The number of Americans who don’t have access to broadband internet is likely somewhere between 14 and 42 million. That range, which comes from figures calculated by the government and from broadband researchers, is quite wide, but tells one story: There is a high-speed internet accessibility gap in America, particularly affecting rural residents, only about 65% of whom report having access. As remote work and learning have become critical, that gap matters. During the pandemic, people have had to drive hours libraries to do routine online tasks—or park next to a school bus’s hotspot just so their kids can do their homework.
“It’s simply unacceptable,” says Beth Ford, CEO and president of agricultural co-operative Land O’Lakes, about the digital divide. “It leaves us uncompetitive as a nation.”
That big name in butter started taking on the challenge over the last year with its American Connection Project, through which it’s increased access to free wifi by working with partners to make 3,000 local network spots public in 49 states. But, the co-op is now taking further action to build digital infrastructure in rural corners around the country—by recruiting college graduates, in a national service-style program, to go back to their hometowns and work with local institutions to roll out broadband, and familiarize local residents with the tech. Because broadband is a “major stabilizer,” Ford says the initiative also has the ability to “lead to a more vibrant and robust, rural economy.”
To do that, Land O’Lakes, with 19 other partners, is launching the American Connection Corps, which’ll comprise an initial class of 50 recruits aged 21 to 30. The program is starting in 12 largely rural states around the country, including Minnesota, Kansas, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, and Oregon, chosen for their rurality and underserved populations. In joining the service, fellows will commit to two years, plus another two staying on in that community after completion, to help see out the projects.
To implement the program, it’s teamed up with Lead For America, an organization that has already adopted this national service model to send young people—who it calls fellows—back to underserved towns or tribal lands they may have grown up in, gone to college in, or have family ties in, to help address inequities; places, says Benya Kraus, the group’s cofounder, that have lost populations because “the narrative of success often means leaving and not coming back.” This year, the organization has 106 “dynamic and diverse” of its fellows on the ground; by 2040, it wants a million enrolled.
“Homecoming,” Kraus says, is a “signal of hope” to residents that their communities are worthwhile. “That’s saying that this is a place that is worthy of investment, and worthy of return.” What’s more, she says many young people have strong sense of “rootedness and responsibility,” and want to go home to improve conditions, despite the challenges. They think: “If I don’t do it, who will?”
Though the setups will vary according to different community’s needs, fellows will likely work with county governments, though a few placements are with school districts, and a handful with regional development organizations. Day to day, they’ll work on gathering accurate data on household internet speeds, talking to network providers, coordinating rollouts, and aligning funding with resources. They’ll also organize digital bootcamps for schools and communities, and make sure Main Street businesses and farmers are connected and search-optimized where needed.
The Biden administration has made a historic investment in broadband, pledging $7 billion to reimburse communities for wifi access as part of the American Rescue Plan—but grassroots approaches are needed to facilitate the distribution. This program is also being backed, for its first two years, by 20 partners, including Microsoft, Mayo Clinic, Heartland Forward, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and multiple universities.
For Ford, internet access is simply a right, “like electricity or mail delivery.” But, it’s especially important to connect farming communities because they’re the “glue” that keep’s America’s food security together—and so solid connections will also allow for better and more sustainable, farming. Internet access is also an accelerant for job creation, where it’s lagged in rural areas. The hope is that a successful program will lead to investments in communities—and eventually will attract and retain new young professionals. “What we’re trying to do is create an initiative where these young people go back in, and become community leaders,” Ford says.
That revitalization is especially crucial as we recover from the past year’s economic shock. During the pandemic, Kraus says, there’s been a developing philosophy that the nature remote work means it doesn’t matter where you decide to live. But: “I actually think it matters more than ever where we choose to live,” she says. “Because, where we choose to live is also where we choose to commit ourselves to. Where we choose to become part of the social and civic fabric.”