In 2021, the state of Tennessee announced it would dedicate more than $400 million of its funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to a one-time broadband infrastructure grant program.
Seizing on this unique opportunity, The Ayers Foundation launched the Rural Tennessee Broadband Project specifically to help at-risk and distressed counties close their long-standing broadband gaps with extensive, wide-ranging technical assistance from the broadband team at our collaborating organization, Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI).
After more than a year of planning, 13 rural counties that worked with RISI submitted successful applications that resulted in $80.4 million in awards from the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund – American Rescue Plan program and an additional $34 million-plus in private funding.
As the U.S. goes through a similar experience with the rollout of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, we think this recent experience offers valuable lessons for communities pursuing broadband projects today:
1. It takes hard work and diligent planning — and none of that’s gotten easier
Successful projects rely on the commitment and engagement of public sector and community leaders who care about improving the overall quality of life in the places they serve. During the months-long technical assistance process our broadband team engaged a diverse array of stakeholders — including county mayors and other local leaders, municipal utilities, electric cooperatives, rural telephone companies, and internet service providers.
But, just as important, the economic conditions that created these rural broadband gaps haven’t become any easier to solve, and can be even trickier to navigate in the present day.
2. There’s no guarantee of funding even when it’s available
Tennessee’s investment of nearly half a billion dollars was considerable, but still not nearly enough to serve every area with broadband gaps.
The 13 at-risk and distressed counties our team helped secure funding only represented about a third of the locations that were eligible for support from the Rural Tennessee Broadband Project. Despite the goal of reaching universal service, broadband gaps were still going to persist after the state’s resources were put to use, and this will be true after BEAD. Don’t expect resources to fall into your lap and don’t get left behind if you want to make the most of the funding available.
3. One-size-fits-all solutions are the exception
The challenges, needs, and solutions are unique from one jurisdiction to the next even when communities are working within the same grant program. Assuming something that worked in one place will work in another based on shared attributes can be a recipe for frustration.
4. It’s hard to overstate the value of local electric and telephone cooperatives
The counties that succeeded in securing funds in Tennessee clearly demonstrated the value of local utility cooperatives.
Not only are these organizations pillars of a community, set up to serve residents for the long-term, they also make rural deployments much easier — and, importantly, cheaper — because they own the utility poles. And, absent the same profit motives as larger commercial enterprises, they showed they could tolerate longer return-on-investment periods.
Engaging these coops for projects in the near future is crucial because it will only become more difficult for them to get into the broadband space after BEAD finishes.
5. Broadband remains as important as ever
Despite the tremendous progress that has been made across the country since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans still lack broadband access. And that inequity, while improving, is still profound.
That is what makes learning from prior experience so important as our nation embarks on the single-biggest push to expand broadband access in its history.
It doesn’t end here.
Explore the broadband resources on our blog for more information about how to approach broadband projects and the benefits they can provide for communities.
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.