Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Axiom

Broadband access and adoption are essential for full participation in our society, for education, for public health, and for public safety. But nagging gaps in broadband adoption exist in too many U.S. communities. In Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, Dr. Colin Rhinesmith explores successful, local efforts to help low-income individuals and families overcome the barriers to broadband adoption. Dr. Rhinesmith finds that successful digital inclusion organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.

In this series, the Benton Foundation and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explore the origins, strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms for successful digital inclusion organizations. In this fifth article, we examine Axiom Technologies in Washington County, Maine, which is committed to bringing broadband services and education to underserved rural areas.

Innovators in Digital Inclusion: Axiom

Origin

After a career in nursing and medical services consulting, Susan Corbett arrived in Jonesport, Maine, in 1998. In 2003, serving Boston-area doctors, she needed reliable internet access. She contacted Verizon, the primary carrier in the area, to see if she could get a broadband connection. Verizon offered no service.

Corbett turned to Axiom -- a then-new, local company providing DSL and consulting services in the area. She pitched the idea of starting a local wireless network. Bringing business acumen and funding with her, Corbett joined Axiom as a co-owner in April 2005. By June, the first wireless access point had been installed in Jonesport. Axiom expanded quickly and today has over 100 wireless access points over the 2,500 square mile area it serves. Axiom has expanded from wireless access and DSL to fiber, as well as full-service, information-technology and business support.

By including training and technical support for the business community, education quickly became a cornerstone of the company’s mission and ethos. Axiom hired Jane Blackwood as Director of Educational Services in 2006 and remains the only internet service provider (ISP) in Maine with an educator on staff. Blackwood began digital literacy training for business professionals, bringing Axiom’s operations and workflows online.

As Axiom’s founders moved on to new pursuits over the years, Corbett became sole owner in 2009, just before the company received a grant through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) in 2010 for sustainable broadband adoption. Focusing on defining the technology needs of the farm, fishery, and nursing communities, Axiom assessed the technology skills of participants and recommended appropriate classes to each business owner based on his or her goals and plans. Axiom provided technology classes including Basic Computer Skills, Microsoft Office, and QuickBooks. In addition:

  • For farmers, Axiom created online tools to fulfill state and federal reporting requirements.
  • A distance learning registered nurse program which connected the College of Nursing & Health Professions in Lewiston, Maine to Down East Community Hospital in Machias, Maine – 200 miles away.

Across all of Axiom’s BTOP-funded programs, the company provided over 17,000 learning hours to local participants. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversaw the BTOP program, included Axiom’s curriculum in its Broadband Adoption Toolkit.

Axiom’s BTOP success attracted the attention of the Gorman Foundation, which, in 2012, invited the company to apply for funding for two additional years of digital literacy programming. The grant helped reach an additional 2,000 learners. Classes incorporated flexible schedules and were held at 50 locations, including libraries, community centers, career centers, colleges, and local businesses across Washington County.

In the Spring of 2014, the Machias Adult and Community Education program for the Washington county seat was in danger of closing. The Maine Department of Adult Education and a local foundation approached Axiom to ask the local government to reconsider. Axiom started a nonprofit, Axiom Education & Training Center (AETC), with Jane Blackwood as Executive Director, to support the town and county adult education services. AETC opened in July 2014 with zero budget. By Fall of 2014, the budget was $750,000.

By 2015, demand outpaced capacity at Axiom Technologies. Mark Ouellette joined Axiom as a partner and President and Susan Corbett continued as CEO, leading to 25 percent growth within the first year.

Axiom is more than just a technology and broadband services provider. The company -- along with AETC -- is leading a digital equity movement in Maine which it plans to take national in the years ahead. The key to its national push is the recently-announced National Digital Equity Center (NDEC). NDEC, as a part of the AETC nonprofit arm, will seek to engage communities all over the country to provide the expertise needed to mobilize broadband technologies through digital inclusion, literacy efforts, education, resource planning, funding research, and infrastructure leveraging and stakeholder engagement.

