Earlier this month, the inaugural cohort of American Connection Corps (ACC) traveled to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the completion their one- or two-year service terms, capped off by a graduation ceremony. Our 50 ACC Fellows attended this week-long event, representing an array of diverse backgrounds and experiences, all connected by their commitment to people, place, and possibility.
These 50 Fellows serving in 13 states tackled challenges around broadband successfully, securing 45 billion in funding over the last 2 years.
This program was launched as a boots-on-the-ground effort to support local capacity building for rural and emerging communities along their journey for affordable and high-speed internet. Land O’Lakes led this effort with Lead For America, an AmeriCorps organization, along with the support of 20 funding partners. This program trained and deployed 50 ACC Fellows to partner with local public-serving institutions and community organizations, focused specifically on projects related to connectivity and digital inclusion. Today, the American Connection Corps is the nation’s largest rural-focused service organization.
This new generation of community leaders have worked to increase digital access and inclusion in their communities by coordinating local partners to access federal and state resources for broadband access. Oftentimes, rural areas lack the necessary staffing to advocate for grant funding for infrastructure projects.
“Land O’Lakes’ cooperative footprint touches 10,000 rural communities across the country and in many of those towns and cities, the story was the same,” said Tina May, VP of Rural Services at Land O’Lakes, Inc.
Tina continues, “We were seeing connectivity challenges impacting health care access, economic development opportunities, educational options, and so much more. We worked hard as a cooperative, in partnership with over 175 partner organizations through our American Connection Project to advocate for the bipartisan infrastructure bill which included $65 billion for broadband expansion, but we knew it wouldn't be enough. The next step was ensuring the money went to the communities who were most in need.”
President and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc. Beth Ford attended the bill signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which included $65 billion in broadband funding.
While the funding from the infrastructure bill was an important first step, it was apparent that what rural communities needed was capacity builders to assist them as they attempted to secure and deploy broadband funding in the most unserved and underserved areas.
During their service term, these growing leaders spent their time focused on a wide range of projects, addressing the specific needs of their geographies, and advancing broadband connectivity in communities. Some communities were struggling with access to reliable or affordable broadband, others lacked the technology necessary to connect, or experienced a deficit in the digital skills needed to engage with the tools when they became available. The Fellows service projects touched on one or more of these issues throughout their time at the host sites.
During their service terms, the ACC Fellows secured millions of dollars in successful grant applications going to rural and emerging communities. They also fostered 78 public-private partnerships, helped form 97 Broadband Action Teams (BATs), assisted in 7,636 speed map tests, connected 6,580 households to affordable broadband though the Affordable Connectivity Program administered by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), and connected 2,313 households through new permanent broadband infrastructure.
One important example of fellow impact was the work of Oliver Borcher-Williams who served with the Southeast Nebraska Economic Development District.
Oliver spent 18 months working on this project which helped secure $10 million for Gage County, Nebraska. He helped the county determine what area remained unserved and developed a Request for Proposals. Internet Service Provider Nextlink brought a proposal to the county, which led to a public-private partnership that will deliver symmetrical 2 Gbps speeds tonearly 1,000 unserved and underserved households in unincorporated areas of SE Nebraska.
Additionally, the partnership inspired similar projects in six villages adjacent to Gage County, connecting 900 more homes and another 200 in Saline County to reliable broadband service. The result of Oliver’s work was 2100 homes and farms online with access to the resources they need.
As this cohort graduates, this fall we are proud to welcome a new and expanded cohort, as the ACC will grow from 50 to 105 fellows throughout 32 states. This fall will also see ACC fellows leading with ten state broadband offices. You can keep up with the work of the American Connection Corps on their website here.
During the week-long graduation event, the Fellows attended a policy briefing with infrastructure senior leaders from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), White House infrastructure leaders, and policy experts from National Governors Association (NGA) and Heartland Forward. You can view the presentations and the graduation ceremony on YouTube here. You can read about the Fellows work in their 2023 Impact Report here.