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Thinking Broadly About Broadband


~by Michael Wilcox

Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Associate Director / North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)


Nearly eighty-seven years ago, on May 20, 1936, the Rural Electrification Act was passed. At the time, an estimated ninety percent of farms in rural areas lacked electricity. By 1950, nearly eighty percent of farms had electricity in the U.S. Thus, in roughly fourteen years, the U.S. went from ten percent to eighty percent coverage. This achievement required not only a massive public investment in electric cooperatives but also a consensus that the electrification of rural America needed to be a national priority.

Today we face another challenge, but this time it is bringing broadband to rural America. In many cases, the issue is reaching the “last mile,” or those consumers that live the furthest away from the current broadband provision. At the same time, even in places where broadband is available, some Americans face considerable barriers to access, creating a “Digital Divide,” and neither rural nor urban communities are immune.

At Purdue University, we are tackling issues associated with broadband in a myriad of ways, from developing cutting-edge broadband-related technologies to leveraging the newest technology to drive innovation and economic development.

As the land-grant university in Indiana, our groundbreaking research needs to be coupled with enhancing the experience of all our undergraduate and graduate students and translated to the communities, businesses, and institutions we serve through Extension and Engagement.

Purdue Extension Community Development has been a key partner and collaborator with the Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD, part of Purdue Engagement) since their founding in 2005. PCRD doubled down on broadband when PCRD Director Roberto Gallardo arrived at Purdue in 2017 as a PCRD and Purdue Extension staff member. Since then, the two of us have worked diligently to ensure that the statewide conversation about broadband was not solely focused on technology deployment but on the socioeconomic constraints and opportunities associated with broadband access and adoption in Indiana.

The intentional focus on access and adoption has created many impactful programs and initiatives that are led, co-led, or supported by PCRD and the Purdue Extension Community Development program. These include:

Purdue Extension/PCRD Signature Programs

Digital Ready Business

Purdue Extension Community Development’s Digital Ready initiative advances the capacity of small businesses to strengthen their knowledge and application of broadband strategies.

Through interactive workshops and online courses led by a statewide team of Purdue trainers, participants learn about the importance of the digital economy, how to incorporate digital strategies into the workplace, and build technical knowledge.

Digital Ready Community

By leveraging digital platforms, the Digital Ready Community program empowers communities to increase civic engagement, trust, and local government responsiveness. A team of Purdue specialists and educators guides the community in forming a digital asset group (DAG), inventory digital assets, and drafting a community-wide digital engagement plan. Deliverables include the formation of the DAG, DAG’s operating agreement, and a community-wide digital engagement plan. The program lasts 6-9 months.

Remote Work Certificate Program

The Purdue Center for Regional Development and Purdue Extension Community Development have partnered with Utah State University Extension to offer the Remote Work Professional certificate course, a 1-month specialized training that combines online work with interactive workshops. This educational program is designed to equip workers with the tools and skills to work from home as remote workers, freelancers, or entrepreneurs. The program consists of nine core modules, delivered in a self-paced, online format, and four interactive workshops. Check out the Remote Work Certificate flyer to learn more.

Essential Digital Employability Skills Program

Essential Digital Employability Skills (EDES) are basic skills and functions all employees need to professionally communicate and collaborate with colleagues and clients in the ever-changing digital world. The Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD) offers EDES through Purdue Online with free online tutorials through platforms such as Google, Microsoft, and GCFGlobal to provide a Purdue certificate or digital badge, depending on the course.

Databases and Resources

What is Broadband? Factsheet

Digital Inclusion Initiative

As the socioeconomic landscape continues to digitize, digital exclusion is the number one threat to community and economic development. For this reason, PCRD has developed a suite of educational/training programs, technical assistance/planning, metrics, and tools to help your community or region become digitally inclusive. PCRD’s engagement toolbox can provide a basic understanding of online presence for small business owners or develop a digital engagement plan to make your community more responsive and increase civic engagement to measure the digital divide in your neighborhoods.

Digital Data Toolbox

The Digital Data Toolbox includes a suite of tools that examines county-level connectivity, digital distress, digital divide index, and digital inclusion.

Research Initiatives

Digital Equity Asset Mapping Project

The digital equity task force needs help creating a map of digital inclusion assets in Indiana. Specifically, the task force is looking to map any organization or institution that offers digital inclusion programs or resources. These resources include public or free WiFi, computers for public use, hotspot lending programs, device lending programs, device giveaway programs, digital skills training programs, meeting space, or similar program opportunities. The information collected through this asset map will help inform Indiana’s first-ever digital equity plan.

This information is essential to developing a complete and thorough digital equity plan. So take a moment to ensure that your community assets are included by adding to the map today (click on Submit an Asset)!

Indiana crowd-sourced broadband project – Broadband Speed Test

PCRD is conducting an Indiana-wide internet speed test. By collecting data about your community’s internet speed, PCRD can create a map for your community that will help your community in efforts to get grants and other support to improve broadband for your community.

With such robust offerings, Purdue Extension Community Development and PCRD are leading the way at the community and regional levels to help Indiana achieve its potential. The future holds much promise, but communities and regions need to be forward-thinking and use a broad approach that includes sustainable deployment, access, and adoption strategies. In some locations, this could take the form of a digital hub (next week, I will be working in one of Ireland’s 250+ digital hubs in the village of Mountbellew) or take another form entirely. No matter what, Purdue Extension Community Development and the Purdue Center for Regional Development are here to help your community/region achieve its goals.

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