Broadband funding: If you build a vision, it will come

By Craig Settles

There is actually more money for public broadband networks that many local stakeholders don’t realize. The key to unlocking this particular door is found in the mindset of those stakeholders.

With a creative orientation to broadband planning, you create an incredible vision that a lot of people and organizations will contribute money to help you achieve. If vision for broadband is consistent with their mission, it’s time to talk about possible funding.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is in the business of helping cities build, manage, use and maintain better streets and freeways. The city of Columbus, Ohio, got a grant from DOT for almost $8 million to replace its aging, proprietary traffic signal systems with a more flexible system, including fiber to every traffic light. Besides having the Maserati of traffic management systems, the city now invites competitive providers to offer affordable broadband on the city’s network to homes and businesses. The city contributed $750,000 for a fiber buildout it couldn’t otherwise have afforded.

Applying the creation orientation to broadband fundraising

Broadband planning teams need to move from problem solving ([How do we find a grant or another Google to pay for our network?] to creating broadband-driven solutions that appropriate organizations will fund. It is deceptively easy to create a fundraising game plan for broadband if you do a thorough needs analysis.

To set the stage for the broad-based information-gathering phase, conduct telephone and in-person interviews with a number of leaders from within key stakeholder groups, including:

  • „ City managers, mayors and county economic development agencies;
  • „ Senior members of the chamber of commerce
  •  Leaders (CEO’s, COO’s) of two or three of the largest companies;
  • „ Commercial real estate agents;
  • „ Local government officials and administrators;
  • „ Representatives from a medical facility or a healthcare agency; and
  • „ Administrators from the school district

Then, you want to gather as much useful data from as many constituents as possible. The primary questions you want them to answer are: 1) What kind of broadband service do they have currently?  2) Are these services meeting their needs? 3) What would they do with better broadband?  4) How will meeting these needs impact constituents quantitatively and qualitatively?

As you get your ducks in a row, let the creative juices flow. The  four categories where broadband can produce the biggest return in investment: improving local government operations, boosting economic development, transforming education and improving healthcare delivery.

For each of these categories ask, who has an interest in seeing that objective come to fruition? You may find a nonprofit that has a definite interest in transforming education in underserved communities. A foundation may have significant funding for programs that reverse offshoring by manufacturing goods in the U.S. and communities with high-speed broadband are places manufactures will go.

Take the case of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the City of Cleveland that formed a joint effort called OneCommunity to build out a fiber-optic network to local institutions, such as schools, hospitals and libraries. The project eventually connected more than 1,500 facilities.

You may have nine funding programs interested in your network. Or maybe there are only two, but together they can pay for the entire network. Fundraising for large capital projects may have to be done over time. Whichever way you may find to be your path, “we can’t find broadband funding” should not be the reason your community does not have broadband.

Craig Settles is a community broadband analyst, consultant and host of the radio talk show Gigabit Nation. His latest book, Building the Gigabit City, helps public, private and nonprofit organizations acquire community broadband. His e-book on the topic can be found here.   

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