Partnering with Academic Institutions Can Boost Community Broadband Outcomes

By Brian Donoghue

Thanks in no small part to the advocacy efforts of Next Century Cities’ (“NCC”) coalition of mayors, council members, and other local officials, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“IIJA”) became the largest one-time federal broadband funding commitment in history. Understanding that much of the immediate work of the IIJA rule/process setting resides with governors and state or federal agencies, NCC will continue to push for local perspectives to be included in each implementation phase.  

Our letter to governors and follow-up discussions with state and federal officials center around the straightforward reality that the most effective funding strategies reflect community-level insights. After sharing incredible stories of ongoing digital equity efforts in their communities, the action-oriented local leaders we hear from will often ask, “What else should we be doing right now?” Frequently there’s a tactical solution we can offer or a helpful connection we can make, but one broader recommendation I gravitate toward is for localities to engage their regional higher education institutions.  

Having spent a large part of the last decade leveraging higher-ed assets for community impact, I appreciate the complex relationships many localities have with resident institutions of higher learning. While a university as an institution may seem intimidating or foreboding to work with, making connections with individual professors or leaders can be a great first step. Especially in college towns, the faculty and staff are integrated into the community as a whole and have a stake in supporting community efforts to expand digital equity.

The impending IIJA implementation presents a unique opportunity for partnership between local officials, students, and faculty. Each college or university can play a role in bringing digital opportunities to every community resident, whether that be a community college training the next generation of IT technicians or masters students helping municipal staff to map broadband adoption. A few other inspiring examples of partnerships are highlighted below. 

Purdue Center for Regional Development | For most reading this, PCRD and its director Dr. Roberto Gallardo need no introduction. Their ongoing work to help local leaders in Indiana led to the creation of reusable data tools like the Digital Divide Index.  One aspect of the Center for Regional Development’s work that might be less familiar to readers is their placement of Digital Inclusion Fellows in six regions across Indiana.  Their work increases broadband access and digital literacy programming, oftentimes in unserved or underserved communities. You can read more about DIF efforts here.  

University of Missouri System Community Connect | The University of Missouri houses two noteworthy initiatives: the Missouri Broadband Resource Rail and Utility Systems Technician training program. The Utility Systems Technician program is delivered by the State Technical College of Missouri and equips students with a broad set of skills to prepare them for careers with utility contractors and public utilities. As the historical broadband funding begins to flow through state and federal agencies, training programs like this will ensure there is a workforce ready to install new connectivity solutions and keep the second-order economic opportunities local. The Missouri Broadband Resource Rail is an excellent example of a university stepping up to provide information and encourage the build-out of reliable high-speed broadband services.  

When municipal leaders and higher-ed faculty and students work together, each can step outside their comfort zones to achieve great results for their community. Sharing collaborations can serve as food for thought for local leaders.  Engaging with local higher learning institutions is an excellent way to do so. If your community has identified an opportunity to collaborate, but are unsure how to engage with a local college or university, please reach out to NCC. We would be happy to explore possibilities in your area.

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