Smart Growth America Tackles Lack of Broadband Access in Appalachia

Many rural communities lack access to basic amenities, such as safe wastewater facilities and high-speed internet. Rural and small town communities are often feeling the effects of a mono-industry of the past, such as coal mining, and are now trying to bounce back from job losses and economic transition. Smart Growth America, a DC-based nonprofit that supports socially equitable, environmentally responsible, and economically healthy development strategies, is working with more than a dozen communities on broadband implementation and downtown revitalization, trying to measure where they are developmentally compared to regional and state economies.

Alex Hutchinson, economic and community development specialist for Smart Growth America, has been working to tackle the lack of internet connectivity in rural communities with a focus on Appalachia. Hutchinson has been working on the issue through a program called Cool and Connected, a planning assistance program that helps small towns use broadband service to revitalize main streets and downtowns. Cool and Connected is sponsored by the EPA's Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The Big Problem with Limited Connectivity 

The Appalachian communities that struggle with access to high-speed internet often face economic roadblocks as a result. A lack of internet connection can severely stunt a community’s growth. When a community is without an internet connection, they struggle to:

  1. Attract and keep businesses. And businesses that have resided in the community for years may leave or eventually fail.
     
  2. Attract and retain talent. Without an internet connection, talented workers are unlikely to A) be attracted to job openings in the community, or B) be willing to move to a community that has no access to the outside world.
     
  3. Give students access to the best learning materials. While most schools in the U.S. do have internet connectivity, a lot of kids in rural communities don’t have high-speed internet when they get home, which makes studying and completing assignments difficult. This roadblock can really hinder rural America’s student development and learning potential.

Rural communities can gain broadband internet access by being plugged into a broader network from a nearby community or city. Another strategy is to conduct an existing conditions analysis of these locations, proving to smaller broadband companies that these areas do indeed contain a significant market for high-speed internet services. Through Cool and Connected, Smart Growth America is working to source the data necessary to get broadband services to these remote communities.

Smart Growth America has been using mySidewalk to help with these efforts.

“mySidewalk has been kind of a life saver,” said Hutchinson. “The tool makes it easy to familiarize ourselves with specific places and do powerful number-crunching and geography comparisons. And we can get that data in the form of these high-quality, easy-to-read maps and charts. We’ve been using the tool a lot.”

Smart Growth America used mySidewalk to conduct an existing conditions analysis for Zanesville, Ohio, an Appalachian community in need of high-speed internet services. Below is a map of Zanesville displaying local job density. The chart in the toolbar on the left shows jobs lost between 2002 and 2014, one of the results of lack of broadband availability.

Once the need for high-speed internet is identified and a broadband implementation strategy is approved, these rural communities have the potential to be great teleworking locations and have better telehealth options. They also have the potential to attract people who want to work in a larger metro area but desire a small-town lifestyle. Smart Growth America helps these communities think through strategies that could work, often modeling strategies off of other cities of similar size that have successfully repositioned their economies.

“We plan to use mySidewalk more in 2017 as we continue with the Cool and Connected project,” said Hutchinson. “We have a lot of data to gather, and mySidewalk makes that process faster and easier to handle.”

If you'd like to learn more about how you can use data like Alex and the Smart Growth America team, request a demo here


mySidewalk is a data tool for people who want to understand places. With the ability to instantly answer thousands of community questions, mySidewalk makes it easy for anyone to use data to make better, more confident decisions. To learn more, visit mySidewalk.com.  

About Smart Growth America

Smart Growth America advocates for people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods. They believe smart growth solutions support thriving businesses and jobs, provide more options for how people get around and make it more affordable to live near work and the grocery store. Their coalition works with communities to fight sprawl and save money. Learn more about their work here

About the Author

Lauren French has worked in the tech world as a marketing and content professional for the past two years. She earned a master’s degree in public relations from Michigan State University and holds an English degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. When she’s not thinking about marketing and content creation, Lauren enjoys binge-watching Netflix shows and drinking as much coffee as possible. She is also over-the-top obsessed with her two dogs, Hutch and Marty.