Growing up in Enid, I witnessed how a community needs to evolve with the times to grow and thrive. When I lived there in the 1990s, the population was growing –– making it one of the largest towns in the state. Today, many similarly sized cities are working just like Enid to sustain their population and accelerate economic growth.
Unfortunately, many communities in the heartland are seeing their populations shrink and jobs disappear, especially in a time when technology, innovation and artificial intelligence are changing the landscape of the workforce at a rapid pace. That’s why I believe the No. 1 economic issue of our time is connecting residents to affordable, high-speed internet.
We are witnessing a moment of unprecedented funding to expand high-speed internet across the country. This is life-changing for the estimated 42 million Americans lacking access to a reliable internet connection, including as many as 728,000 Oklahomans.
Ensuring everyone has access to affordable internet means making our local economies more resilient and increasing our regional competitiveness.
Over the last two decades, a lack of access to high-speed internet led to negative economic effects. In a 2021 study, Deloitte found if there had been just a 10% increase in broadband access in 2014, there would have been 875,000 additional jobs by 2019 and $186 billion more in economic output.
That’s a lot of jobs and economic activity left on the table. Nearly a decade later, we have the chance to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
Oklahoma is investing about $1.3 billion for broadband infrastructure and accessibility through state and federal funding. Those funds mean high-speed internet access for the people who need it and jobs for workers to build careers in the industry.
Jobs will be created to not only physically lay fiber optic networks, but also, support communities in gaining the digital skills needed to access the internet once readily available. Many of the jobs will be transferable to long-term careers within related fields, and new supply chains will be created to provide the physical resources for service, construction and technical assistance. Ultimately, this massive, nationwide push to expand internet access will stimulate economic growth in an exponential way across state and local levels.
With that community-level growth comes the ability to change the economic trajectory of communities that have historically stagnated. This will be vital in the middle of the country, where Heartland Forward started the Connecting the Heartland initiative to expand high-speed internet across Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and now Oklahoma.
Administering big sums of funding requires communities to be prepared to access and implement these funds, which could be a barrier for many small, rural communities. To address this need, Heartland Forward partnered with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society to start the Oklahoma Accelerate program, with support from the Oklahoma Broadband Office and OSU Extension. Oklahoma Accelerate provides 30 hours of no-cost expert counsel for community leaders to help them develop broadband plans addressing their unique local needs for connectivity.
Over the last year, Heartland Forward helped 32 communities in four states come up with proactive plans to make use of these opportunities, and I am incredibly excited to bring this work to my home state. We are launching the first cohort of Oklahoma Accelerate in early 2024 and are actively looking for communities to apply. If we put the right resources in place to get the job done, we’ll ensure heartland communities can grow their economies and thrive.
We cannot let another year go by where we leave 175,000 jobs and $37.2 billion in economic output on the table. It’s incumbent on leaders across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to collaborate to get the job done. Join us in tackling the No. 1 economic issue of our time by helping ensure all Oklahomans have access to affordable, high-speed internet.
Angie Cooper is the executive vice president of Heartland Forward. If you are a leader hoping to help your community expand access to affordable, high-speed internet, you can apply to the Oklahoma Accelerate program at https://connectingtheheartland.com/.