Through the efforts of a broadband accelerator program we had run in late 2018, we began to connect with communities that had established broadband advocacy groups. From the 35 participants that signed up, we started to identify common characteristics that these communities shared as a way to choose the first markets we'd target.
In the end, we chose three communities: Stockton CA, The Katahdin Region in ME, and South Portland ME. Our decisions were somewhat based on data but primarily based on the personal connections of our executive team. With the short runway of the company, they felt that the markets in Maine especially would have a lower risk of completion and pushed the team to begin entering the market.
We began by identifying influencers within these communities: folks that were civically motivated and well-connected. We found many had already created local campaigns around improving broadband access, and we quickly partnered with them to figure out where we could help.
I worked diligently to instill the team with a philosophy of facilitation instead of imposition. Both practically as well as ethically, I believed that these influencers knew their communities better than we'd ever hope to, and would be the key to unlocking these communities.
Empirically, each of these communities had significant challenges.
Having been in Kansas City during Google Fiber's campaigns, I knew how easy it was to entrench digital divides rather than dissolve them.
In Maine, we had similar issues, but from a rural perspective. The average download speed of the area is 3.7 Mbps and over 50% of the population are in blue-collar industries. The average age is 51.8 years old. While there was an active broadband coalition in place, daily life in the community was still very analog. Most digital marketing would go unnoticed.
As we began to establish relationships with members of the community as digital proxies, we realized how much of an undertaking these markets would be. We held regular meetings with advocates to hear their stories - who were they talking with? What was a day-to-day activity like in the community?
We surfaced issues consistently that challenged our assumptions. For example, we found a significant number of the community didn't even have email addresses - that certainly changed the way we approached things.
These weekly catchups became critical to our understanding and strategies.