The Island Institute’s mission and values are strongly rooted in the communities we serve. It is the priorities of these communities that power our work. This is why we believe a community-driven process is the strongest path to help communities take action on the issues that are important to them.
Community development empowers community members and makes them the decision-makers, creating stronger and more connected communities. The success of initiatives that stem from real, on-the-ground, everyday identified needs that encompass many voices have staying power.
In response to broadband issues created due to Maine’s dispersed population and challenging geography, the Island Institute’s broadband team utilizes the principles of community development to support communities in running a community-driven process that can bring affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet access. Communities have proven time and time again that a community-driven approach not only creates an inclusive, affordable path forward, but is the solution to closing the digital divide in Maine.
“When communities are armed with tools and resources to drive change for themselves community buy-in is established from the beginning.” —Kara Weiss, Vice-Chair and Head of Programs at CRI Foundation & Stacey Faella, Executive Director at The Woodcock Foundation
The investment of building broadband infrastructure can be cost prohibitive to the communities, to individuals, and even to the large internet service providers (ISPs). This cost of building out has meant that broadband has been slow to come to rural areas across the country, but particularly here in Maine, which ranks 43rd in the U.S. in terms of broadband access.
Our broadband team supports Maine’s community leaders through the development of working groups, financial and economic trainings, conferences, and the facilitation of discussions between community members, local officials, and internet service providers. Our team works with communities to secure state and federal funding, while also providing our own planning grants, to help remove barriers many communities may face during the planning process.
The journey for obtaining broadband varies from community to community—from different financial structures to various ownership models. Our team has tailored an approach for working with each community as they define their priorities and implement their own unique path for bringing broadband to their community. After working with over 30 rural communities, we discovered a pattern of how communities approach the challenge of obtaining broadband. We developed a Community-Driven Process that encompasses the key elements a community must consider when pursuing a full community broadband build-out. From our process wheel, we developed a step-by-step guide that can help communities through each part of the journey, while still allowing the unique needs and challenges of the community to be incorporated and considered.
This guide does not adhere to a linear timeline (although some aspects do call for that), but rather an iterative process that requires the committee to continue informing and engaging the community. We also urge communities to assess and establish affordability and inclusion as a priority that needs to be a considered at every step.
Below you will find some helpful pieces that can better inform you in your broadband journey:
Setting a goal
One of the first steps is to look at what goal your working group or committee is trying to achieve. For Bremen’s broadband committee, setting the goal: “To help bring reliable, affordable, ‘future-proof’ high-speed internet access to every home in Bremen” was their first step. It allowed them to have a precise point to work towards and focus on which led them through a strong, efficient planning process with an incumbent provider and community support that helped them achieve state infrastructure dollars.
A crucial piece of a community-driven process is to ask the community what they would like. Is affordability of the upmost importance, or is speed and reliability? With careful planning and investment, you may be able to achieve all three (read about the path Islesboro took here).
How do people plan on using this service? For working or learning remotely, or running a business? Or is it how they are staying in touch with loved ones? Uncovering the complex diversity of need within a community lays the groundwork for community engagement, digital inclusion and equity plans, and can steer partnerships with providers.
Informing, listening, and outreach are all aspects of engaging your community. Surveys, casual conversations at the store or library, or starting online groups, are examples of how to start a discourse with community members that you will find crucial further down the road when broad support, buy-in, and community understanding are needed. Interacting with fellow community members through listening, learning, and creating new networked relationships are a critical piece of the community-driven process. You can’t have a community process without the community!
Digital inclusion and literacy are a priority that we strongly urge new working groups to include from the beginning (read about the National Digital Equity Center’s work in Maine). For some people, getting connected is only the first step. Learning how to use the internet, as well as other local services, may need to be something the community should consider supporting. And if this goes hand-in-hand with affordability issues, connecting people with devices might also need to be considered. This piece of community outreach from the beginning will guarantee that the service is accessible and used from the onset, and ensure that more people within the community can support the idea of a broadband buildout.
Take rates are the amount of households that sign up to a service. The more households that pay for internet service, the less the overall payback cost per subscriber can be, making the service more affordable for everyone. When working with an internet service provider, communities will need to show that there are enough households that will take up the service, which could inform their monthly bill. Finding the amount that is deemed affordable by the community, and is high enough for the internet service provider to make it worth the investment, is a tricky balancing act and will be different community to community.
Higher take rates (regardless of the operation model) can lead to a faster/stronger return on investment and the ability to potentially entice a non-incumbent provider that may be better suited to achieve the priorities of a community. It also has the potential to get an incumbent internet service provider to expand in places they wouldn’t have previously considered because of offset capital funds and take rates.
What is affordable to the individual? What is affordable to the community? What is affordable to the internet service provider? All these questions will need to be considered in this process. Finding these numbers will inform take rate percentages and what other capital may need to be gathered (through grants, loans, municipal bonds, etc.). Understanding what is affordable to residents within a community can also provide guidance to equity conversations and strategies to establish affordability programs.
Many communities in Maine have identified the need for inclusive, universal internet access. This means all households and businesses in their community have access to reliable, high-speed internet at an affordable price. Creating a working group, task force, or committee that works to identify community goals around broadband and communicates regularly, educates the public, and informs other community members is the most direct and comprehensive approach to achieving this goal. Community-driven process is a heavy lift, but it is worth it. Without the community leading the charge, rural Maine will continue to be left behind.
To learn from other Maine communities on how they have addressed the challenge of bringing broadband to their communities, check out the following case studies in our Solutions Library:
- How the community on Cliff Island chose a financial model for their broadband.
- Learn how the island of Vinalhaven formed a Broadband Task Force through community outreach and engagement.
- Learn more about identifying your community priorities.