Establish Strategic Leadership

Learning Objective

Understand how communities can identify a project leader able to establish and prepare to implement a vision of broadband development that incorporates guidance from regional stakeholders, expertise from technical assistance providers, and accountability via measurable key performance indicators.

Overview

Local broadband deployment initiatives are complex projects that require sustained input and collaboration from numerous stakeholders to solve the many technical, administrative, and business challenges related to broadband deployment. To address these challenges, community leaders need to establish clear objectives that engage and organize stakeholders, rather than addressing community broadband challenges alone. Assembling a broadband development committee, designating a broadband project manager, and establishing clear project goals that all stakeholders agree to work towards, are often first steps to establishing the foundation on which a project’s ultimate success will be built upon. 

The Role of the Local Development District

Local Development Districts (LDD) can establish the strategic leadership for any broadband development project by leveraging existing relationships across their multi-county region. LDDs can partner with local government, businesses and ancillary organizations, and non-profits to engage key stakeholders in their community invested in improving access to and the affordability of broadband service.

While LDDs may not have direct experience with organizing stakeholders around broadband development issues, LDD staff have the experience and relationships to coordinate regionally-driven economic development and infrastructure projects that require similar skills. As part of their CEDS and community-driven planning efforts, LDD staff organize and engage local stakeholders around regional barriers to growth. Publicly-funded infrastructure projects require similar levels of community engagement to ensure development does not disrupt residents’ livelihoods and instead improves their socioeconomic conditions. Senior LDD staff with experience coordinating publicly funded projects, including community development or transportation infrastructure, have the qualifications to grow into a broadband project manager able to lead any internet-related infrastructure development.

Getting Started

Establish a Broadband Committee

Start thinking strategically about which business, community, and government leaders can add value to your broadband committee, especially in the areas of project management, business, and technical knowledge; as well as community outreach, messaging, and relationship building. Committee members can include organizations with experience or the potential to:

  • Directly provide services via broadband (e.g., schools, government, businesses)
  • Represent underserved communities (e.g., rural, low income, demographic groups)
  • Administer professional grant writing services (e.g., federal, state, community funding)
  • Serve as an intermediary to stakeholder groups (e.g., LDDs, business/industry associations)
  • Deploy wired or wireless broadband solutions (e.g., Internet Service Providers, builders)
  • Navigate federal, state, and local permitting (e.g., right of way, radio spectrum allocation)

Make a recruitment list of organizations to approach that can provide value to your broadband development efforts by serving on a broadband committee. Organizations that can facilitate partnerships between diverse groups and leverage those relationships, when necessary, often serve as the coordinators for broadband development efforts.

Designate a Broadband Project Manager or Champion

Broadband Project Managers must have the knowledge, professional networks, and an investment in successful broadband development outcomes to advance any initiative across a multi-year cycle. Infrastructure construction alone can easily continue across multiple elected administrations, requiring any project leader or organization to be dedicated. While education organizations possess many of these values, and directly benefit from improved service and coverage, they often lack the staff availability to manage a project of such scale. Think of local government leaders in your community who have experience in managing large public infrastructure projects and understand the importance of enhanced community connectivity. Reviewing job descriptions of other communities’ broadband project managers, such the City of Santa Monica’s Community Broadband Manager job description, may help define your own Broadband Project Manager’s role.

Establishing a Broadband Committee

The first step in any broadband development project is to establish a strategic leadership group that consists of the lead developer and its broadband project committee. Ideally, committees should include those who have the expertise to tackle the technical and administrative challenges that your project can face. While the exact composition of each community’s committee will be different, committee members can include organizations familiar with the local regulatory environment and that have experience in community development and mapping, infrastructure project management, and representing key stakeholders. Stakeholder organizations that can support broadband development include:

  • Public officials including city or county managers, or elected representatives;
  • Development officials with experience in community, economic, or transportation projects;
  • Organizations with experience in grant writing and applying for public or non-profit funding;
  • Organizations able to navigate regulations including
    • local permitting, such as right-of-way or utility poles;
    • state permitting, including broadband competition;
    • federal permitting, such as land use or radio spectrum allocation;
  • Education and training organizations that currently or potentially could provide remote education;
  • Businesses that utilize internet for e-commerce, communications, or business operations;
  • Community organizations that can engage disadvantaged and underserved populations;
  • Industry associations that represent or can engage businesses;
  • Non-profits or funding partners that can apply for or provide financing;
  • Internet service providers with experience deploying wired or wireless broadband solutions;

Projects will also have to grapple with technical issues related to broadband and telecommunications technologies and equipment. Communicating and shaping development strategy with existing service providers can generate new opportunities. Many local governments enter into some kind of partnership with a local telephone or electric cooperative, or a private broadband provider to spearhead the technical aspects of the project and operate the network after the infrastructure has been deployed. Engaging local telecommunications or internet service providers in the initial stages of the planning process is key to gaining their trust and support. The broadband committee will ultimately decide on the service model, including ownership and operation of infrastructure and eligibility to provide service.

