Calling northeast Oklahoma county and tribal leaders! Click here to apply for the Oklahoma Accelerate program.

Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Open Applications for Northeast Oklahoma Accelerate Program to Prepare Communities for Internet Infrastructure Investment

TULSA, Okla. (September 6, 2023)

Applications open today for six communities to participate in 16-week community engagement and planning program

Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society are creating a new planning and capacity-building program to help northeast Oklahoma communities plan for and use infrastructure funding for community-driven high-speed internet expansion. Applications open today for the Oklahoma Accelerate program, which will help local governments in northeast Oklahoma communities receive expert support as they prepare to leverage new dollars that will be made available through the historic passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Oklahoma Accelerate program is made possible through Heartland Forward and its Connecting the Heartland initiative.

Local leaders, particularly at the county level, and tribal leaders are encouraged to apply to receive expert support offered as part of an intensive, primarily virtual, 16-week community engagement program. Oklahoma Accelerate is designed to maximize federal funding for expanding access to affordable high-speed internet and digital skills. Applications are due on October 13, and interested teams can apply here.

Six teams will be selected to participate in the first cohort, which begins the week of October 23, 2023. Each applicant will recruit a team of at least eight, and up to 15, participants to actively engage in the program. The team should include a combination of local stakeholders from the following entities: city or county governments, development districts, agriculture, educational institutions at all levels, libraries, information technology centers, chambers of commerce, healthcare providers and other applicable entities.

The Oklahoma Accelerate program works to prepare applicants in establishing and implementing a full-scale connectivity vision. Through more than 30 hours of no-cost expert counsel provided by the Benton Institute, both in-person and virtually, the program will equip leaders to develop consensus around infrastructure, affordability and digital skills goals. The program will prioritize coordination around future funding opportunities to provide affordable high-speed internet to Oklahoma residents.

Interested counties, municipalities and tribal communities are invited to join a virtual information session on September 22 at 9:00am CT. Please RSVP here to join. Leaders can also contact Bill Coleman at bcoleman@benton.org and Solomon Graves at sgraves@connectingtheheartland.org with any additional questions. Communities will be selected based on the strength and commitment of the team they assemble. Other factors include a community’s level of preparedness as evidenced by their application materials, as well as a demonstrated need.

Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute previously joined together with local partners to successfully run similar programs in Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee.

“Heartland Forward is proud to support the latest state Accelerate program in Oklahoma and to integrate tribal communities, a key population in the state. We appreciate the commitment of our local partners, such as the Oklahoma Broadband Office, who can connect participants to crucial local resources,” said Solomon Graves, director of public policy at Heartland Forward.

“The Benton Institute is excited to bring this community engagement and broadband planning program to Oklahoma and replicate the success we’ve had to date in Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee. We are confident our methodology will boost residents’ access to high-speed internet and advance digital opportunity in the state,” said Adrianne B. Furniss, executive director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

“Understanding the barriers to getting high-speed internet is vital when planning for deployment. The Accelerate program will help community leaders in Oklahoma design a strategy to allocate their funding in the most cost-effective way,” said Sam Karns of the Oklahoma Broadband Office.

CONTACT

NAME: Solomon Graves, sgraves@connectingtheheartland.org

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About Heartland Forward:

Heartland Forward is a nonpartisan, 501c3 think-and-do tank dedicated to being a resource for states and local communities in the middle of the country. We do this by studying broad economic trends and building data-driven and community-tested partnerships, programs and policies to address the needs of the heartland – all while helping to change the narrative about the middle of the country and kick-starting economic growth. They launched the Connecting the Heartland Initiative in 2021 to spur action towards closing the digital divide in the middle of the country. To learn more, visit https://heartlandforward.org/.

About the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society:

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to affordable, high-performance broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communications policy—rooted in the values of access and equity—has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities. To learn more, visit benton.org

OPINION | ANGIE COOPER: Real life-changer, Internet access No. 1 economic issue

We are witnessing a moment of unprecedented funding to expand high-speed Internet access across the country. This is life-changing for the estimated 42 million Americans lacking access to a reliable Internet connection and their ability to participate in a modern economy.  