Mission

“Our mission is to deliver strategic and customized rural broadband deployment solutions to remote communities everywhere.” - Axiom Mission Statement

“Axiom Education & Training Center is a collaborative, innovative and technology-driven organization that advances the lifelong educational and professional development of businesses and residents, while strengthening the economic, social, and cultural life of the diverse community.” - Axiom Education & Training Center Mission Statement

Services

Table 1. Axiom’s Digital Inclusion Activities (Rhinesmith)
Providing low-cost broadband yes
Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services yes
Making low-cost computers available no
Operating public access computing centers yes

 

Axiom is an ISP that serves 1,200 customers. The majority of customers (approximately 60 percent) are served with fixed wireless. Axiom was the first company in the country to roll out residential service using TV white space technology.

Low-Cost Broadband

Axiom provides subsidized or free broadband internet access service to some local organizations on a case-by-case basis.

Axiom is also working toward the eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) designation in Maine which would allow the company to provide discounted broadband service to low-income households with support of the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program. Axiom is also working with Spectrum and Fairpoint to educate people about the discount programs those ISPs provide. Axiom also educates the communities it is working with on fiber buildouts about the benefits of creating a pool of funds to provide subsidized broadband access for low-income residents.

In May 2017, Axiom received a $72,800 grant from Microsoft to provide internet access to more than three dozen rural homes in Washington County. Axiom used the money to wirelessly connect about 40 buildings, mostly homes, to the Internet using TV white space, refers to the unused spectrum between TV stations. The homes that were chosen had to be “unserved” and agree to take a digital literacy class.

White space technology will allow Axiom to provide wireless Internet access to homes that are far from wired broadband connections. With the help of the Microsoft grant, the cost will be only $9.99 a month and users also will have access to a suite of cloud-based Microsoft programs, such as Excel and Word.

“I see this as the beginning of a relationship with Microsoft,” said Mark Ouellette. “It really does open up the world to small businesses.”

Ouellette said some of the grant money will go toward classes for the new users, to help teach them the Microsoft programs they will have access to, as well as membership for Axiom in the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, an international group of companies and organizations focused on improving and expanding the use of the TV white space technology.

Promoting Low-Cost Technology Services

While Axiom does not directly provide low-cost hardware, it realizes the importance these tools play in digital inclusion. Axiom works with PCs for Maine, which receives donated computers from businesses across Maine, to provide PCs to low-income families and nonprofits. PCs for Maine’s low-cost computers may be purchased from Axiom’s Machias office. Axiom is also beginning to work with Goodwill Industries of Northern New England to promote the program.

Public Access Computing Centers

Axiom’s own computer center is open for public use during business hours, and can be made available to the public during off hours by special request.

Digital Literacy and Education

Digital literacy is at the core of AETC’s work. Classes cover not only basic topics like Microsoft Office and Gmail, but also internet safety and WordPress. Other educational programs reach beyond the traditional digital literacy spectrum based on community partnerships:

  • Work Readiness Certificate: AETC offers WorkReady, a program designed to provide the specific “soft” skills and requirements, which include digital literacy training, that employers look for in current and future employees. The program includes college transition services, assisting students in pursuing post-secondary degrees and certification.
  • The Employers’ Initiative Program (EIP): Designed to strengthen businesses by enhancing the skills and knowledge of the workforce, EIP provides technical assistance, education and workforce skills training to businesses and their employees. The EIP Program includes digital literacy classes for business owners and employees.
  • CompTIA Classes: Partnering with Thomas College, AETC offers college level IT/IS classes to 4 area high schools. Students have the opportunity to earn up to 12 college credits. The courses provides a broad foundation and certifications for students beginning in the IT field, teaching them about hardware construction, security, and networking. These courses provide the following certifications to students who complete them: A+; Network+; and Secure+.

