Heartland Forward Applauds Milestone on Affordable Connectivity Program

Today, the Biden administration announced that since the May launch of their comprehensive, “all of government” effort to enroll Americans in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), one million new households have signed up to access affordable home internet. The ACP provides eligible households up to $30 a month off their internet bills, and a one-time $100 discount for a connected device.

In response, Angie Cooper, chief program officer for Heartland Forward, a think-and-do tank that advocates on behalf of high-speed internet access in the heartland, released the following statement:

“The Affordable Connectivity Program is a crucial part of Heartland Forward’s efforts to close the digital divide in the heartland and across the nation, and we are thrilled that one million new households have now enrolled. Much work still needs to be done to ensure all families, students and heartland residents have access to affordable, high-speed internet. Heartland Forward looks forward to continuing our work with local communities and policymakers across the heartland to bring collective resources to support efforts to bridge gaps that prevent states and municipalities from realizing their goals of universal connectivity. This isn’t a one-size fits all approach – it  requires thinking outside of the box, building strategic partnerships and taking meaningful action.”

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New Coalition Launches to Help Close Arkansas’ Digital Divide

BENTONVILLE, Ark (July 14 2022)

The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition’s first effort is Accelerate Arkansas, a 14-week intensive broadband

Today, a group of more than 15 local organizations committed to expanding internet access announced the formation of the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition. This is a group created to help support the state and local communities plan and secure the federal dollars needed to expand access and ensure high-speed internet is more accessible and affordable across the state. Convened by Heartland Forward, the coalition is made up of nonprofits, advocacy organizations, thought leaders and philanthropies, including the Arkansas Black Mayors Association, Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Impact Philanthropy, Communities Unlimited, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Holman Strategies, Runway Group, University of Arkansas-Department of Communication, Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Winrock International and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. 

The first major effort of the Coalition is the launch of Accelerate Arkansas, a planning and capacity building program developed with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. This organization will help Arkansas communities learn how to plan and use the historic broadband infrastructure funding for community-driven broadband expansion. The inaugural pilot cohort of the program includes Cleveland County, Elaine, Hughes, West Memphis and Keo, and will begin on July 14, 2022.

“Having access to a high-speed, reliable internet service is crucial for working, learning and living in the 21st century, but too many families across Arkansas simply don’t have the connectivity they need,” said Angie Cooper, chief program officer of Heartland Forward. “The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition shares a common purpose of working to close the digital divide and ensure Arkansas is building a future that leverages high-speed internet to improve economic opportunity, education and health outcomes and effective delivery of services. We are proud to launch Accelerate Arkansas as our first initiative, a program that has already proven successful in other parts of the heartland–including the states of Illinois and Ohio–in preparing communities to use incoming funding efficiently and effectively to get people connected.”

“Reliable high-speed internet is crucial to the economic vitality of our state,” said Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston. “From schoolchildren connecting to lesson plans to businesses and industries connecting to get the job done, connectivity is no longer a luxury. For the past eight years, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that Arkansans have the skills necessary to compete – and win – in the global economy, and the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition is the latest piece of the puzzle to make that goal a reality. We are grateful to the public, private and non-profit stakeholders around the state who are working together to support efforts to ensure all Arkansans are playing on an equal technology field.”

Accelerate Arkansas will provide local leadership teams with expert support in developing broadband visions and implementation plans for their communities as new infrastructure dollars are made available through the historic passage of the federal infrastructure program as well as by the state. The opportunity is made possible through a collaboration between the University of Arkansas, which will coordinate survey research and oversee administrative support, and a series of organizations across the state that will provide technical support to cohort teams. These organizations include: Communities Unlimited, Winrock International, the Arkansas Black Mayors Association and Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The Accelerate program is being funded by the Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Heartland Forward and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Arkansas communities stand to receive a significant amount of funding for broadband infrastructure enhancement, thanks to the recent passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan. Community planning support offered through initiatives like Accelerate Arkansas will help even the playing field so that more cities and counties – regardless of size or staffing – can prepare to submit for capital dollars to help transform broadband in their communities.

The program works to prepare communities for establishing and implementing a full-scale broadband connectivity vision. Through over 30 hours of expert counsel provided by the Benton Institute, the program offers structured engagement for communities to identify broadband goals, gather data, understand available funding options and target capital dollars to support implementation.

“We are honored to collaborate with the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition and Heartland Forward to work with unserved and underserved communities in a process modeled after a successful program designed by the Blandin Foundation for Minnesota,” said Adrianne B. Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

CONTACT

NAME: Lara Sisselman, lara@cstrategies.com

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About the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition:

The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition is a group of more than 15 organizations committed to making high-speed internet more accessible and affordable in Arkansas. The Coalition is made up of nonprofits, advocacy organizations, thought leaders and philanthropies that recognize access to broadband is essential for full participation in the 21st century: the future of the state’s healthcare, education and economic infrastructure all relies on Arkansans having reliable internet service. 

About Heartland Forward:

Heartland Forward is a nonpartisan, 501c3 organization whose mission is to improve economic performance in the center of the United States by advocating for fact-based solutions to foster job creation, knowledge-based and inclusive growth and improved health outcomes. Heartland Forward conducts independent, data-driven research and programs to facilitate action-oriented discussion and impactful policy recommendations. To learn more, visit https://heartlandforward.org/.

Focus on a Fellow: Wesley Smith

Almost a year into their placements, our American Connection Corps fellows continue their work to connect residents across the heartland to high quality, affordable broadband access. Wesley Smith, placed with the Knox County Development Corporation and Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, has made real progress for the community throughout his time as a fellow. 

