By Eric Frederick, AICP, LEED AP
If you could add one piece to your town, county, or regional development plan that would connect your community to the larger world and spur growth and prosperity for local residents and businesses, would you? Even if you weren't sure where to start?
Planners, particularly in rural communities, often focus their practice on traditional planning areas like land use, transportation, and recreation, among others — and rightly so. These are all key things that shape our communities. But in a world where wifi and "smart" technology are becoming as ubiquitous as roads and electricity, local planners are increasingly being called upon to expand their repertoire to encompass broadband.
Rural areas in particular are full of untapped potential. Comprehensive broadband connectivity is a sure-fire way to achieve many community development goals, both new and existing:
- Expand workforce and attract new companies.
- Support area farmers and ranchers, which can help grow locally sourced restaurants and farmers markets.
- Allow local hospitals to improve services and reach new patients through telehealth.
- Foster education and workforce development at local schools and universities.
- Boost small businesses and towns that can become "destination spots" unique to the area.
- Enhance equity by providing equal access to digital services and opportunities for civic and cultural participation, employment, and lifelong learning.
The list goes on. From education to economic growth, connecting rural communities to broadband benefits everyone.
Fortunately, after years of sluggish movement, rural broadband expansion is in the news and on the minds of lawmakers at all levels of government. They're even setting aside dedicated funding to build rural broadband infrastructure. All that's needed now is active planning to effectively leverage these funds to improve rural broadband access nationwide.
That's where planners come in.
It's a critical time for broadband deployment — especially in rural America. Since the start of this year, the federal government has announced a series of efforts to speed up the development of broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
In February, the White House, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Department of the Interior released the American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report, which outlines a strategy for how the federal government can increase "broadband access and the actions that Agencies are taking to increase private-sector investment in broadband."
Some of the milestones noted in that report include funding and deployment opportunities that planners should tap into as they develop a broadband strategy, including the USDA's ReConnect Program, which is investing $600 million into rural broadband efforts. Money will be awarded through grants and loans over three disbursement periods. Areas with a plan to use the funds on broadband deployment will automatically be given greater weight as funding decisions are made.
U.S. senators have also introduced bipartisan legislation that would require the Federal Communications Commission to create an Office of Rural Broadband to help coordinate efforts among the different federal agencies. The Office of Rural Broadband Act is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
"Broadband infrastructure is critical in our 21st century economy, but many rural communities still lack access to reliable, high-speed internet," Klobuchar said in a statement made while introducing a rural broadband bill in February 2019. "Establishing an Office of Rural Telecommunications within the Federal Communications Commission will allow for more effective coordination as we deploy broadband infrastructure to ensure that every family has access to high-speed internet, no matter where they live."
This means that over the next several years, rural communities and planners will have opportunities to tap into multiple federal programs.
Coverage Reports: Too Good to Be True?
The areas shown in orange on this map of Walton County, Florida, are places that the Federal Communications Commission reported as having broadband coverage, but the dark blue areas are where Connected Nation actually found broadband coverage after doing extensive field research. This gap between perception and reality means that local data gathering and planning are crucial to broadband planning because federal data currently paints a fairly rosy picture of what's available.
The feds aren't the only ones taking action. Lawmakers in dozens of states are actively working to connect families and businesses across their districts.
Some states, such as Arkansas, are approaching the issue by working to lift regulations and limitations on what municipalities can and cannot do when it comes to broadband implementation. In February 2019 state senators passed SB150, which will allow municipalities and other entities to seek out grants or loans to deploy broadband.
Like many states, Arkansas still bars municipalities from being an internet service provider (also commonly referred to as municipal broadband), but under the new legislation, government entities are now allowed to pursue broadband funding in partnership with the private sector.
In 2018, Michigan created a new broadband road map that identifies a comprehensive suite of actions the state, regions, and localities can take to improve broadband access, adoption, and use.
The state backed up the plan by appropriating $20 million for a new broadband grant program. The program is currently in development and is expected to be open for applications this summer. The grant program is anticipated to help extend broadband service to the most rural areas, where federal funds and private-sector internet service providers have yet to invest.
In Nebraska, LB 549 was introduced to the state legislature with a focus on mapping the broadband landscape. Improved broadband mapping is critical for understanding where service gaps exist and making more informed decisions about where to allocate deployment subsidies.
This is something Connected Nation (the nonprofit where I work) has advocated for at the local, state, and federal levels. In many cases, current maps do not accurately reflect coverage, which makes it difficult to effectively deploy rural broadband.
What's the plan?
Many planners know that broadband access is critical to the success of their communities or regions, but it can be difficult to know where to start. It's useful to remember that, while broadband may be a different animal from traditional land-use or transportation planning, the skill set and process ingrained in every planner can be useful in tackling this critical infrastructure. A planner's ability to gather, facilitate, and research cannot be overstated.
The ability to design a robust process that takes participants through and leads toward results is vital. Also, the planner ethic for inclusiveness and stakeholder engagement is hugely important. Planners understand how infrastructure fits into community-building and tend to naturally recognize broadband as infrastructure.
So, where should you begin?