Importantly, closing the digital divide also means making our local economies more resilient and increasing our regional competitiveness. While these conversations often can feel somewhat distant, it’s key to consider the tangible and meaningful impacts these dollars are having right here in Arkansas and across the heartland to improve our economy.

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Arkansas broadband office launches survey to gauge digital savvy

The Arkansas State Broadband Office recently launched its Digital Skills and Opportunity Survey as part of an effort to better understand the state’s digital divide.

Arkansas received more than $840,000 in federal funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to study the state’s digital divide, create a plan to address its digital skills gap and learn more about the challenges that keep Arkansans from affording and using high-speed internet. 

ASBO has contracted with Heartland Forward, a Bentonville-based nonprofit organization, to coordinate engagement efforts with stakeholders. In addition to disseminating surveys online and in paper formats, officials will also host a series of community listening sessions, focus groups and interviews to engage with communities targeted through the plan, according to a press release. 

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Monroe County selected as one of four in broadband improvement program

Monroe County has joined several organizations in a Broadband Accelerate Program, seeking to find ways to improve broadband internet in the area.

Monroe County is one of four counties to join with Heartland Forward, The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Accelerate Program for a 16 week program to instruct community leaders on building a broadband infrastructure plan.

Angie Cooper, the executive vice president of Heartland Forward, also noted the importance of this program.

“It is crucial that Tennesseans have access to reliable, high-speed internet to fully participate in work, education and healthcare, but too many families across the state are still lacking the connection they need,” said Cooper. “We are proud to partner with TNECD and the Benton Institute to work on the ground with Tennessee counties to find community-led solutions for expanding high-speed internet access. We hope these leaders leave the program with renewed enthusiasm and a concrete plan for getting their citizens fully connected.”

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Internet discount program’s advocates fight to keep it going

Community leaders on Wednesday gathered in Washington, D.C., to push for keeping a program that helps connect low-income families to the internet.

Advocates are banking on the strong bipartisan support for the Affordable Connectivity Program on the Hill — and its popularity among those who have signed up — to ensure the program survives after funding dries up next year.

Heartland Forward’s Angie Cooper said many people still aren’t signing up for the ACP. She said they don’t believe the program is real, that it will be long-lasting, or consider it too complicated to sign up.

“For those of us who sit in Washington, how can we streamline these processes to make them easier? And if you’re on the ground, knowing what those insecurities are and being able to provide a trusted voice.”

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FELLOW SPOTLIGHT |  University of Tennessee Chattanooga: Advocate for change: UTC student Mateo Jimenez working to close the digital gap

“Here in Tennessee there are rural communities lacking access to internet and infrastructure, so I want to support those communities that need someone to advocate for them. I also want to advocate for the immigrant families here in the U.S. A lot of programs currently in place have requirements—and a lot of immigrant families aren’t able to meet those requirements because they don’t have citizenship or residency, so a lot of immigrant families are falling through the cracks.” [said Jimenez]

In August 2022, he was selected as an American Connection Corps/Regional Connectivity Fellow for Lead For America—a national nonprofit organization that trains college students to serve as full-time local government or nonprofit employees in their home communities. Fellows are placed in positions where they can directly impact challenges such as education, healthcare, economic development, environmental sustainability and social equity.

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Broadband access, skills major needs for Jefferson County

The problem with not having access to the internet is multifaceted. During the pandemic, when students had to study from home, it was an often-told story that described students, who did not have access to internet at home, sitting in the parking lots of restaurants using the businesses’ wi-fi signal to do their homework, said Solomon Graves, director of public policy at Heartland Forward, a nonprofit whose goal is to increase the productivity of the middle portions of the country.

Graves said a lack of connectivity means getting left behind.

“This is an economic development issue,” he said. “This is a quality of life issue.”

Without access to high-speed internet, Graves said, “people will be shut out of the economic development in the 21st century. That is not the world we should be living in.”

Heartland Forward is helping ARConnect reach its statewide goals. To that end, Heartland Forward is asking counties to complete a needs survey that addresses several areas such as the number of households at or below 150% of the poverty level, the number of people who are 60 years of age or older, the number of incarcerated people living in the county, the number of people living in rural areas and the number of people who are associated with racial minorities.