Another key function of the broadband committee is to communicate the project’s strategic plan, progress, and expected benefit to the community and key stakeholders. To this end, community leaders should strategically select committee members able to engage and mobilize underserved populations to provide information on service gaps and tap into the benefits of broadband. Representatives from local anchor institutions such as school districts, community colleges, universities, libraries, and healthcare institutions can utilize broadband to provide services to and communicate with community members. These organizations are invested in increased broadband adoption because it allows the organization to perform its service mission more effectively to a larger community.

Grassroot and local business support is also critical to any initiative’s success. Having committee members who share the goals of expanded broadband access — such as business leaders, industry associations, and prominent residents — help ensure your core team of stakeholders is credible and representative of the entire community’s needs. The committee can help business and community leaders access new opportunities and service options enabled by broadband through increased digital literacy.

Support from local elected officials also contributes to success. Local projects that require large public investment, like broadband initiatives, can benefit from designated local funds, tax increment financing, or other community financing options. Elected officials can be powerful influencers of public opinion and effectively communicate how public investment in broadband improves quality of life and economic opportunity, while bolstering the community’s long-term competitiveness.

Best Practices

Make a committee checklist. Many experts suggest that community leaders develop their own “broadband committee checklist” to ensure that all prominent sectors of the community are invited to participate in the project. The North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office offers their Broadband Planning Committee Roles Checklist as an example, but communities are encouraged to develop their own based on their communities’ composition.

Set a broadband committee meeting schedule. It is likely that all your broadband committee members spend their time on other projects in addition to the broadband initiative. To maintain momentum and keep the project from stagnating, it is helpful to set up a schedule of recurring meetings. Holding regular meetings will help keep project members engaged and accountable to deadlines.

Engage internet service providers as partners during the planning phase. Broadband development partnerships should engage with regional internet service providers early to bridge any differences and find shared areas for collaboration. Partnerships should collaborate with ISPs to develop a shared regional vision for broadband development that incorporates the needs of community members and existing network providers. ISPs can facilitate expansion into unserved areas as experienced deployers of broadband infrastructure. Early forums provide the opportunity for community leaders to share gaps in internet service and ISPs to share their own challenges and barriers to expanding or improving service. Engagement with ISPs at the strategic level allows for new dialogues into how the public sector can address private barriers to development as partners with the private sector. These barriers include infrastructure and operational financing, permitting and regulations, and digital inclusion. Strong partnerships create opportunities for public-private collaboration around broadband development that maximize the value offered by the public and private sectors.

Designating a Broadband Project Manager or Champion

Broadband initiatives need a skilled broadband project manager or champion that can lead any project and keep diverse stakeholders coordinated and focused. Broadband Managers are often full-time employees who have the time, communication skills, and development knowledge to devote to the project and ensure that it maintains momentum, even in the face of uncertainty. In most cases, the broadband manager is the primary point of contact for all project activities and serves as the chairperson of the broadband committee. This person should have experience in project management and be comfortable communicating project goals to concerned citizens, elected officials, and even ambivalent potential partners.

Best Practices

Prioritize interpersonal communication and negotiation skills over technical skills. Candidates that possess all of the desired skills of a Broadband Project Manager outlined in this guide may not be readily available or have the necessary bandwidth to lead a project of this size. If this is the case, experts suggest that communities prioritize interpersonal communication, negotiation, and problem-solving skills over hard technical skills. According to the think tank Next Century Cities, “a broadband manager will be most successful when they can clearly communicate internally with his or her team in order to organize work, grow and maintain enthusiasm for the project, and facilitate collaboration.”[1] Externally, Broadband Project Managers must be comfortable in both communicating the project’s importance at a high level and be able to speak to its minutia. Perhaps most importantly, project managers must know how to maintain relationships and facilitate collaboration between stakeholders, even when conflicts arise among stakeholders. Chris Mitchell, Director for the Institute for Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative told the CREC team, “What I take away is you really want someone who is empathetic and listens to the needs of the community.”[2]