Axiom is also participates in a number of education and technology initiatives started during the Obama Administration:

  • Family Futures Downeast (FFD) is a collaborative effort between AETC and dozens of agencies and organizations on a local and national level. It is a program designed using the two-generation approach; that means we believe that we can help families in Downeast Maine overcome the barriers to success by assisting parents to attain core college credits at the same time as working with their children to prepare them for a positive learning environment. Included in the FFD program is the WorkReady Certification, which includes digital literacy training.
  • STEM Hub Downeast: The Maine Math & Science Alliance designated the greater Machias areas as its 4th STEM Hub, and the most rural. As of 3/31/17, over 500 students have participated in the STEM Hub Downeast program.
  • Tech/Hire: Axiom Technologies is one of ten “Tech/Hire” companies in Maine. Tech/Hire is designed to provide the training and employment opportunities necessary to activate a new tech workforce.
  • MiFi Lending: Axiom, in collaboration with the Maine State Library and US Cellular provides MiFi devices to 6 libraries in Washington County. This program was borne out of the Knight Foundation-funded initiative led by the New York Public Library. The Maine State Legislature approved $50,000 in funding to extend the program in Washington County for an additional two years. Axiom participates both in its role as a reseller of US Cellular internet services (for which they receive a fee) and as local support, providing direct training and technical support.

Community Consulting

Much of Axiom’s work is consulting with communities that are tackling their connectivity problems by creating broadband plans. Community consulting begins with an assessment of socioeconomic demographics, considering what the communities have, what they know, what they might need, and how a community broadband plan might fit into their existing plans. Knowing that libraries and other public computing centers are a tremendous digital inclusion asset, Axiom works to promote public access computing in these community anchors, educating their clients on the potential role these locations can play, and encouraging them to include resources for libraries in their plans.

Financial Model

Axiom Technologies is privately-owned. Revenue is generated through its role as network operator and service provider, contracting with other ISPs, consulting with municipalities, and working with local businesses on their technology needs. Seventy percent of Axiom’s revenue comes from recurring broadband services provided to communities. One-off projects and consulting work with municipalities makes up the remainder and helps grow recurring revenue by opening new markets: If a new network is built, and Axiom is the network operator and broadband provider, recurring revenue is generated through residential and business monthly internet subscriptions. The company has been given boosts by multiple sources. Connect ME has provided funds for capital expenses related to buildout and Microsoft has given Axiom funds for new TVWS projects, both of which have helped to keep recurring revenue strong and steady.

Axiom Education & Training Center (AETC) is Axiom’s nonprofit arm. AETC supports programs made possible by partnerships with regional foundations, contracts with towns and local governments, and, in some cases, matching funds and grants from state and federal programs. AETC has 14 employees that have provided digital literacy training to over 6,000 people and 600 businesses in Washington County, as well as hundreds of adult learners and businesses throughout Maine. The staff will likely grow with the expansion of services under the National Digital Equity Center (NDEC).

Axiom’s engagement with public officials is showing dividends as well. AETC has been contracted by Maine's Department of Health and Human Services to give digital literacy training support to ASPIRE, a workforce readiness program.

The bulk of revenue for AETC comes from municipal contracts for adult education, providing a sustainable core to AETC’s business model. These programs are long term because the local communities’ needs are not going away. Funding for other digital literacy programs comes from a mix of foundations, public and private contract clients, partnerships with local businesses, and other partnerships. Forty percent of AETC’s revenue comes from municipal programs, with the remaining 60 percent coming from other projects. AETC has branched out and diversified its educational and program offerings in order to ensure a steady flow of funding.

Organizational Strategy

Axiom

Axiom employs 15-20 people, based on season and project needs. Axiom’s strategy and new business development model are based on a seven-step rural broadband deployment kit which includes creating plans, getting stakeholder buy-in, and preparing the community to make an investment. Axiom educates communities about the importance of broadband and this process often leads to the community engaging the company in deploying broadband networks. The deployment creates new revenue for Axiom. 

Axion Rural Broadband Deployment Kit

The Seven Steps

1) Assess -- Evaluate community needs and assess assets Before Axiom makes any recommendation to a community, it does a thorough investigation of the assets that are in the community that could be leveraged.