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New Tennessee Broadband Accelerate Program to Help Communities Prepare for Broadband Infrastructure Investment

NASHVILLE, Tenn (February 13, 2023)

Applications now open for six communities to participate in 16-week community engagement and planning program

Today, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and Heartland Forward announced a new planning and capacity-building program to help Tennessee communities leverage historic broadband infrastructure funding for community-driven broadband expansion. The Tennessee Broadband Accelerate program will help local governments throughout Tennessee receive expert support as they prepare to leverage new dollars that will be made available through the historic passage of the federal infrastructure program. The opportunity is made possible through the financial support of Heartland Forward and its Connecting the Heartland initiative.

“It is critical that Tennessee communities have access to reliable internet in order to achieve economic growth and prosperity throughout the state,” said Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Stuart McWhorter. “We appreciate our partners at the UT Institute of Agriculture, Benton Institute and Heartland Forward for collaborating on this program, which will help boost our efforts to close the digital divide in Tennessee.”

Local units of government – particularly at the county level – are encouraged to apply to receive expert support offered as part of an intensive 16-week community engagement program designed to turn available public broadband funding into sustainable broadband access. Six community teams will be selected to participate in the first cohort, which begins on April 12, 2023.

Each community will recruit a team of at least eight, and up to 15, participants to actively engage in the program. The team should include a combination of local stakeholders from the following entities: city or county governments, development districts, agriculture, educational institutions at all levels, information technology centers, chambers of commerce, healthcare providers, and other applicable entities.

“Through the Tennessee Broadband Accelerate program, communities across the state will get access to the tools and planning resources they need to leverage incoming funding for community-driven broadband infrastructure expansion,” said Taylre Beaty, Tennessee’s broadband program director. “We are committed to bringing broadband access to residents across our state, and this program is an important part of making that goal a reality. We encourage county governments to apply for this cohort. We look forward to seeing its success.”

Tennessee communities stand to receive a significant amount of funding for broadband infrastructure enhancement, thanks to the 2021 passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan. Community planning support offered through initiatives like the Tennessee Broadband Accelerate program will help even the playing field so more cities and counties – regardless of size or staffing – can prepare to submit for capital dollars to help transform broadband in their communities.

“By helping communities develop and implement plans to guide local broadband improvements, we can ensure that the historic funding our state receives can be used effectively and efficiently to close the digital divide,” said Sreedhar Upendram, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the UT Institute of Agriculture. “We cannot let this opportunity go to waste, and the UT Institute of Agriculture is proud to play a part in this critical program.”

The Tennessee Broadband Accelerate program works to prepare communities for establishing and implementing a full-scale broadband connectivity vision. Through more than 30 hours of no-cost expert counsel provided by the Benton Institute, the program offers structured engagement for communities to identify broadband goals, understand available funding options and target capital dollars to support implementation.

“The Tennessee Broadband Accelerate program builds on efforts we previously launched with key stakeholders in the state, including a public awareness campaign for the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program to get affordable internet to those in need and placing American Connection Corps fellows in Tennessee communities to help advance high-speed internet access, adoption and utilization,” said Angie Cooper, executive vice president of Heartland Forward. “Supporting local planning and capacity building is critical to making sure infrastructure dollars are spent efficiently and in the best interest of the communities they are intended to help, and Heartland Forward is proud to play a part in this work.”

Interested communities can apply here. Applications will be accepted until March 13, 2023. Communities will be selected based on the strength and commitment of the team they assemble. Other factors include a community’s level of preparedness as evidenced by their application materials, as well as a demonstrated need. Preference will be given to economically distressed counties.

“We are honored to collaborate with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development , University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture and Heartland Forward to engage unserved and underserved communities in a planning and engagement process modeled after a successful program implemented by Blandin Foundation in Minnesota,” said Adrianne B. Furniss, executive director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute previously joined together with local partners to successfully run similar Accelerate programs in Arkansas, Illinois, and Ohio.

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