Established in 1965 by an act of Congress, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is putting $30 million in grants per year into broadband. The 13-state region, encompassing 423 counties and 25.7 million people, only has high-speed broadband to 21% of homes in the most economically challenged areas, a statistic ARC wants to change.
“Our strategic plan says that we need to be pushing for universal service, and to high-quality and affordable broadband services,” said Curtis Hansen, Broadband Program Manager, Appalachian Regional Commission. “It's exciting for an economic development agency to be recognizing that we should be getting broadband not just to businesses, or factories, or the industrial centers of communities, but really to every home.”
ARC’s in-depth research shows there’s a lot of work to be done to bridge the gap between available broadband access and actual delivery of services. “We all know about the affordability problem, and it would make sense that in areas where people have less income, that they're less able to afford broadband. We also know that there are issues out in the edges of these communities, especially in areas where they haven't invested in future proof technologies, that the capacity at the edge of most networks can be strained, just by usages that people didn't anticipate when these networks were built years and years ago.”
ARC started investing in high-speed internet projects over 20 years ago because the conversational business cases didn’t work out in the “edges and corners” of Appalachia. “We need to help incentivize partners to come in,” Hansen said. “Communities should stand up themselves and build community networks so that people can realize all the benefits that existed… We do look to the IIJA funding that's coming down the pipe and we see that as a huge opportunity that can either be seized upon or can possibly be met. We're working as hard as we can to help our local leaders develop the capacity that they need to be able to put in really solid BEAD applications to their state governments.”
Among ARC’s biggest focuses are prepping communities for putting in BEAD applications and funding planning grants so communities can figure out exactly what they should be doing with their BEAD applications. It is also working on raising awareness of the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program so communities can incorporate it into their plans and funding.
“We've started running some analyses though, on how well Appalachian communities are taking advantage of this program and overall in the region,” Hansen said. “We estimate that about 29% of homes that are eligible are participating, which is lower than the national average of 31% and really low overall.”
Learn more about ARC’s efforts to increase broadband in Appalachia by listening to this week’s Fiber for Breakfast podcast.