Wesley has worked to enroll members of the Knoxville community in the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), now called the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Through collaboration with organizations on the ground and partnerships with internet service providers, Wesley successfully enrolled dozens of households in affordable internet service through the program and distributed information on EBB to more than 250 families. 

Partnering with the  other American Connection Corps fellows across Tennessee and organizations involved in closing the digital divide, Wesley discovered how else he could make an impact. He learned about a program in Chattanooga that had transformed the way the city helped its residents gain access to high-speed internet, digital literacy resources and other opportunities.

After hearing about the program, Wesley envisioned what a similar program could look like in Knoxville. “One thing I’m proud of is we’re not just trying to tie people to things online – we’re working to tie people to both the internet and their communities,” he said. As he worked on the program design, which is still in progress, Wesley made sure to touch on many elements of connectivity, including maps of connection locations, digital literacy classes, programs for low income individuals and more. He explained, “Through this work within communities we’re helping bring people and organizations into the digital age while bringing people into a physical place, not just a digital one, to create community togetherness through internet connection.”

One of Wesley’s goals for his participation as an American Connection Corps fellow was to bring his academic background in systems theory to his role with the hope of creating resources and programs that can last far beyond his time as a fellow. 

In his words, “We have to be cognizant of whom we are serving in order to make sure that everyone can be reached, which has been a very helpful way to frame the work I’ve engaged in.” He believes he can work toward meeting this goal through the new Knoxville program.

At Heartland Forward, we look forward to watching Wesley and our other fellows continue to make an impact in their communities through the remainder of their placements.

Second cohort of Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Program selected

Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society today announced the six communities selected to participate in the second cohort of the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program, which is administered in partnership with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO). The newest cohort of participants include: Bond County, Kankakee County/Pembroke CDC, Kaskaskia College area, Livingston County, Ogle County and Peoria/Woodford Counties.

Building on the success of the first cohort, which included the City of Springfield, Jackson County, Knox County, Mercer County, Whiteside County and the Village of Elsah, the second cohort will participate in a 14-week intensive training program to help leaders from participating communities develop broadband plans to address their unique local needs. The training will position them to effectively leverage newly available state and federal broadband infrastructure funding.

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Focus on a Fellow: Liz Lima

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently launched the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a permanent replacement for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) which launched during the pandemic using emergency COVID funds. While the programs are slightly different, the goal is the same – help close the digital divide that persists across our country by getting people connected to affordable internet service. 

As an American Connection Corps Fellow placed with Rural LISC in Central Ohio, Liz Lima has already made an impact on this front by working to understand the lessons learned from the EBB to help increase enrollment in the ACP. She recently spearheaded the creation of an innovative mapping tool that overlays enrollment data from the EBB with census data on the communities that have the highest levels of eligibility for the program. This tool can help target outreach for the ACP by pinpointing the communities where large populations of people are likely eligible for the program, but haven’t yet taken advantage of it.

Liz had the opportunity to present this tool to the FCC, which, in her words, was “surreal.” She hopes that this tool will benefit communities as they work to get their residents connected: “The goal of the map is to help local governments, organizations and Digital Navigators see how EBB has impacted their community, who all is eligible, and where ACP outreach is needed most,” she said.

Another aspect of Liz’s work with Rural LISC is supporting their Digital Navigators program, which in just a year and a half has served about 2,000 clients and distributed nearly 1,000 devices. In addition to helping clients access connections and become familiar with devices, Digital Navigators train individuals in basic computer skills and provide regular follow-ups to meet their needs, on client timeline. 

Liz is most proud of how this work has impacted people who might not typically be thought of as lacking digital literacy. “The average age of our clients is 42 years old and the median is 39…but you hear a lot about the term ‘digital skills’ and we assume that it’s a lot of elderly individuals who have a digital skills gap, when in reality, it’s working-age who adults need this assistance too,” she said. 

Liz credits her placement with Rural LISC for increasing her awareness of the issues around internet connectivity, and granting her a greater understanding of the challenges facing the heartland. She added, “You take for granted having your bills on autopay or being able to jump online quickly – you have this mentality of, who doesn’t have the internet? But it’s millions of people.”

Here at Heartland Forward, we’re proud of the important and innovative ways in which Liz and our other American Connection Corps Fellows are working to connect the heartland and close the digital divide.

Rural LISC Partners With Heartland Forward To Map Uptake In Emergency Broadband Benefit, Help Target Outreach For New Federal Affordable Connectivity Program In 2022

Today, Rural LISC launched a new tool developed in collaboration with Heartland Forward that maps 2021 enrollment in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program and helps target enrollment efforts for the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that replaced EBB at year’s end. The mapping tool, built by Liz Lima, a current American Connection Corps Fellow sponsored by Heartland Forward, is designed to aid Rural LISC digital navigators and other partner organizations in identifying the communities that can benefit most from outreach and awareness of the new federal discount on internet service for low-income households.

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Program expands broadband internet in Illinois

Illinois is moving forward to expand access to broadband in the state, with Jackson County one of six communities in the initial launch. It is called the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program. It helps develop high-speed internet plans based on local needs and will help expand access to certain residents. Hosted in collaboration with Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, the six communities are the City of Springfield, Jackson County, Knox County, Mercer County, Whiteside County, and the Village of Elsah.

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Gov. Pritzker Announces Inaugural Cohort Of Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Program

Governor JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Office of Broadband announced today the six communities selected to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program. Hosted in collaboration with Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, the six communities are the City of Springfield, Jackson County, Knox County, Mercer County, Whiteside County, and the Village of Elsah.

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