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Minority Broadband Initiative Aims to Connect Rural America

Historically black colleges and universities are closely linked to their surrounding areas, including rural places on the other side of the digital divide. The Minority Broadband Initiative wants to take advantage of these connections.

Much has been said about the importance of high-speed Internet to the economy, education and the future of health care in U.S. communities. But these benefits and others can be hard to ponder or explore in a rural community that doesn’t have a sufficient technological foundation for broadband. 

James Clark, president of South Carolina State University (SC State), believes the newly launched Minority Broadband Initiative (MBI) from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) can get the wheels turning in the heads of rural Americans. 

“Once you have this infrastructure in place, then it allows you to imagine,” Clark said. “If you have broadband in place, now you can imagine things that don’t even exist now.”

MBI’s purpose is to create a partnership with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with the goal of expanding broadband availability in the communities that they serve, said MBI lead Francine Alkisswani. As part of the initiative, NTIA plans to utilize its existing relationships with federal agencies and state broadband offices to capitalize on any opportunities that may exist for the communities around historically black colleges and universities. 

Clark’s own imagination ran wild when he considered what his institution could accomplish as part of MBI. If the initiative could, for example, help the farms near his university with broadband access and funding, Clark said a path to maximizing South Carolina’s agricultural output is also possible. 

“You could have a scenario where a team of researchers and students would be taking all the data from the small farmers and giving a report to each one of them about what crops would be the best to grow, what the right fertilizer [is], how to water them, when to water them, [in order] to reach that goal of doubling the output of the land we use in the next few years,” he said. 

For now, MBI will focus on working with HBCUs across North and South Carolina. The initiative began as a conversation between NTIA and these institutions at a Carolinas Alliance for Success in Education Summit, formally launching in mid-Nov. 2019

Current action items for MBI include the development of a demonstration project in each state and the use of statewide broadband summits to bring all the players in the broadband ecosystem to the table. Alkisswani said NTIA also plans to partner with every state that has an HBCU, as the data shows that HBCUs tend to serve rural Southern communities that lack broadband access and adoption. 

“We know that HBCUs have a major impact in these communities already,” Alkisswani said. “They generate massive numbers in terms of economic activity and jobs. They are an integral component of the broadband ecosystem, so we just want to do all that we can to leverage that to better ensure that these communities are connected.”

She added that more than 50 HBCUs are located in opportunity zones, a factor that can help lay the groundwork for competitiveness and economic inclusiveness in the rural South. 

But not all HBCUs are positioned near rural places. A prime example is Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), which is located in Charlotte, N.C. University President Clarence Armbrister said his institution has the opportunity to serve as an advocate for more rural HBCUs.

Armbrister also highlighted the importance of JCSU opening its library and other facilities to citizens who don’t have broadband in their homes. 

“We always have to be mindful of those who are on the other side of the [digital] divide,” Armbrister said. 

Clark said MBI is necessary because HBCUs typically “don’t have the resources to go it alone.” At the same time, HBCUs can be in an ideal spot to help communities in need. As a land-grant institution, SC State has deep established relationships with agricultural communities. 

“We actually have offices and people out there in those communities right now, and it’s part of our mission,” Clark said. 

Alkisswani said her team will remain in touch with the interagency working group of the White House Initiative on HBCUs to stay informed about grants that can be used for HBCUs. Additionally, over the next year, Alkisswani will be working on a database that will contain comprehensive information about HBCU resources. 

From a financial standpoint, Clark was able to put what this initiative can mean to an HBCU in full perspective.

“If someone sent $10 million to my alma mater MIT, they’d say, ‘Well, thank you, thank you very much, we appreciate it,’” he said. “Someone sends $10 million to do a project at SC State, it becomes a game-changer.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.