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Muni broadband projects win funding to tackle digital divide

US Ignite and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the winning projects of Project Overcome today, a $2.7 million effort to accelerate broadband delivery to unserved and underserved communities using novel broadband technology solutions.

The winning teams will use a mix of fiber, mesh and fixed wireless, and CBRS spectrum to connect these communities. They will also leverage public-private partnerships to help promote digital literacy and adoption.

With $2.25 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, and an additional $450,000 support from Schmidt Futures to expand the effort's geographic reach, the pilot deployments will occur in phases over the next 12 months. Winners include:

  • Digital C (Cleveland, Ohio) will use fiber and millimeter wave technology to connect an apartment community and surrounding homes in a historically Black and underserved neighborhood in Cleveland.
  • Missouri University of Science Technology (Clinton County, Missouri) will use RF over Fiber (RFoF), intelligent routing and multiple last-mile wireless technologies to serve a rural community.
  • Westchester County Association (Yonkers, NY) will leverage strategic partnerships across municipalities, nonprofits and for-profit companies to deploy a CBRS network in a digital opportunity zone.
  • Onward Eugene (Blue River, Oregon) will rebuild destroyed Internet infrastructure by deploying a resilient wireless link to rural McKenzie Valley with fiber backhaul.
  • Allied Media Projects (Detroit) will deploy a combination of fiber and fixed wireless infrastructure to be supported by a network of Digital Stewards employed at a neighborhood anchor institution.
  • Libraries Without Borders (Loiza, Puerto Rico) will deploy a wireless mesh network to three community centers providing digital skills training and health literacy information.
  • University at Buffalo (Buffalo, New York) will deliver Internet service to the Fruit Belt neighborhood using a CBRS wireless network.

In remarks for the event, Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, cheered the Project Overcome effort and said that the country needs to commit to ending the digital divide.

"From where I sit at the Federal Communications Commission, connecting the country with broadband is the central infrastructure challenge of the day," she said. "I believe we need a national commitment to end the digital divide. Like with electricity before in the United States, we must make broadband service available to everyone, everywhere in the country. We need to commit to getting 100% of the country connected to get there."

"I'm an optimist and I believe we can bridge the digital divide in this country, but I'm also impatient," said Rosenworcel. "So I hope we can work together at high speed to get it done."

In addition to awarding these projects, US Ignite will continue to oversee their deployments as well as "monitor and measure their impact, to help determine what strategies are effective and can be replicated in other communities across the country," according to Mari Silbey, senior director of partnerships and outreach at US Ignite.

Indeed, the ability to monitor and replicate these projects has been baked into the Project Overcome model from the get-go. In October 2020 when the competition launched, Deep Medhi, program director for NSF's Computer & Network Systems (CNS) told Broadband World News they would use a "data-driven approach" to determine which of these projects could best work elsewhere in the country.

NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan echoed these sentiments at today's virtual announcement: "As a result of these pilot projects, we will be able to provide broadband connectivity to nearly 1300 people with limited or no service today," he said. "Equally important, Project Overcome will also demonstrate and document successful strategies for serving hard to reach populations that can be replicated in other communities across our nation."

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— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor, Light Reading

An earlier version of this story appeared on Broadband World News.

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