, that communities can use to incentivize broadband solutions. Are permitting processes simple, responsive, and cost-effective? Are municipal contracts available for service? How straightforward are the right-of-way rules and fees for accessing existing fiber and wireless assets? These types of resources can become difference-makers.
  • Do you have the independent expertise you need? There are dozens of funding sources and hundreds of partnership structures. Finding the right solution, and the most cost-effective one, may require finding independent expertise. It’s worth considering hiring outside help to navigate the complexities of broadband planning to get the best outcome for your community.

It doesn’t end here.

Still have questions? Ready to bring your project from idea to reality?

Get in touch with the broadband team at our collaborating organization, Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. — they’ve helped communities around the country design project plans and unlock millions in funding for rural broadband. You can also explore the National Broadband Resource Hub, which has a wealth of material and collective knowledge to offer.

At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century tech economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to sign up for our newsletter