Building ‘broadband highways’ of hope across Appalachia

50 Appalachia Digital Accelerator communities prep for next-generation broadband networks

It’s been said that broadband isn’t really about wires and switches, it’s about people. That was on full display last week as we saw 70 of the people working as part of the Appalachia Digital Accelerator get together to share experiences, stories, and knowledge about how to expand broadband access in rural and low-income communities.

Building the broadband highway

The workshop was attended by Accelerator grantee community reps, technical experts, and program sponsors, including Gayle Manchin, Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, whose generous support has made the Accelerator possible. Addressing the group, Co-Chair Manchin said:


When ARC was established in 1965, our top priority was the creation of a concrete highway system that connected our communities. Now we’re focusing on a new highway system: the broadband highway. Broadband is essential, not only to connect our communities, but to connect our region to national and global opportunities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Appalachian residents faced a number of connectivity issues: they couldn’t access telehealth appointments, virtual schooling, or work-from-home opportunities. As we move into the next era of our region’s future, we cannot allow rural residents to be left behind in this way.

Thanks to the work you’re doing in your communities, Appalachians will have new opportunities for learning and job growth. They’re becoming connected to healthcare services in their own homes instead of having to drive hours to access health clinics. And most importantly, they are seeing a renewed sense of hope for the future.

A community of communities

Over the next 10 months, the Appalachia Digital Accelerator will support 50 of the region’s least digitally connected communities to develop comprehensive connectivity plans that will move them on a path to bringing fast, affordable, reliable internet to local families and businesses.

As community leaders shared hopes for how the Accelerator will help them find solutions to their connectivity challenges, it was clear that, beyond support with planning, being part of a community of communities with a common goal is a major benefit of the program.

As program Director Samantha Schartman said: “What we are building together through this programme is not just plans for a future network infrastructure. We’re building relationships, new companies, new communication channels, new knowledge — knowledge of what it means to plan for conductivity but also knowledge of one another. You are not alone in this journey.”

We heard words of wisdom and advice throughout the workshop, like from Colby Hall from Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) who reminded attendees to “remember to celebrate the small wins”, and from DRIVE’s Jennifer Wakeman who reminded folks that “there’s no one solution to solve the broadband issue across Appalachia,” and that they, like many grantees, got into broadband work because, “it needed to be done and there was no one else who was doing it.”

You can watch the full workshop on-demand.

Learn from workshop trainings

We were also joined by Appalachia Digital Accelerator technical experts who led a series of trainings on federal and state funding, the digital equity landscape, and network infrastructure. Like all program resources, these trainings are publicly available.

An overview of connectivity in Appalachia

Sean Gonsalves, Institute of Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), provides an overview of the region’s connectivity landscape, including a look at the current digital divide, available funding opportunities, the main players communities need to work with, and examples of what states are already doing to expand broadband access. Just as rural America had its electrification moment in the 1930s, Sean told us, now is our ‘broadbandification’ moment.

Digital Inclusion 101

Aaron Schill and Katie Knox from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) walk participants through an introduction to digital inclusion, including barriers to digital inclusion and important broadband terminology communities need to be familiar with. They are also joined by SOAR’s Colby Hall and Generation West Virginia’s Annie Stroud, two Accelerator partners, who share the work they’re doing to expand connectivity in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Broadband Infrastructure, the basics

Tom Reid, Reid Consulting Groupgives the group an introduction to technical solutions and hurdles involved in building a fast, reliable broadband network, in addition to the impact that design decisions will have on cost, sustainability, and network lifespan. We also hear from David Gibbons of Black Bear Wifi, who shares his thoughts about make-ready costs and Jennifer Wakeman, Executive Director at DRIVE who shares the story of how DRIVE, the economic council of the region, got involved with wireless, as she encourages the group not to be intimidated, but to focus on where the greatest need is and get started.


These trainings are the first in of a series of Appalachia Digital Accelerator workshops equipping participants with critical knowledge and tools for broadband connectivity planning. Stay tuned for more.

A project in partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which contributed $6.3 million (80% of the total project cost).