The DDAA team set out to conduct a literature review on rural broadband deployment and adoption with the goal of identifying sources that could assist local development districts to define their optimal role in promoting broadband in their regions. This literature review examines recent publications on rural broadband deployment and adoption strategies at the local level, highlighting three key findings that appear repeatedly in the literature related to leadership, technology, and organizational model.
To construct this literature review, the DDAA team compiled resources on rural broadband deployment from public, private, and non-profit sources. Due to the abundance of recently published literature on this topic, our team decided to focus on publications that provided context and practical guidance on rural broadband deployment.
To capture what actions state governments have taken to promote rural broadband locally, we reviewed all available broadband plans from ARC states, including technical state guidance documents such as North Carolina’s “Community Broadband Planning Playbook.” Expanding our review outside the region, we leveraged Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2020 report on state broadband access to identify innovative state and local practices outside of Appalachia.
We supplemented these resources with publications from prominent non-profits that support local broadband deployment, such as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, Next Century Cities, and BroadbandNow, identifying best practices and case studies at the local level. Finally, our team utilized reports and policy papers published by technical assistance practitioners and academic researchers to better understand the collection of laws and regulations that dictate broadband deployment across the country. This research was used to develop the local broadband deployment framework that will be presented in the next section.
Common themes in the literature reviewed yielded the following insights related to three key elements of broadband deployment: leadership, technology, and organizational model.
The value of a dedicated project manager who can clearly convey the community’s connectivity goals and manage relationships to find consensus among key stakeholders is crucial to managing a succesful broadband deployment program. This role is referred to by various names, such as “Community Broadband Manager” or “Broadband Champion” but despite the difference in title, virtually all publications and experts on rural broadband deployment reviewed by our team prominently feature this role. These project managers serve as the single point of contact for other project stakeholders, educate the public and elected officials on the project’s goals, and monitor the overall progress of the initiative, ensuring that it does not lose its momentum when other priorities arise.
While robust support from local and state elected officials is also important and may garner more publicity, a capable project manager is often presented as a prerequisite to a successful initiative. Commonwealth Connect, Virginia’s broadband resource office, states in their local leaders deployment guide that, “The primary difference between communities that have achieved universal coverage and those who haven’t is the presence of a champion within that local government.” North Carolina’s Community Broadband Planning Playbook urges that this position “should have the time, energy and interest to manage and drive the initiative forward.” Next Century Cities’ 2018 article, “The Anatomy of a Broadband Manager,” lays out the key soft and hard skills vital for a broadband project manager’s success.
There is an increasing number of connectivity-technologies available to transmit broadband to rural consumers and each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The technology most often championed in the reviewed literature is fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections that utilize fiber optic cables to directly connect homes and businesses to an internet service provider. FTTP can provide broadband speeds many times faster than any other technology currently available, incurs low maintenance costs, and has ample capacity to handle the anticipated demand for increasingly faster internet speeds in the coming years. Due to these aspects, publications from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society have called it a “future proof” technology and advocate for governments to promote the deployment of fiber-based networks that, “will last for a long time, are easily upgradable, and offer service to meet the likely demands of the 2020s.”
However, the capital cost associated with FTTP infrastructure deployment is often high and unpredictable. While many publications cite the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office’s statistics that show the average cost of deploying fiber to be about $27,000 per mile, local governments in rural Ohio have estimated their FTTP deployment costs to be $50,000 to $70,000 per mile.
The report, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for a New Internet Cooperative illustrates how some communities have succeeded in providing high-quality internet access at decreased deployment costs by leveraging fixed wireless technologies that utilize a vertical tower to emit a broadband signal to consumers. However, the fact that fixed wireless solutions require a direct line of sight between the tower emitting the signal and the consumers’ premises means that this technology is unlikely to be a viable option for all Appalachian communities located in mountainous or wooded areas.
Knowledge of the organizational models that other communities have successfully implemented to deploy broadband will help community leaders avoid ‘reinventing the wheel,’ but no single model is a ‘silver bullet’ for success.
Municipally-owned networks have received media attention over the past decade for serving residents with high-quality broadband, but some have raised questions about their financial sustainability. A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study examined the financials of 20 publicly-owned broadband networks and found that only two generated enough profit to likely pay off the debt incurred from building the network.
