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Under normal conditions, partnerships are the key to success with technology deployments. But because of the pandemic, billions of dollars went to broadband, telehealth, and other technologies nationwide in just six months and there wasn’t much time to do the partnership dance between communities, co-ops, ISPs (Internet Service Providers), vendors, and other organizations. 

Still, in many cases, things worked out well. 

“Itasca County just approved funding that will go to Paul Bunyan, an awesome telephone co-op in northern Minnesota,” said Ann Treacy, who works as a contractor for Blandin Foundation. “Dakota County partnered with Hiawatha Broadband Communications, an ISP well-known for great work.”

But there are warning signs as well. Deb Simpier, CEO of Althea, recounts, “An Oregon county lined up an ISP for CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] funding with no formal RFP or solicitation of proposals though it is a $1 million buildout. Is that even legal? The CARES Act funding is required to be spent before the end of this year. What happens if the ISP can’t finish and the government won’t pay them?” 

“Keep everyone focused on the needs of the community as well as the needs of the granting agencies.”

Cameron Broadnax, Principal at Transcending Healthcare, a telehealth systems integrator

All the CARES expenditures specifically for broadband, telehealth, distance learning, and other broadband-related projects haven’t been fully calculated yet, so not a lot of time has been given to discussing the effectiveness of the various partnerships. Nevertheless, there are plenty of signs that we’ll see at least one special broadband grant program soon.      

A Run for the Roses

Currently, many in Congress are lobbying for a CARES Part 2, another $1 or $2 trillion, of which much will go for broadband and other technologies. Hopes are to see the legislation this month or in December. Also, the U.S. House has $100 billion broadband legislation waiting for the election dust to settle. That would be $20 billion a year for five years.

One of the winning broadband stimulus grants went to OpenCape, a broadband infrastructure project covering the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. Although they won at the end of 2011, the project was started several years before this. Their board chair believes communities these days need to be pushing partnerships into play as soon as they can.  

“One of the reasons we were successful, is that we had begun grassroots planning for a regional network long before the stimulus act came to be,” said John Campbell, Board Chair of OpenCape. “You need to be planning now, urgently, for that next round of grants that is likely coming early next year. Get a head start on it. The more you know, the better prepared you are, the more successful your grant application will be.” 

Partners within communities also are critical. They show funding agencies the depth of a community’s needs as well as the project’s likelihood of success. Are the Chamber of Commerce and churches on the broadband team? Their participation can drive broadband adoption. Library and schools can turn the tide for telehealth adoption.

Communities probably can’t go wrong partnering with entities that can bring cash and the ability to bring in more cash. 

“Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) recommended we find a private partner to work with us while we located public funding,” said Cheryl DeBerry, Natural Resources Business Specialist for Garrett County, Maryland. Ultimately, ARC became that public funder. “The County matched ARC’s funding of $250,000 for each grant. Our ISP partner, Declaration Networks Group (DNG), invested their own money to the county and that was their skin in the game.”

DNG got 1000 homes and businesses connected. Since they are seeing good ROI so far, they are pursuing additional grants. “They went through a reverse auction with the FCC and won a USDA Community Connect grant,” said DeBerry. “Now they have additional federal funding that matches whatever they have to extend the network in the County.”

Technology Partnerships and the Age of Telehealth

The Daily Yonder wrote in October, “…telehealth isn’t much of a solution if rural residents don’t have access to the broadband internet services. While government officials and companies throw equipment and money into telehealth, what’s really needed is roll out of rural broadband infrastructure.”

One technology partnership that needs to happen is between communities, broadband vendors, and telehealth service providers. The FCC has a $1 billion for telehealth and healthcare providers that boosts broadband in healthcare facilities and home telehealth equipment. But without connectivity between the facilities and the home, a community gets only a partial solution.

“You need to be planning now, urgently, for that next round of grants that is likely coming early next year. Get a head start on it. The more you know, the better prepared you are, the more successful your grant application will be.”

John Campbell, Board Chair, OpenCape

“Prepare to keep communication flowing between the partners by constantly breaking down each partner’s information silos as it pertains to the project,” said Cameron Broadnax, Principal at Transcending Healthcare, a telehealth systems integrator. “Keep everyone focused on the needs of the community as well as the needs of the granting agencies.”

At every opportunity in the document, have the partners explain why are they are the best at meeting the community’s needs as identified in the proposal. For those agencies more experienced funding broadband than telehealth projects, address how the medical and healthcare staffs’ needs are being met. 

“The proposal needs to address the growth potential of each partner’s role,” said Broadnax. “As the project gets implemented, constituents will find more uses for the infrastructure, applications, and so forth”.

Craig Settles, saved from a stroke by telehealth, pays it forward by uniting community broadband teams and healthcare stakeholders through telehealth initiatives.