As federal digital equity dollars head for states, CBAN is poised to support Iowa’s proposal, president says

Community Broadband Action Network (CBAN), an Iowa-based member organization of stakeholders in and around the broadband space, is pushing ahead with its mission to help communities bridge gaps in broadband services with an eye toward digital equity, following the release of its 2023 Impact Report in February.

Compiling data for the report was the first opportunity for CBAN to take stock of its efforts since it was founded in 2018 by Jon Willow, Curtis Dean and Todd Kielkopf.

“We were just heads down doing the work, not only as CBAN as an entity but each of us as individuals. But as we are moving the organization forward and hoping to grow what we do and how we do it, we thought we need to just encapsulate all this,” Dean, CBAN co-founder and vice president, told the Business Record in an interview.

In its first six years as an organization, CBAN directly served 59 communities in Iowa and other states, including individual towns, counties with multiple communities and a council of governments.

CBAN President Jon Willow said CBAN is tailored toward those working to support broadband on the ground. In addition to communities, its other member groups are local internet providers, advocates for improving broadband, and associate members, which are companies with products and services serving the broadband space.

CBAN’s engagements are with mostly rural communities to develop localized solutions to their specific needs, Willow said. The CBAN team assists with a range of needs, including providing broadband studies, planning and implementation support for new networks or points of internet access and connecting communities to digital skills education. The organization also fills the role of a hub where members can get the latest policy updates.

“What distinguishes us from some of the other support groups that are out there in the broadband space right now is that we are ingestors and disseminators of policy knowledge but we’re not in the policy space. We’re doers. … The people who we’re working with aren’t sitting in think tanks, but they still need great information and they need to be able to trust the information source,” Willow said.

CBAN now has 165 total members in 28 states, according to the impact report. Willow said gathering data on membership revealed how members’ different areas of expertise come together to benefit others and encourage collaboration.

“One of the key tenants of our vision and mission was making opportunities for the members to network together … [The impact report] really jump-started [thinking about] specific ways we can put our different member types together and ways we can foster collaboration going forward, so we have some big plans for 2024 and 2025,” she said.

Striving for equity in internet access, digital skills

CBAN has taken its work further in the direction of digital equity through its participation in the National Digital Navigator Corps. program and readying the organization to support Iowa’s digital equity plan developed under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD). The organization is also holding its annual Spring Summit on April 9 focused on broadband and digital equity.

Willow said to work toward digital equity, internet adoption needs to follow internet access.

“We know that access is only the first step,” she said. “You can put fiber in the ground, but if people don’t take signal to their house and then learn how to leverage the advantages that come from having a reliable broadband signal, then the work isn’t done. You might as well not have done any of it.”

Of the $42.5 billion in BEAD funding, $2.75 billion is earmarked for digital equity awards, Willow said. The state of Iowa has completed a final draft of its digital equity plan to be approved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but it will be months before any states receive digital equity awards.

Once funding is allocated, Willow said states will be able to apply the money to digital equity efforts as they see fit.

A larger focus of the BEAD Program is funding broadband infrastructure across the country; Iowa was awarded $415 million in June 2023 to put toward connecting all Iowans to internet access.

CBAN has supported the Central Iowa Digital Equity Group, a group of community members interested in supporting digital equity that Willow said is standing by to jump into digital equity work when funding and details become available.

“We want to be an agent of [the state of Iowa] and their work. We want to help wherever we can, wherever it’s appropriate for us to do so,” Dean said.

In Iowa, CBAN has been providing digital equity assistance in three southern Iowa counties, Taylor, Ringgold and Decatur,  with grant funding from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s National Digital Navigator Corps.

CBAN’s nonprofit, CBAN Corp., was selected in 2022 for the three-year pilot, which funds digital navigator programs that assist community members with internet adoption, including obtaining devices and learning technical and digital skills.

CBAN brought on Brianna Dillavou as a full-time digital navigator to run its program. Dillavou’s work has led to partnerships with local community organizations and lessons in how to best help community members, Willow said.

“Through trial and error, we have figured some things out, like people really need to see us more than once for us to really help them, so now Brianna is designing programs that are increasingly effective with resident populations and they end up in a much better position,” she said.

But the program ran into an initial obstacle because broadband availability maps tend to be inaccurate, especially in rural areas, Dean said. In the three counties CBAN chose to service, Dillavou found many people did not have internet connections.

Dean said accurate maps are more important as states prepare to deploy BEAD funding and try to ensure the money goes to areas in need.

Stumbling onto access issues while doing digital equity work will be an ongoing challenge because a fiber broadband network isn’t a practical investment for smaller, rural communities in particular, Willow said. 

“It’s not realistic to expect a rural community to spend $25,000 or $30,000 on individual drops for up to 100 people. That’s just too much money for a community to spend, and it’s way more money than a private provider is going to invest,” she said.

Beyond the access step, Dean said digital equity efforts will require investments from outside of government to build sustainable programs.

“It’s not just about hiring a bunch of digital navigators to go out everywhere,” he said. “It’s about building programs that will be sustained, utilizing existing community resources like libraries, community centers, senior centers, health facilities. The funding that is going to be needed is to build that ecosystem and sustain that ecosystem over a long period of time.”

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