Building Broadband Action Teams in Rural Communities
Broadband is a foundational tool for rural communities to ensure their residents are able to participate in economic and workforce opportunities, telehealth, distance learning, and to help overcome social isolation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, rural communities have been rapidly challenged to rapidly connect their residents with broadband services. While programs through schools and other public entities offer short-term solutions, many regions are now trying to figure out how to create lasting broadband solutions to support recovery from COVID-19 and build long-term resiliency.
Rural cities, counties, and non-profits have long struggled with limited capacity to pursue new funding opportunities and launch innovative programs that help to create thriving communities—from broadband to childcare and housing initiatives. As the Deputy Director for Cascades West Council of Governments from 2018-2020, I saw this struggle firsthand with our member communities. In 2020, I decided to create Sequoia Consulting to boost rural jurisdictions’ and non-profits’ capacity for resource development and launching new initiatives. Our team has over 40 years of fundraising experience combined, as well as senior-level leadership and program creation expertise. In just 18 months, we have brought in over $7M for clients—from emergency housing projects (Project Turnkey, emergency shelter programs), to broadband, childcare, economic development and emergency COVID funding.
One of our clients in 2020 was Lincoln County. We were tasked to help the county “build back better”. County leadership recognized that broadband was a critical tool, not only for emergency COVID-19 response, but for long-term recovery. In response, Sequoia Consulting formed the county’s first Broadband Action Team, or BAT. We modeled our work after Washington State University’s Extension model that focuses on local leadership. BATs are diverse, multi-stakeholder groups that discuss broadband challenges and opportunities, leading to greater awareness, access, and adoption.
Lincoln County’s BAT initially consisted of the local school district, internet service providers, Oregon State University’s Extension program, the Economic Development Alliance of Lincoln County, LINK Oregon, Business Oregon, representatives from Oregon’s congressional delegation, NW Oregon Works (local workforce investment board), Oregon Coast Community College, Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, Oregon Broadband Office, and more.
However, we quickly realized that the broadband challenges facing Lincoln County had shared geography with neighboring counties. We expanded the BAT to include partners from Benton, Linn, and Lane Counties.
With a history of working together through both the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments, as well as through the Cascades West Economic Development District, these communities had a solid track record of working on common challenges.
The BAT now includes a diverse group of partners from across the four-county region, including Lane Council of Governments, Linn, Benton ESD, the Cities of Florence and Eugene, and non-profit partners such as Siuslaw Vision, etc. The BAT welcomes new members on a regular basis.
The BAT’s goals are threefold: improve knowledge of broadband issues and opportunities across the region; advocate for rural communities at the State and local level; and liaise with other regional BAT’s around Oregon. The BAT meets monthly with members, and there is a bi-weekly meeting of BAT leadership from around the state, which includes the Oregon Broadband Office and the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council.
The successes of the four-county BAT includes:
- Securing a $250k+ Economic Development Administration grant to provide feasibility studies in each county. This project involved securing match and identifying a scope of work that was responsive to local needs.
- Providing guest speakers from the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, Willamette Internet Exchange, Onward Eugene and more, to help educate BAT members on topics such as the basic infrastructure of the internet (understanding the function of long-haul, middle mile and last mile fiber); understanding the Internet Exchanges and how they can serve public entities with faster, cheaper service and the role they could play in securing redundant emergency communications.
- Discussing and sharing information on broadband funding opportunities, such as Business Oregon’s emergency broadband funding, and recent opportunities through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and United States Department of Agriculture.
Multiple BATs statewide have:
Advocated with the Ways and Means committee to approve the Governor’s 2021-2023 proposed broadband budget of $120M. This involved working with multiple BATs to highlight the challenges that are particular to rural communities as well as proposing programmatic focus areas for spending.
Identified a mapping tool, used by partners in Washington State, that can provide critical insight for rural jurisdictions about their current broadband coverage for under $100k (total, state-wide). This information can be used to inform where to spend ARPA funding, which internet service providers to partner with to deliver better coverage, and more. The BAT leadership group is in the process of identifying funding and implementation partners for this project.
Broadband Action Teams have an important role to play in supporting local leadership and collaboration in the broadband sector. BATs can be led by any number of public or non-profit entities, and I encourage rural jurisdictions to take advantage of this well-established model to ensure your communities have the building blocks for long-term resiliency.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.