  • Meetings with current service providers to determine if these assets can be leveraged
  • Investigation of current broadband infrastructure
    • Location of fiber-optics
    • Locations of towers that might serve the community with wireless technology
  • Review of any community-imposed barriers
    • Right-of-way laws
    • Moratoriums or height restrictions

2) Define Goals -- Collaborate with leadership and citizens to define needs and goals Through a series of meetings with community, business, and civic organization leaders as well as strong community input, define what the community specifically wants to achieve and begin to define roadmap to achieve goals.

  • Form a broadband committee made up of diverse group of town/city/regional officials and community leaders
  • Reach out to community with a survey to understand community concerns, cost of current service, and where service gaps are present
  • Business surveys and meetings -- work with broadband group to identify key businesses for interviews and identify larger list of businesses through Chamber of Commerce or other organizations to send a business-specific survey

3) Plan -- Develop the strategic and tactical plan for community Once goals are defined, develop a gap analysis that describes what the community has for existing assets that can be leveraged, articulates the goals of the community, and defines what needs to occur to reach its goal through a step-by-step roadmap that can become part of a community’s comprehensive plan.

  • Develop gap analysis
  • Road map that can be implemented over time in phases or all at once
  • Identify resources to help community be ready for implementation
  • Discuss private-public partnerships and other implementation models

4) Implement -- Execute rural broadband deployment plan Work with Axiom to execute a clearly-defined, public-private partnership that spells out each party’s role and responsibility.

  • Determine buildout timeline to complete project
  • Work with Axiom on a revenue-sharing model and determine ownership of network
  • Provide digital literacy classes to help community understand new service and how to leverage it
  • Undertake marketing campaign to boost subscription rates in community
  • Hire local citizen to assist Axiom with customer relations/installations and technical service questions

5) Measure -- Monitor, measure, and manage network Develop service-level metrics to determine if the new network is meeting goals of the project

  • Axiom begins to operate network and assumes all responsibility of network, as defined in the service-level agreement with the community
  • Axiom is a full-service internet service provider that handles all of the billing, technical calls, network monitoring, and field technician work for the community

6) Evolve -- Refine based on feedback, monitoring, and community involvement Over the first year of operation, work closely with community broadband team and customers to monitor and improve service based on feedback

  • Ensure that goals are being met and that changes can quickly and seamlessly be made as issues or concerns arise

7) Enhance -- Ongoing commitment to deliver innovative solutions and enhancements With technical evolution occurring at breakneck speeds, Axiom wants to pause and make sure from time to time that the Digital Divide will not begin to occur again and to ensure that the technology is regularly upgraded as needed to reach changing needs as the relationship between the community and Axiom matures

  • A commitment by Axiom to do a thorough review of network technology in community every three years
    • Discussion with community about any technology changes that might be considered
    • Ongoing commitment to support a community technology fund that could help pay for enhancements to the network infrastructure to keep it current and operating at maximum efficiency

Axiom Education & Training Center

Susan Corbett
Susan Corbett

AETC’s organizational strategy revolves around educating a regional and national workforce. AETC sees an overlapping, digital literacy need across all industries. Whether in education, healthcare, forestry, or economic development, “What is the digital equity plan?” is a question AETC hopes to answer by offering a suite of educational and consulting services. AETC offers both access to and help in understanding how to best use the new tools in the continually-changing technology landscape.

The NDEC’s “tagline” is “Disruptive strategies to close the digital divide.” To work toward this, Corbett plans on wielding the organization’s knowledge, models, and staff capacity at the national level, thus expanding NDEC’s footprint and increasing the long-term viability of the initiative. As there is a noted gap in the market for consulting services, NDEC stands to make a name for itself, and for its parent and sister organizations, by providing services while educating the communities being served.

Strategic Priorities

Axiom

Axiom is working with communities across Maine and in rural communities across the country. The company’s niche market is the “super-rural” communities where Axiom’s last-mile expertise can be best utilized. Through building, maintaining, and operating networks, Axiom sustains and grows.