Make the Broadband Project Manager the single point of contact (POC) for the project. Designating the Broadband Project Manager as the single point of contact for the project will prevent confusion, promote unity among project stakeholders, and facilitate assistance from outside sources. As the POC, the Broadband Project Manager will stay up-to-date with project developments, triage any project risks, and delegate tasks to the appropriate committee members. Providing a single point of contact also facilitates coordination among entities that offer outside help. For instance, Virginia’s Commonwealth Connect team, the state office charged with supporting local broadband initiatives, advises that all localities designate a single point of contact for their projects to facilitate collaboration between governmental entities at the state and local level.[3]

Case Study: RS Fiber, Minnesota

The experience of RS Fiber’s broadband manager, Mark Ericksen, provides a case study on the importance of Broadband Project Managers serving as the central point of contact for their community’s initiative. Project leaders must be able to speak knowledgeably about the technical and financial aspects of a project, but above all they must maintain relationships between the project’s various stakeholders. Winthrop City Administrator Mark Erickson played an important role in persuading the surrounding communities to join the project. Additionally, Erickson’s previous work experience in the telecommunications industry, and his relationships with Hiawatha Broadband Communications facilitated RS Fiber’s partnership with their future network operator. By cultivating relationships with these stakeholders, Erickson and his team were able to amass the resources and expertise needed complete the project and maintain the initiative’s momentum throughout roadblocks or disagreements.


[1] “Anatomy of a Broadband Manager,” Next Century Cities, https://nextcenturycities.org/the-anatomy-of-a-broadband-manager/

[2] CREC interview with Christopher Mitchell conducted on February 5, 2021.

[3] Commonwealth Connect, Virginia Broadband Local Leader Guide, January 2020, Pg 11, https://www.commonwealthconnect.virginia.gov/sites/default/files/Toolkit%20Documents/Bringing%20Broadband%20to%20Your%20Community%20Version%202.1_Final%20Final.pdf

Setting Project Goals

Once a broadband committee has been assembled, members should collaboratively define the project’s goals and objective performance measures. Once the overarching partnership, roles, and key objectives have been agreed upon, it is important to develop a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that stakeholders will use to track the project’s progress. KPIs are an invaluable tool to increase transparency, ensure stakeholder accountability, and monitor project success. It is important that projects identify metrics that measure progress in development as well as program performance.

KPIs should measure various aspects of the project throughout its implementation. Broadband initiatives often include KPIs related to adoption and delivery, such as the network’s take rate, or the proportion of new service subscribers as relative to the total number of customers in an unserved area. Other KPIs provide a measure of the network’s financial health, such as monitoring the average revenue per user (ARPU).

In addition to tracking KPIs directly associated with network performance and use, it is also worthwhile to develop metrics that evaluate anticipated socioeconomic outcomes as a result of increased broadband connectivity. While it is impossible to directly capture all of the benefit that internet access brings to a community, tracking KPIs such as property values, net new businesses and jobs created, and other community, economic, or healthcare outcomes are good indicators a region is utilizing broadband programs. Broadband developers can also leverage socioeconomic outcomes attached to broadband development and related services to compete for additional funding opportunities.

Best Practices

Make project goals specific and objective. When defining project goals, it may be tempting to set a general goal of universal community broadband access. Broadband professionals encourage policymakers to approach goal setting with the question, “What community pain points may be mitigated if high speed internet was available?”[1] Considering goals through this lens will ensure that the project is oriented towards seeking solutions to problems residents are facing, instead of policymakers assuming what residents need. Projects are also more successful when their goals are specific, time sensitive, and accompanied by a set of key performance indicators that can be reported on to track progress. North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office suggests utilizing the S.M.A.R.T. goal paradigm to ensure that goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.[2]


[1] Next Century Cities, Becoming Broadband Ready Toolkit 2020, January 2019, Pg 9, https://nextcenturycities.org/becoming-broadband-ready/

[2] “Setting Your Goals,” Community Broadband Playbook, North Carolina Broadband Infrastructure Office, https://www.ncbroadband.gov/technical-assistance/playbook/broadband-planning-committees/setting-goals

Identifying Opportunities for Federal, State and Non-profit Technical Assistance and Partnerships

The connectivity challenges that rural communities face have been widely publicized in recent years. There is growing government and non-profit support to help communities address broadband development challenges. Many states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia offer a mix of resources, toolkits, and in some cases, technical assistance, to guide localities through their broadband initiatives. Non-governmental organizations, such as the non-profit Connected Nation, also partner with communities to help them develop technology action plans that include broadband mapping and strategy development to advance local initiatives.[1] As your community assembles its broadband committee, it is important to identify outside sources that may be able to provide support in areas that your team lacks experience.


[1] Connected Nation, “What We Do For You,” https://connectednation.org/what-we-do-for-you