Locally Owned Broadband Enables Rural Innovation With New Initiative

Innovation today requires a high-speed Internet connection, and in rural areas, that often means a fiber optic network owned by a local government, a cooperative, or a local business. It’s no surprise then that when the Rural Innovation Initiative was looking for rural communities with good connectivity and an interest in innovation-based economic development, it turned to cities served by locally owned broadband networks. Out of the nine communities initially selected to participate in the Rural Innovation Initiative, more than half have a local Internet access provider instead of a national ISP.

Initiative Bridges Rural Opportunity Gap

The Rural Innovation Initiative is a new program created by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI), with funding and support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). Launched at the end of last year, the initiative works to “bridge the opportunity gap in rural America by helping communities build the capacity to create resilient, innovation-based jobs.”

For the first part of 2019, CORI and RISI selected nine cities and community partners to take part in what they describe as a “fast-paced technical assistance sprint,” which will help participants develop innovation hubs as an economic development strategy. The initiative will also prepare communities to apply for federal funding opportunities, such as EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies program. More than 100 rural communities from 40 states applied for the program, which is free for participants. Selection criteria included location in a census-designated rural county, access to New Market Tax Credits and Opportunity Zones, partnerships with higher education and local nonprofits, and existing high-speed broadband networks — Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in particular.

CORI and RISI, in partnership with EDA, will offer further technical assistance to communities through the Rural Innovation Initiative after this initial project complete. To learn more, watch a webinar about the program from December 2018.

Connectivity Sets Communities Apart

CORI identifies broadband access as a key prerequisite for rural economic development. During the December webinar, a representative from the organization riffed:

“We joke at the Center on Rural Innovation that in fact the real core to economic development in rural places are the three ‘B’s, which are broadband, blues, and beer.”

Many rural communities, however, lack broadband access because large providers won't expand into high-cost, low-profit rural areas. Accordingly, more than half of the communities that CORI selected to participate in the first round of the Rural Innovation Initiative have a locally owned broadband network.

For some of the selected communities that means a municipal network, like MINET in Independence, Oregon, or Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Another initiative participant, Traverse City, Michigan, is currently planning a citywide fiber network; rural cooperatives have deployed fiber networks in two of the participating communities. Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative connects residents and business in Pittsburg, Kansas, and Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative offers enterprise fiber in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Other participating cities are home to local Internet access providers, such as HBC in Red Wing, Minnesota, and ValuNet in Emporia, Kansas.

Local ownership allows rural communities to build strong economies and take advantage of programs like the Rural Innovation Initiative. Accountbility, awareness of local needs, and concern about the well-being of the community keep local companies, local government, and cooperatives seeking solutions that focus on more than profitability. Check out our "Why Local Solutions?" fact sheet for more on the benefits of local ownership.