The Biden administration has proposed $100 billion in funding for increased broadband access throughout the country. But there is no universal blueprint for connecting rural communities, and no path to greater connectivity that does not include local advocates and planners.
Lead for America and Land O’Lakes, Inc. announced the launch of a new fellowship funding 50 new hometown leaders “working to improve broadband connectivity and digital inclusion” throughout the country.
Members of the American Connection Corps (ACC) will be placed with public-serving institutions in their hometowns to help solve pandemic-heightened problems with internet connectivity.
The program was borne out of a partnership between Lead for America and the American Connection Project—a coalition of 150 organizations seeking to expand broadband access throughout the country— said Benya Kraus, co-founder of Lead for America.
“At Lead for America, our fellows are working on their communities’ toughest challenges of broadband infrastructure, digital inclusion, and some of the systemic factors that help communities attract and retain their talent,” said Kraus. “So that fusion of our local focus and American Connection Project’s national advocacy, pairing the two together, was our intention with the American Connection Corps.”
The fellows’ training will consist of one month of virtual, technical training and a two-week in-person training institute, said Kraus.
“A lot of the in person training is also about strengthening [the fellows’] rural organizing skills,” said Kraus. “So, their communication skills, how to frame this challenge in a way shows people it’s important, and then ‘what does it look like to connect different stakeholder groups together to be able to make it happen?’”
In 2021, the program will place fellows in 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee. General applications are due May 15, 2021. Potential host organizations can submit an interest form on the ACC’s webpage.
The ACC’s ideal host locales, said Kraus, are places where there are already people and groups fighting for greater broadband access.
“Oftentimes in rural places that broadband champion is also the one in charge of receiving and redistributing CARES Act funding to their local businesses,” she said. “So we look for places where the desire to do something about broadband infrastructure is already there, but where there might be a big capacity gap between the desire to do it and the actual ability to do the nitty gritty coordination that takes a lot of time.”
This year will see the inauguration of Lead for Nebraska’s first class of 18 fellows, which will include several ACC members working on broadband issues throughout the state.
The statewide initiative has been launched in partnership with the Rural Impact Hub, based in the town of Auburn, in southeast Nebraska.
Lead for Nebraska is currently soliciting applications from fellows and host organizations. The program hopes to find community-minded individuals eager to work on issues ranging from broadband policy advocacy to economic development, said Rural Impact Hub’s founder Brent Comstock.
In some places, internet infrastructure is the most pressing need, said Comstock. But in others, expanded connectivity means it’s time to showcase other community assets.
“When I was starting a business as a young person, we had two national providers and we were nobody to them,” he said. In recent years, Auburn’s internet access has been greatly expanded by a local provider.
“Having that local provider is new within the last five years and the opportunity that exists now is to show off the power of that connectivity so that businesses will look here as a place to live, work and play,” said Comstock.
In Auburn, Lead for Nebraska seeks to bridge the capacity gap between the town’s economic potential and its development workforce. “We’ve never had a full time staff member working on economic development,” said Comstock.
The two-year fellowships are paid, full-time, and hosted by institutions like local governments, nonprofits, and community organizations.