Planning for broadband doesn't happen overnight, and planners can't do it alone, but there are steps you can take right now:
- GET TO KNOW your local or county broadband providers. Connected Nation or the FCC can help you identify ISPs in your community, and incorporate coverage data into your local GIS.
- INCLUDE BROADBAND- AND TECHNOLOGY-RELATED GOALS and objectives in your comprehensive plan. While 98 percent of the time broadband is a private-sector utility, plan goals related to its expansion can help drive improvements and new connections.
- COORDINATE AND PROMOTE technology training events with local libraries, schools, economic development entities, and others (e.g., chambers of commerce, downtown development authorities, Main Street organizations, etc.). Planners are great facilitators and can help coordinate resources.
- REVIEW LOCAL REGULATIONS and consider amending barriers to broadband deployment. Conversations with local providers can help identify if — and what — barriers to infrastructure expansion exist.
- REVIEW THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY by the local government and consider improving online access to services and information. Online access to up-to-date ordinances, plans, applications, etc. or being able to accept applications and fees online raises the importance of being connected throughout the community.
- USE SOCIAL MEDIA, email, and electronic voting. Comprehensive plans and other planning functions that involve public participation could benefit from adding electronic means for the public to vote, voice opinions, and contribute to the planning process. In short, be a technological example for your community.
First Things First: Start With a True Representation of the Broadband Landscape.
This is not a guessing game. Through my work with Connected Nation's Connected Community Engagement Program, I know that what local stakeholders think is the issue preventing connectivity isn't always necessarily the case. The data, including coverage information from ISPs, survey results from community residents and businesses, among others, can sometimes reveal a much different picture.
In Walton County, Florida, planners and local stakeholders completed a Technology Action Plan & Broadband Feasibility Study in mid-2018. The FCC reported that much of the county had access to broadband infrastructure. However, through locally conducted surveys and drive testing, the community found that the FCC coverage was grossly overstated and that their broadband challenge was more critical than previously thought.
The plan looked at the community-wide broadband infrastructure — assessing whether a foundation exists for expansion and identifying solutions to filling the gaps. It also looked at current household access, adoption, and use of broadband. During the research, the local broadband team found that approximately 8,000 households lacked a home broadband connection.
A study from The Ohio State University found that the average consumer benefits of broadband access to be between $1,500 to $2,200 annually. Extrapolating this to Walton County, the community is missing out on approximately $12 million to $17.6 million in economic opportunity each year that these households remain disconnected. The study also looked at the needs of businesses in the community and how telehealth is affecting residents' wallets and their ability to age in place. Residents were asked if they used the internet to access health care information or participate in telehealth activities. The study found that residents saved approximately $34.8 million in health care costs simply by having access to the internet and leveraging telehealth opportunities with the health care providers.
In Emmet County, Michigan, local officials created a broadband planning team to begin tackling their connectivity challenges. Due to its hilly terrain and low density of households, the community struggled to attract internet service providers into its rural areas.
In 2013, 20 percent of households in Emmet County had access to broadband at a speed of at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. It wasn't until a multisector community team was gathered, including representatives from economic development, planning, local government, education, health care, libraries, and several other professions, that they realized the severity of their broadband issues.
After speaking with wireless ISPs, Emmet County realized their ordinances were unduly restricting the ISPs' ability to expand into unserved areas. The primary issues in the county dealt with colocating equipment on existing towers as well as the maximum height of new towers.
Through amendments to the zoning ordinance, the county made it easier to colocate equipment and also increased the height of towers that can be approved administratively to help shorten the process to get new wireless broadband equipment into rural areas. The new ordinance balances the broadband needs of the community while still protecting the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.
As of 2018, an estimated 97 percent of households in the community have access to broadband at speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps.
Second: Understand Your Specific Needs.
Broadband planning must involve local stakeholders to help planners understand what makes an area unique so they that can identify specific challenges and opportunities.
For example, in Marfa, Texas (pop. 2,000), just an hour from the Mexico border, lack of connectivity posed a huge problem for the city, a cultural center for artists that attracts thousands of visitors a year.
"The town and the entire Big Bend region, really, are driven by tourism," says Daniel Hernandez, economic development coordinator of the Rio Grande Council of Governments. "We have lots of small businesses that need reliable broadband internet to not only thrive but survive. We've had issues before where a line was cut because of an oil dig or bad service, and [customers and businesses couldn't] even access an ATM or run a credit card. Imagine what that does to a business."
The community approved its first broadband plan in 2014 and that attracted the interest of Big Bend Telephone, which saw economic opportunity in replacing dial-up service with fiber.
Starting with the school district, the company mapped out a broader fiber network for the area, and in places where fiber wasn't feasible, it installed radio towers.
"They built in redundancies that were identified as a need in our Technology Action Plan because of how large the area is, and it's working out well for many in our region," Hernandez says.
Not only has Marfa and the surrounding county seen improved connections for businesses and residents, it has led to a boom in the real estate market. "Everyone these days expects internet access to connect with their loved ones, get their news or email, and more. It's no longer a luxury if you want to stay in business — it's a priority."
Eric Frederick is the vice president for community affairs with Connected Nation, a national nonprofit. He has advised the White House and FCC on issues of rural connectivity, and serves on APA's Education Committee.