Other communities have turned to a non-profit cooperative model. The Institute of Local Self-Reliance’s 2020 policy brief, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America, explains why it has become an increasingly popular model to facilitate broadband deployment to rural communities.
Numerous public-private partnership (P3) models have also been leveraged to provide broadband. USIgnite and Altman Solon’s 2020 whitepaper, Broadband Models for Unserved and Underserved Communities, explains five P3 variations and their key differences. Experts from the Benton Foundation have published a business strategy and legal guide for localities looking to engage in a broadband P3.
Rural broadband connectivity has become a prominent issue in the national public policy dialogue and leaders’ looking for solutions to their communities’ broadband needs will benefit from the abundance of literature available. A review of the existing body of literature suggests that successful rural broadband deployment initiatives are as diverse as the communities that lead them, both in terms of the technology they utilize and the organizational structures they employ. Each’s communities unique set of assets and obstacles make a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to rural broadband connectivity impractical. However, the literature also suggests that certain project elements, like the presence dedicated and knowledgeable leadership, are crucial to any community’s success when tackling this issue.
 “Community Broadband Planning Playbook.” North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office. https://www.ncbroadband.gov/technical-assistance/playbook
 How States Are Expanding Broadband Access, Pew Charitable Trusts, February 2020, https://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2020/03/broadband_report0320_final.pdf
 Bringing Broadband to your Community: A Complete Guide for Virginia’s Local Leaders, Version 2.1, January 2020, Pg 12, https://www.commonwealthconnect.virginia.gov/sites/default/files/Toolkit%20Documents/Bringing%20Broadband%20to%20Your%20Community%20Version%202.1_Final%20Final.pdf
 “Build Your Team,” Community Broadband Planning Playbook. North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office. https://www.ncbroadband.gov/technical-assistance/playbook/broadband-planning-committees/build-your-team
 “The Anatomy of a Community Broadband Manager,” Next Century Cities. February 13, 2018. https://nextcenturycities.org/the-anatomy-of-a-broadband-manager/
 “Types of Broadband Connections,” Federal Communications Commission. https://www.fcc.gov/general/types-broadband-connections
 Cyphers, Bennett, The Case for Fiber to the Home, Today: Why Fiber is a Superior Medium for 21st Century Broadband. October 16, 2019. https://www.eff.org/wp/case-fiber-home-today-why-fiber-superior-medium-21st-century-broadband
 Sallet, John, Broadband For America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. October 2019. Pg 12. https://www.benton.org/sites/default/files/BBA_full_F5_10.30.pdf
 Coleman, Austin, “Dig Once: Using Public Rights-of-Way to Bridge the Digital Divide.” The Council of State Governments. November 23, 2015. https://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/dig-once-using-public-rights-way-bridge-digital-divide
 Crosby, Misty, Reid, Tom, “Cracking the Broadband Puzzle in Appalachia,” January 21, 2020. Pg 21. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bcf4ef5b2cf79f60ff09deb/t/5e2749232c1dc90165432f30/1579632950898/BHRC-Broadband-Slides-21-Jan-2020.pdf
 Carlson, Scott, Mitchell, Christopher, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative. Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Next Century Cities, April 2016. Pg 11. https://cdn.ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2016/05/RS-Fiber-Report-2016.pdf
 Yoo, Christopher, Pfenninger, Timothy, Municipal Fiber in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of Financial Performance. University of Pennsylvania Law School, Center for Technology Innovation and Competition at the University of Pennsylvania, Pg 7, https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/6611-report-municipal-fiber-in-the-united-states-an
 Trostle, H. et al, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural American: A Trusted Model for the Internet Era, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, May 2020, https://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2020_05_19_Rural-Co-op-Report.pdf
 Broadband Models for Unserved and Underserved Communities. USIgnite, Altman Solon, 2020, https://us-ignite.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/USIgnite_Altman-Solon_Whitepaper-on-Broadband-Models_FINAL_7-9-2020.pdf
 Hovis, Joanne, et al, The Emerging World of Broadband Public-Private Partnerships: A Business Strategy and Legal Guide, Benton Foundation, 2017, https://benton.org/sites/default/files/partnerships_0.pdf