BTOP Projects at Work: Forging Partnerships with ISPs

Remote and low-income communities often have limited choices when it comes to Broadband, and the few options they do have are often cost prohibitive. In these communities, a bit of innovative thinking can make all the difference. Two non-profit organizations are using the funds from the NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant to partner with ISPs and provide communities in New Mexico and Ohio with Broadband access.

Fostering Relationships

The Fast Forward New Mexico Project, funded in part by a $1.4 million dollar BTOP grant, is one example of a collaboration that strives to increase access by establishing partnerships. The New Mexico State Library is the lead on the project and the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship (GCCE) is one of its three subcontractors, along with the University of New Mexico Continuing Education Campus and the University of New Mexico Los Alamos Campus.

GCCE is a non-profit organization in New Mexico with a mission to “foster an environment in which cultural entrepreneurs can successfully scale their cultural enterprises.” As part of the Fast Forward Project, the GCCE works with 17 public libraries. According to Alice Loy, GCCE’s co-founder, one of the grant’s main purposes is to raise New Mexico’s rate of broadband subscriptions, especially among geographically, economically, or culturally marginalized communities. GCCE’s has set an ambitious goal, as broadband adoption rates are lower in New Mexico than the nation. This is due, in large part, to cost: in some remote communities, broadband can cost as much as $90 a month, which many people cannot afford.

The GCCE works to build partnerships with ISPs by developing relationships first. One such partnership with an ISP is Sacred Wind, a privately owned company based in northwest New Mexico, which aims to improve telecommunications services to rural areas within the state. Fostering trust and sharing resources has solidified this relationship. For example, Sacred Wind provided GCCE with a staff person fluent in Diné (Navajo) to assist in the training sessions offered by the project. GCCE has also established partnerships with other small businesses. As she explained, "They’re not partnering with us because it makes good business sense to them. The real reason is because they’re community minded.”

Above all, GCCE staff want to feel confident about the companies they promote to potential customers. As Ms. Loy explained, they are “trying to be an honest broker to the customer.” She compared the experience to buying a new car:

So imagine going to a parking lot and you don’t get to test drive anything. And everything has a shiny new paint job. So everything looks great, but you don’t actually know whether any of it runs. You just have to pay for it right there. That’s essentially what’s going on for these low-income people.”

To avoid customers being swindled, the project relies upon leveraged funding from a mapping grant and a partnership with the Department of Information Technology that produces comprehensive lists of ISPs, maps the geographic areas each covers, and runs speed tests. This project work helps check on the prices and legitimacy of local ISPs that are not required to adhere to federal regulations.

Win-win Situations

Honesty and forthrightness are keys to any strong partnership. The Appalachian Center for Collaborative and Engaged Learning (ACCEL), a community-based non-profit agency in Ohio that uses technology to improve the lives of citizens, is one organization that has embraced this mode of operation. 

The Connect to Your Community campaign, a computer training program aimed to promote social and economic advancement, was awarded an 18 million BTOP grant from the NCIA in 2010. ACCEL was one of six lead community agencies to implement the work. One of the ACCEL’s main objectives is to provide free computer training to the community. But another major goal is to help these trainees find a sustainable broadband connection to use, either at home or at a community center.

Limited providers and affordable options can make procuring sustainable broadband connections in remote communities challenging. Schroeder has had the most luck partnering with smaller, privately held ISPs. He has found that these companies are more likely to recognize that the program is helping them find customers, and they are therefore willing to offer more affordable options to potential clients. Schroeder is also honest with ISPs about the potential for low-income communities to have an “open mesh network” in which one person pays for the service, but shares it with a few neighbors by not using password protection. Schroeder explained that staff would not encourage this option unless the ISP agreed, but the idea was that it could ultimately be a win-win situation for both the community and the ISP.

Healthy Relationships

In remote and low-income communities, broadband access can be logistically and financially challenging. But even these hurdles can be overcome by developing partnerships with ISPs that are built on honesty, trust, and shared resources.