Jake Resor and Mike Marlow install the internet broadcast antenna on CCI's roof. (Photo by April Jarocki)

After five years of looking for someone to provide broadband internet to the rural Clearfork Valley in Tennessee and Kentucky, residents and community advocates decided they would do it themselves. 

This summer, the Clearfork Community Institute (CCI), a community space and institution in the valley, went online with their new internet hotspot, becoming the first and only place in the community to provide public internet access. 

How are they doing it? A mix of bringing the right people together, open-source technology, and a tall antenna. At present, the institute is only able to access the internet using cellphone service data as backhaul – that is, the source of the internet that a service provider taps into to connect homes and individuals. 

Source: SCCP Facebook

But as the project moves forward, the hope is to get a better source of backhaul and to turn their hard work into a community-owned internet service provider (ISP). 

“Five years ago it seemed like an unreachable goal of just reaching this point,” said April Jarocki, resident of the Clearfork Valley and coordinator for the Southern Connected Communities Project (SCCP), responsible for organizing the internet project. Besides creating the hotspot, so far the institute has put one neighbor online. Jarocki said that is only the beginning. 

Connecting Communities 

The Clearfork Valley, once a site of intensive coal mining and timbering, has in recent decades witnessed mines shutter and neighbors leave. Yet, many people continue to make a home in the valley, which spans two counties in Kentucky and two in Tennessee. The challenge now, Jarocki says, is that the world faces a rapidly increasing digital divide between places that have access to broadband internet and those that don’t. And at present the Clearfork Valley falls in the latter category. 

April Jarocki and an engineer test antenna frequencies. (Photo by Greta Byrum)

In the Clearfork Valley, people can access the internet through cellphone data or satellite service, both slow and costly options, and unreliable or completely inaccessible for some residents depending on where they live in the valley.  Other rural areas in East Tennessee and the U.S. face similar problems.

That’s why, six years ago, when activists and community leaders came together from across east Tennessee to define the most important issues in their rural communities, broadband rose to the top. 

Jarocki remembers a flurry of sticky notes on a whiteboard, and at the end, a pile of notes pointing to broadband. Deborah Bahr, an East Tennessee community advocate who helped start the SCCP, was part of putting together that economic alternatives summit held in 2014. Bahr says that it was clear that the internet was essential for the future of young people in the region, and then, as now, there were few good broadband choices. “So we started looking for options,” Bahr says.

For five years the SCCP lobbied for better rural broadband policy on state and county levels, and worked to get local utility providers to increase broadband access. Working with the Highlander Research and Education Center in East Tennessee, they were able to build a tower to provide internet access across Highlander’s entire campus, where before the center only had access in one building. The goal had always been to support community level access, though, and folks in the Clearfork Valley articulated a clear need for alternatives. Community leaders, such as elder and visionary, Carol Judy, who passed away in 2017, thought they might wait forever before anyone in the private or public sector connected the valley to broadband.

 “We got to the point where we’re like… the best way to do this is to build our own infrastructure,” said Adam Hughes, a community organizer with Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM). 

That dream became closer to reality in 2018 when the digital technology company, Mozilla, awarded the SCCP a $400,000 grant to work on rural broadband access. With the funding the group was able to hire Jarocki and set to work making broadband available to the Clearfork Valley. Now, launching their public internet hotspot in the midst of a global pandemic, Jarocki is emphatic: “This year the world has relied on the internet in a way unlike any other time in history, and it’s proven that it’s just as important as having electricity and water.”

The Technical Challenge

After the funding came the technical challenge. The state of  Tennessee had contracted with mobile phone and internet provider AT&T to run fiber optic cables through much of the valley to provide high-speed internet for the school in Clairfield, Tennessee.  But Jarocki says conversations with the corporate giant to expand the project to include the surrounding community haven’t gotten very far. The company has indicated that it would not be cost effective to cut into their fiber-optic cable, says Jarocki, explaining that it has been hard to even have a conversation with appropriate staff at the corporation. A representative from AT&T could not be reached for comment. 

Looking for other options, community members connected with Community Tech, NY, a small nonprofit that helps communities solve technology problems.

A PNK assembly workshop, with Raul Enriquez, Donny Jarocki, Greta Byrum, DJ Coker, and Marie Webster (starting on the left, going clockwise around the table). (Photo by April Jarocki)

With Community Tech’s training, Clearfork Community Institute was able to set up three Portable Network Kits (PNKs), which Houman Saberi, co-director of Community Tech, described as a “network in a box.” The package uses off-the-shelf equipment and includes an antenna, router, and a microcomputer that functions like a server. It runs off a small battery that can be solar powered. 

After working with a training model, the first PNK operating in Clearfork Valley was set up offline as an intranet. Users couldn’t access the internet, but they could use a growing archive of local oral history and folk knowledge. This summer, the project went online. The PNK now provides internet access in and around the institute’s space.

Jarocki and others were able to install another antenna to provide coverage to a neighbor as well. However, Saberi said, enlarging service like that only works for a few extensions. He explained that in the long run, the community will have to think through another backhaul solution and determine how to connect homes to the system, likely through line-of-site antennas or fiber.

These decisions take time, Saber said. Unlike some technology development, this will have to be a deliberate and long-term solution. 

A Community’s Future

This spring, as the Covid-19 pandemic kept children home from school, separated families and friends, and put people out of work, accessing the internet became more important than ever.  Since Clearfork Community Institute’s internet went online this summer, community members have been stopping by to access digital services. 

“We started a cyber café here at [the community institute]  because it’s the only public space in the community,” Jarocki said. “We’ve got computers and a printer for people that don’t have any. They can come and use the internet and use a computer.” 

Now, Jarocki says, “we want to form a community owned ISP, and provide internet to the neighbors and just keep growing from there.” More than just the hotspots around the center, they want to get the internet into homes. 

“Our biggest challenge,” said  Jarocki, “is finding somebody willing to provide the backhaul.” The SCCP has talked with all the utility and internet providers in the area and hasn’t had luck finding one that is willing to provide that service. However, Jarocki remains undeterred and is confident they will find a backhaul provider sooner, hopefully, rather than later. In fact, the group has already started gearing up to operate a community-owned ISP, including a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of going operational. 

For community members like Jarocki, high-speed internet is too vital and basic a service not to have in a community like theirs. As she put it, broadband, “would connect the valley to the rest of the world…. It would open up more opportunities for education and jobs.” 

Deborah Bahr said the work in the Clearfork Valley is a model, one that could be replicated across the region. The hope is that small networks could be “creating a web where folks that aren’t served [by traditional ISPs] would be able to step onto the technology highway,” Bahr said. 

Gabe Schwartzman is a graduate research fellow at the University of Minnesota studying economic transition in Appalachia. Read more of his reports for the Daily Yonder