Federal Pilot Seeks to Boost Broadband Connectivity in Rural Communities Nationwide

Five cities have been named as the testing grounds for the Cool and Connected program, a community-based plan aimed at boosting connectivity and pulling in money for their local economies.

For millions of Americans, the exponential growth of new technologies has forever changed the way we interact with one another, do business, travel and even how we approach health care. 

While a vast cross-section of citizens enjoys the benefits of these new tools and the seemingly constant connection to the Internet, the sea change has left other communities with gaps in access that need to be filled. 

Rural, developing and low-income communities are often on the wanting end of the connectivity conversation and suffer with what equates to informational inequality.

The larger problem has been the focus of state and national officials for years, and most recently prompted a federal pilot project to boost broadband connectivity in communities across the country. 

As part of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), five cities have been named as the testing grounds for the Cool and Connected program, a community-based plan aimed at boosting connectivity and pulling in money for their local economies. 

The initiative gives city officials in Georgetown, Del.; Leon, Iowa; Montrose, Colo.; Toledo, Wash.; and Tullahoma, Tenn., access to a team of broadband and community development experts to chart a path to better services. 

In Tullahoma, a rural community of around 18,600 residents, the program is helping to develop a strategic plan to bolster a retail renaissance in the newly renovated downtown district and support the areas existing high-tech industries, like aerospace and medicine.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to develop a strategic plan that will complement the Tullahoma Utilities Board’s (TUB) plan. Through this Cool and Connected process, we will not only explore assistance to market downtown as a Wi-Fi zone and work-share space, but we will also look to develop a plan for our other target sectors that include aerospace, medical, retail and technology,” Mayor Lane Curlee said. “We will be inviting the partners that represent these sectors to join in this process that is scheduled for late September.” 

The city’s Director of Community Development Winston Brooks, who filed the city’s Cool and Connected application, said despite being a leader in the implementation of broadband service roughly a decade ago, Tullahoma was in need of a strategic plan for the future. 

“There is still a lot of room to grow in terms of that infrastructure,” he said.

The economic downturn hit the downtown district hard and led to vacant buildings and closed businesses, but Brooks said the area is once again filling up with retailers and businesses. He hopes the draw of technology-capable infrastructure will be well-received by residents, businesses and visitors.

Brooks went on to say that the existing aerospace engineering, medicine and retail industries would benefit from any program that aimed to expand technological infrastructure in the area.

Representatives from the USDA and EPA said the overarching goal of the initiative is to give rural communities the edge that more urban environments take for granted. Those hit by economic troubles are especially in need of outside help.

Though these agencies don’t typically spring to mind when one considers broadband services, spokespeople Dan Abrams from the EPA and the USDA's Anne Mayberry said the federal agencies have been on the ground pushing for infrastructure improvements for many years through grants and technical assistance programs.

“Many rural communities are facing special challenges the loss of historic economic drivers, declining rural populations, growth at the metropolitan edge, and the loss of farms and working lands. Broadband investments support economic diversification, entrepreneurship and small business formation," they said in a joint statement to Government Technology. "The investments can help rural communities grow and develop in ways that reuse existing infrastructure creates vibrant, thriving communities, and protects the environment, and human health."

According to the agencies, more than 250 program applications were received from municipalities across the country, but only five were selected. 

The pair said the goals and circumstances of each applicant were carefully considered, and communities facing economic challenges were weighted more favorably.

“Bringing broadband services to rural areas does present some challenges," they said. "Because rural systems must contend with lower household density than urban systems, the cost to deploy broadband systems in urban communities is considerably lower on a per-household basis, making urban systems more economical to construct. Depending upon the technology deployed it can be more expensive to provide service to rural customers than to customers located in urban areas.” 

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.