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Leveraging A National Program for Local Digital Equity in Rural Iowa


The Need

Access to fast and reliable internet service is critical for school success where much of the learning relies on digital resources. However low population density and high-income disparities complicate access in rural communities. According to city-data.com (2019), Poweshiek County Iowa is 52% rural and although Internet service is available, mostly in the form of satellite or cellular service, reliable, affordable Internet access is not.


The Partnership

The Grinnell Education Partnership (GEP), a Campaign for Grade Level Reading affiliate in Grinnell, Iowa, (population 9,564) provides the collaborative “backbone” infrastructure to bring together 30+ community organizations in co-creating solutions to address emerging educational needs in our small rural town.


The Connection

Utilizing a strong network and creative partnerships the Grinnell Education Partnership (GEP) is harnessing the power of community. Bringing together an anchor institution, non-profits, the school district, the city of Grinnell, an internet provider, and the Federal Government’s “Internet for All” initiative, the Partnership is creating more equitable access for K-12 students to continue learning by connecting families to free internet.

The Grinnell Newburg Community School District (GNCSD), which has an enrollment of 1,460 students, is a 1:1 district, meaning each enrolled student is provided with a device that connects to the internet. Although some in the community knew digital learning opportunities were not equitable from the onset, the geographic and socio-economic disparities became starkly evident during the pandemic. In response, the GEP, driven heavily by the Grinnell Newburg School District and the Grinnell Newburg School Foundation, began combatting this digital divide in the fall of 2020 with immediate steps such as fundraising for, and providing mobile hotspots available at the public library and school libraries for check-out.


The opportunity to make even greater and more sustainable change came when the GEP learned of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in July of 2022 during a Grade Level Reading (GLR) webinar. This program provides income-eligible families with a $30 monthly credit toward internet service. In brainstorming how to more fully utilize this program in our community, GEP partners realized that gaining the trust of eligible families would be imperative to the success of enrollment in the ACP. Therefore,

attention turned to connecting with those agencies who were already working closely with those families who would benefit most from increased awareness of the program. With this trust factor in mind, the GEP leveraged network connections to assemble additional community stakeholders such as Drake Community Library (DCL), Grinnell Housing Authority (GHA), Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), and Mahaska Communication Group (MCG) – a local internet service provider. Separately, each of these agencies has different touchpoints with families throughout the community. Together, the agencies worked together to coordinate efforts to raise awareness about ACP and identify and register eligible families for the program.


Substantial & Effective: How well did it work and at what scale?

In November of 2022, ACP informational flyers were created & printed by MCG at their expense. These awareness flyers were, and continue to be, distributed to eligible families by DCL, GHA, MICA, and MCG. The GNCSD superintendent also began inserting ACP information in her weekly newsletter, sent to 3200 inboxes, and school staff shared ACP awareness via counselors, social workers, administrative assistants and by teachers at Parent Teacher conferences.


To increase personal outreach, in December of 2022 and January of 2023, MICA and GHA hosted ACP sign-up events at their respective sites and MCG provided staff at each event to assist families with the ACP application form. MCG also welcomed eligible families to their place of business in downtown Grinnell to assist them with the completion of the application form, no matter the applicant’s choice of Internet provider. Most importantly, MCG assembled a $30 connectivity package for ACP approved families. This plan plus the ACP input results in a $0 monthly bill for these families!


Most recently, in order to expand reach to families who do not quite meet the ACP eligibility requirements but are struggling to pay an Internet bill, GNSF (as the funder) and MCG (as the provider), deepened their partnership to expand support through a newly identified fund at the foundation.


According to Universal Service Administrative Company’s (https://www.usac.org/) Enrollment by Zip Code data, Grinnell’s 50112 zip code shows that 296 households subscribed to ACP at the end of June 2022 June 1, 2023, data shows 428 households subscribed – an increase of 132. Our efforts are paying off!


Sustainable: How likely is it to persist and grow?

While the community is making great strides in helping connect households with affordable service, the issue of geographic disparities remains. Many households in rural areas don’t have high speed fiber running to their homes. The installation cost is prohibitive for internet providers without some kind of financial support to make the numbers work. This is where federal funds, made available through a state program, open new possibilities. In March of 2023, the GEP network submitted an Invitation to Qualify (ITQ) application to the new Empower Rural Iowa Broadband grant program aimed at increasing rural broadband access. Again, GEP pulled different partners together to complete this important grant application on a very tight timeline. In this case, MCG and Grinnell College provided technical support for the grant application and the Grinnell Newburg School District served as grant applicant. As a result of these efforts, Grinnell is now ranked #26 on the list of 94 qualifying broadband intervention zones in the state potentially qualifying the community for enhanced incentives and higher prioritization for later funding.


We know we are far from completing the digital connectivity/equity project. By continuing to partner with trusted community stakeholders to build awareness to affordable connectivity options and broadening the infrastructure base, we will continue to narrow the digital access gap.


Replicable: How easy is it for others to adopt and/or adapt?

For communities looking for a place to begin the digital connectivity quest, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) ACP website at https://www.fcc.gov/acp is a valuable resource. To find available funding opportunities in your state try https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov. Replicating this project would be easily adapted to your community’s specific needs by pulling together partners with different access and expertise, to leverage existing resources in new ways.


Information about the Grinnell Education Partnership (GEP) can be found at https://www.grinnelleducationpartnership.org

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