Broadband Needs Assessment and Planning for Community Anchor Institutions
The SHLB Coalition developed Connecting Anchor Institutions: A Broadband Action Plan to provide ideas and actionable policy recommendations for government leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to address the broadband needs of anchor institutions. The ten policy papers highlight connectivity gaps and explain why broadband access is vital to communities nationwide. In the coming weeks, the Benton Foundation will be highlighting each of the Action Plan policy papers. The following is an excerpt of the first paper. Up next: Wi-Fi and Wireless Networking for Community Anchor Institutions. To read the complete Broadband Action Plan, visit www.shlb.org/action-plan
Broadband needs assessment and planning for community anchor institutions (CAIs) is one of the most critical steps that state and local governments can take to improve broadband connectivity and promote economic growth in their regions. Conducting an inventory of the locations and speeds of existing broadband services for CAIs – and identifying the gaps in broadband coverage – can help attract new funding and target investments to the areas with the most need. Conducting an inventory among all CAIs can also facilitate meaningful partnerships and strategies to ensure that the entire community has adequate broadband connectivity.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has recently issued an excellent community broadband planning toolkit that recommends how communities can evaluate broadband connectivity to homes, businesses, and institutions.
NTIA suggests the following six planning steps, regardless of the size of the project:
- Assemble a team to identify a community broadband vision;
- Assess communities’ broadband-related resources, gaps, and needs;
- Engage local stakeholders;
- Choose appropriate technology;
- Select a business or organizational model (the framework for implementation); and
- Develop project plan(s), e.g. implementation and financial plans.
The following selection draws particular attention to gathering the detailed data necessary to develop a broadband plan that serves CAIs’ needs and to facilitate partnerships that can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful project.
Rigorous Needs Assessment is Essential
A community that wishes to develop a broadband plan should engage in a local, granular approach that evaluates detailed information in the specific geographic area. Each community should develop its own detailed needs assessment. The analysis can determine whether existing providers are well-positioned to serve the future needs of CAIs, or whether additional investment is needed. Policymakers will then be in a better position to attract or raise additional funding because they know the funding will be targeted to the areas most in need. One way to determine whether or not anchor institutions have sufficient broadband available is to conduct a survey of the broadband providers serving that particular location to determine the level of services offered.
An Effective Planning Process
While conducting a needs assessment is of paramount importance, there are several other critically important steps that must be included in a broadband plan. It is important to assemble local stakeholders, including anchor institutions and broadband providers, and to develop a financial plan for sustainability. Communities should:
- Identify the CAIs in Their region
- Establish a realistic timeline for serving the CAIs that will be included in the plan
- Form partnerships
Develop and Implement a Broadband Plan
Once the groundwork has been established by conducting the needs assessment and coordinating with stakeholders, it will be easier to put the plan together. But the broadband plan must be extremely well thought-out, as there are many factors that affect the long-term sustainability of the plan. NTIA’s toolkit contains an excellent list of factors that should be included in the broadband plan:
- Identification of which CAIs will specifically benefit and what services will be provided to them;
- A competitively-neutral process to identify which broadband providers will be selected to build and operate the network;
- A financial plan that identifies costs and revenue streams, and a timeline for the project to become self-sustaining;
- An analysis of the political and regulatory landscape, including a review of government permits for use of rights-of-way, that will impact the feasibility of the project; and
- A plan for trialing and testing the network services along the way to address any shortcomings.
Developing and implementing a broadband plan is time-consuming, but absolutely essential. Failing to conduct a needs assessment of CAIs’ present and future broadband services can lead to missed opportunities, unmet needs, or wasteful investment. Failing to include all stakeholders, including the broadband providers, in the planning process can make the difference between a long-lasting, sustainable project and a project that results in stranded assets. Perhaps the most important recommendation is for planners to gather detailed, granular data about the broadband assets in an area. They shouldn’t rely on generalized descriptions of whether an area is served, unserved, or underserved, especially because CAIs’ broadband needs are very different from residential and business needs.
About the author
Kelleigh Cole is the Director of the Utah Broadband Outreach Center in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. In her current position, she leads an effort to work with broadband providers and other stakeholders across Utah to develop strategies to increase Internet access for all Utahns. She was the principal author of the state’s first broadband plan and works with communities statewide to help them improve services. In 2011, she helped organize the Utah Broadband Advisory Council.