Bridging the Digital Divide: The Impact of Strategic Communications in Broadband Implementation

Written by Carla Juarez, Manager of Communications and Marketing at IEM
& Tammy Breski, Broadband Infrastructure Manager at IEM

Communication, communication, communication. Creating an effective and inclusive communications plan is critical to a successful broadband program. As the former Program Manager for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), I saw first-hand the impact a well-thought-out communications plan has on building constituent trust, raising program awareness, and soliciting stakeholder feedback and buy-in for a broadband project.

Through VATI, the Commonwealth of Virginia worked to extend broadband service to unserved areas by building, utilizing, and capitalizing on telecommunications infrastructure. To achieve this, Virginia used general funds to provide grants to localities (e.g., cities, counties, planning district commissions, school districts) – the applicant or grantee – who in turn partnered with an internet service provider (ISP) to create projects aimed at increasing internet connectivity. The target areas for a project could be as small as a partial section of a county or as large as a region containing multiple counties.

Big or small, what remains the same is the need to conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify your project stakeholders and determine their interests and/or influence on your project, and then to develop a communications plan with tactics and techniques to effectively engage them throughout your broadband project.  

Anticipated Stakeholder Communications:

  • Federal government – This may include the federal awarding agency. This entity will have a significant interest in updates from entities on all projects tied to federally allocated funding.
  • State government – This can include the awarding agency of the grant and its representatives. They work closely with localities and ISPs to collect project milestones (e.g., construction completed to date) to present to the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly and must keep their respective stakeholders informed of funding allocations and progress.
  • Local government – This may include the applicant or grantee who is receiving project funding from the state. Other key agencies at the local level will need to be engaged early to help drive the project development as well as to help promote the assistance available. These agencies can include, though are not limited to, county administration (including the finance team, especially if they provide matching funds), libraries, schools, community centers, and any other potential advocates and allies in the broadband space.
  • ISPs – Providers will likely share monthly construction reports and regular project updates in coordination with a co-grantee, such as a local government or local organization, where applicable, to keep the state informed of project progress. They are a critical stakeholder that should be included in discussions between the grantee and the awarding agency.
  • Constituents – Residents in the project area will want to know how this project affects them, how it may impact their property, when the project will be completed, and much more. Other residents may inquire as to why their area wasn’t part of the project or why their neighbors have internet and they do not. You should anticipate residents’ curiosity as they may want to know how the government is spending taxpayer money and ensure it is being put to good and equitable use.
  • Elected Officials – They will want to keep constituents informed of broadband projects offering access to reliable internet or providing funding assistance. They may also be the first to receive constituent inquiries and complaints and will need your support in addressing questions regarding your broadband project.
  • Local Organizations – Nonprofits, community groups, and faith-based organizations work closely with residents and have a good grasp on the local needs. Their buy-in will be integral to your project success as they will be instrumental in building community trust, raising awareness, and generating local goodwill.

Different stakeholders will need different information. Be sure to understand each stakeholder’s priorities and interests so that you can properly target your messaging to resonate with them. Once you’ve assessed who your stakeholders are, you can build out a strategic communications plan that includes communication types and tactics, messaging to be shared, and timelines to effectively engage partners throughout your project.

Broadband projects take time. It is important to keep stakeholders regularly informed to help manage expectations, particularly given the cost of broadband projects. With price tags in the millions or billions of dollars there is additional scrutiny and if a stakeholder believes that progress is not as quick as expected, they may raise questions regarding the funding, project progress, and when they or their constituents should expect to receive internet. Providing internet takes time. While the ISP and locality may have had a draft work plan, engineering, and design need to be completed. Rights of way, permitting, and make ready on existing poles need to be done, as well as materials procured and environmental assessments completed. By educating your stakeholders from the beginning and clearly outlining the steps and estimated timing involved in the project – from start to finish – you can set a positive tone and manage expectations with your project stakeholders. 

Who is responsible for driving the communication of a project? While the bulk of the information on any given project will come from the ISP, you should plan to closely work with various groups to both collect and disseminate information to your stakeholders.

Top 3 Communication Tools to Engage & Inform Stakeholders

  • Dashboards are a common tool used to visually represent project progress to a larger audience. The VATI Dashboard is a great example that represents broadband projects across Virginia. By clicking on each project, viewers can access the status of the project to include construction details and how much funding has been expended to date.
  • Webpages, like Bedford County’s (Virginia) broadband initiative page help connect and inform stakeholders on broadband projects and available resources, as well as link to other state and federal broadband sites. Bedford County further leveraged this communication channel by hosting information videos, including a question-and-answer video developed in coordination with an ISP partner to educate constituents on how a broadband project works.
  • Webinars are another great way to engage stakeholders and increase your reach. Albemarle County (Virginia) created monthly “Lunch and Learn” webinars for their 2021 VATI project. They spend 30 minutes providing project updates, outlining stakeholder roles in the project, and informing constituents how to order services and what to expect (e.g., timelines, temporary drops).

Communication is essential to any project. Investing time in developing a strategic communications plan to identify your stakeholders, determine their interests, and establish your messaging and tactics will be key to a successful broadband project.

IEM is here to walk you through this process and support your next broadband project.

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