Connecting Rural Appalachia with Community-Owned Broadband

The Southern Connected Communities Network (SCCN) couples access with agency in Tennessee

This is a spotlight on the Southern Connected Communities Network (SCCN), a grand prize winner in our NSF-WINS challenges. Learn more about the NSF-WINS competition here.

When you think of high-speed internet, you might picture underground cables owned and operated by corporate ISPs.

The Southern Connected Communities Network tower

But in New Market, TN, high-speed internet looks like quite the opposite: an 80-foot tower owned and operated by the very community members who rely on its connectivity.

This is the approach of the Southern Connected Communities Network (SCCN), a novel approach to connecting the unconnected in the U.S., where some 34 million Americans lack high-quality internet access. SCCN is a project by the Highlander Research and Education Center — and it just won a $400,000 grand prize in Mozilla and the National Science Foundation’s NSF-WINS Challenges.

“When you live in the rural South, your kids’ education, your next job, your healthcare, and your right to a political voice all are limited by slow, expensive, unreliable, and corporate-controlled internet connectivity — and that’s if it exists at all,” says Allyn Maxfield-Steele, Co-Executive Director of the Highlander Center. “So we’re claiming internet like the human right it has become. We’re building a local digital economy governed by us and for us.”

How does SCCN work? On a technical level, SCCN uses an 80-foot tower to draw wireless backbone from Knoxville, TN via the public 11 GHz spectrum. The tower then redistributes this broadband connectivity to local communities using line-of-sight technology.

The Southern Connected Communities Network tower

But there’s a community aspect, too — the tower is owned and operated by local residents. “It’s not just about the technological stuff,” Maxfield-Steele says. “It’s about how do we build it and how do we control it and demystify it.” This happens through grassroots organizing and education, Maxfield-Steele explains.

The Southern Connected Communities Network team

He adds: “This project seeks to ground internet access in a human rights framework: where people not only have access to one of the 21st century’s most important economic determinants, but where people can self-determine, collectively, how that access plays out.”

The results have been hugely encouraging: “With this project, we’re able to connect people from rural Appalachia and the deep south with folks across the globe,” Maxfield-Steele says.

In the months ahead, the Highlander team will use the prize money to “organize and build out the initial prototype,” Maxfield-Steele notes. From there, they’ll scale — bringing their community access approach to others who, up until now, have been underconnected. “Hopefully over the next couple years we’ll expand into two or three different communities,” Maxfield-Steele says.