Axiom works with communities like Cranberry Isles to bring fiber to every home. From formulating plans to writing grant applications, the partnerships help the communities grow. Local governments have come to realize that making the business case to existing broadband providers is impossible. Instead, Axiom is helping communities to make plans to build access themselves.

Axiom Education & Training Center

On September 1, 2017, AETC announced a national program to address digital equity organized around Colin Rhinesmith’s four digital inclusion activities. Axiom plans to make the National Digital Equity Center (NDEC) model a national one, partnering with local agencies and sending Axiom staff to lead training initiatives. For example, Axiom might be contracted by a healthcare agency to provide digital literacy training for elders and their families to help them stay connected.

AETC sees an opportunity in working not just with its for-profit division, but also with other technology companies in baking digital equity into construction bids. AETC understands how that integration needs to be done and the importance of digital equality for the communities being served. This expansion is slated to begin as part of the digital equity programming initiative. AETC can then leverage and foster relationships built through its involvement in national groups like the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition to identify local partners to work with and potentially subcontract to.

Challenges

Axiom

While revenue is secure, growth and closing the digital divide are all based on the availability of funding for shops like Axiom to continue to exist and thrive. Corbett has seen opportunities continue to expand with different pots of infrastructure funding becoming available, but these funds only support buildout, not adoption. On a national level, seeing funding set aside for adoption will be a crucial aspect of any initiative, so that Axiom and its professional peers are able to keep up in a competitive environment.

Axiom Education & Training Center

Funding remains the primary challenge, but is one that is being met by a shift in strategy and move to the national stage. While not losing site of its roots or the local partners that it engages with via AETC, Corbett sees NDEC as the logical next step for an organization with both expertise and resources at the ready. This growth is in response to a clear need in the market, but must stand the test of public awareness of the issue it aims to solve in order to succeed.

While public awareness has been an issue in the past, and remains such, Corbett notices a distinct difference year-to-year in public attitudes. Digital literacy has taken a path that digital inclusion and digital equity are on now. Build understanding, make the issue pervasive, support legislation that creates dedicated resources. AETC sees the challenge as public awareness: It isn’t just about social media and the internet of things; it is about what will be required to be engaged in modern life.

Articulating Success

For Axiom, sustaining profits comes with communities seeing the value of their service and promoting adoption across their population. Axiom customers must find value in its services, which are fulfilling a social mission alongside a business one. Corbett defines success as: 1) ensuring that the unserved are served, 2) increasing capacity of existing networks, and 3) teaching people -- elected officials, community leaders, advocates, and other end users -- how to employ the technology.

Axiom believes that success is folding digital inclusion into all of its projects and promoting that integration into its partnerships. AETC’s continued success, and fulfillment of its educational mission, drives Axiom’s success, and vice versa.

Axiom sees itself as being on the forefront of bridging the digital divide -- and staying there. The position is secure because of the balance Axiom strikes between organizations: Axiom changing the access story; AETC, and now NDEC, helping communities get the most from the access they have.

Conclusion

Axiom’s company ethos is based on problem solving. Without a solution to the last-mile access challenge, it started building solutions. There was a need for education capacity, so Axiom supplied it. There is a knowledge gap about the often-confusing municipal-broadband terrain, and Axiom fills the gap. The company does all of these things not just because it makes good business sense, but because it believes in the public’s right to participate. Whether as part of the new Microsoft TVWS initiative or AETC’s national program expansion, expect to hear the name Axiom a lot over the coming years.


Innovators in Digital Inclusion series


Matthew Kopel
Matthew Kopel

Matthew Kopel is Program Manager at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Matthew is a librarian and web literacy advocate. He has worked since 2014 on issues of digital inclusion and professional development at libraries across New York. Before that Matthew worked in academic publishing, and remains engaged with open access scholarly communications through his work as Managing Editor of the Journal of New Librarianship. In addition to his role managing the IMLS-funded Digital Inclusion Corps, Matthew handles a variety of other projects for NDIA, including a revamp of their web properties. Matthew is based in Ithaca, NY. Email Matthew at [email protected]