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Program Evaluation of Broadband Access Grants in Appalachia

Improving technological infrastructure to up-fit communities to better Internet access

The poorest areas of the Appalachian region once lacked roads and basic government services, leading President John F. Kennedy and Congress to establish the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1963 with the intent of addressing the profound poverty in the area.

With ARC and federal funding, the Appalachian region (which includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states across the southern and mid-Atlantic United States) acquired a highway system, helping isolated communities connect with nearby, more densely populated or economically prosperous areas that tend to have more senior economist and policy analyst advanced hospitals, schools, and other community assets.

However, even today the challenges of living in remote regions remain and Appalachia’s overall level of poverty continues to be higher than that of the rest of the United States. Just as residents were once isolated from nearby cities or towns by a lack of dependable travel routes, current residents strive to keep pace with digital technologies that today connect people around the world.

Digital technologies and connectivity can strengthen schools, libraries, hospitals, and local governments, and can help turn economically distressed towns into promising investment opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs.

Bringing Internet Access Up to Speed

One remedy ARC sought in 2014 was to improve the technological infrastructure needed for high-speed internet access.

At the time, broadband internet service (defined as internet access with download speeds greater than 3.0 mbps), was often not widely available or affordable in the sparsely populated areas of rural Appalachia.

Because internet service providers are less likely to run fiber in these areas, residents in the less populated areas of Appalachia don’t even have the choice of broadband, leaving them disconnected from communities and resources all over the world.

To address this issue, ARC began distributing grants to communities for a wide variety of broadband-related projects—including laying fiber, installing school computer labs, upgrading hospital computer systems, and training students and citizens to effectively use the internet. From 2004 to 2010, ARC distributed $41 million in telecommunications and technology grants to a variety of beneficiaries, including local government, hospitals, and schools. 

To assess the success of these grant-funded efforts and inform future efforts, ARC hired our researchers to conduct an evaluation of the program.

Applying Mixed Research Methods to Derive Meaningful Insights on Diverse Programs

To determine the outcomes and impacts of the broadband grants, we performed several types of analysis—including a literature review, project database analysis, qualitative interviews, case studies, and policy reviews. We also engaged the country’s top experts on rural broadband policy, implementation, and legality.

Our literature review confirmed that the most economically distressed areas of the Appalachian region also had the least accessibility to broadband. We found the trend was cyclical: Poor economic growth leads to less economic opportunity, residents leave to seek work elsewhere, and the region suffers greater poverty.

We surveyed 118 grant recipients, seeking information about program goals and outcomes, as well as the challenges they faced during implementation, and compiled 18 in-depth case studies to highlight project elements that helped foster success.

We compared the performance of each grant against its goals, which varied from improving connectivity to laying a specific amount of fiber in an area. Our findings indicated that 36 percent of the projects met their stated goals, and another 14 percent exceeded those goals. For the 45 percent of grant recipients who reported facing challenges concerning their grant, the most frequent obstacle was a lack of adequate staff and expertise. 

In total, our review showed substantial positive economic and other impacts across the region, including

  • 101 businesses and nearly 2,900 jobs created
  • More than 150,000 students served
  • More than 40,000 households improved (as reported by grantees)

Recommendations to Continue and Extend ARC’s Success in Meeting Regional Need for Broadband Access

After evaluating the variety of ways communities put their broadband grants to use, we were able to make recommendations to ARC. Our recommendations fell into three categories: understanding broader themes in broadband, addressing pressing needs for the Appalachian region, and defining the role of the ARC moving forward.

Our experts recommended that ARC continue to act proactively by engaging in public-private partnerships and prioritizing projects with technology that will be effective in the longer term, such as high-capacity fiber. These public-private partnerships will allow the ARC to continue to change the telecommunications landscape in the region, helping bring in business and industry that can employ citizens and continue to improve infrastructure.

Secondly, we suggested ARC address the particular needs of the region—such as e-health tools and e-learning opportunities—as well as the financial and digital literacy barriers faced by individuals seeking to adopt broadband.

Finally, we encouraged ARC to redefine their role concerning broadband moving forward to improve their data collection, evaluation, and grant management techniques. By leveraging their experience distributing grants to a wide range of beneficiaries, ARC is positioned to become the regional expert on broadband best practices. By continuing its research in the region, ARC can accurately calculate the impacts of grants in the medium and long term.

In October 2016, ARC took the first steps towards implementing our recommendations when it introduced the ARC Broadband Planning Primer and Toolkit. This resource is designed to assist rural communities interested in starting the process of adding broadband to their technological infrastructure. 

As ARC moves forward with a new round of grant funding, we anticipate even greater results in its efforts— to grow connectivity across Appalachia, enabling residents to take advantage of digital technologies that now pervade every aspect of life.