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Summary:

Everywhere from the White House to the local White Castle, people are heavily promoting broadband as an antidote to economic woes. But what if a local economy is so bad even broadband doesn’t look like it will help? A recent event offers some clues.

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Everywhere from the White House to the local White Castle people are heavily promoting broadband as an antidote to economic woes. But what if a local economy is so far in the tank it appears to be on life support with no hope for resuscitation, even with broadband? At Broadband Communities Magazine’s Broadband Summit this week in Dallas, broadband and economic development become almost interchangeable. A whole track of sessions addressed how broadband is improving economic conditions.

However, extreme poverty in a number of rural and urban communities presents special challenges to some of today’s solutions being offered. As those with the highest hurdles grapple with and [hopefully] overcome their challenges, more fortunate communities should pay attention to what solutions bubble up. There could be lessons in innovation worth copying by everyone.

When you can’t get there from here

Danville, Va., one of the communities represented on a Summit panel yesterday, was at 19 percent unemployment when the city began pursuing broadband. There are areas seeking broadband deliverance in much worse shape. Forty percent of the population in one such county in the southeast U.S. lives below the poverty line. Everything resembling an industry has left or gone bust. High school dropout rates are off the charts and college is merely a dream for many.

When this far gone, a community should stop trying to save what’s left of a dying economy, and instead create a completely new economy in which broadband is the local industry. Hunter Newby, CEO of infrastructure builder Allied Fiber, states, “this approach is more than valid, it’s a necessity.”

So how does a community get there? Three main factors contribute to growing a local economy: 1) better education of future workers while enhancing skills of current workers; 2) improving existing companies’ ability to grow; and 3) maintaining and improving the health of the workforce.

Grants can build a network. But to financially sustain it so a community can tackle these factors that impact the economy demands sizable on-going revenue from individuals, businesses and other subscribers buying broadband services. That’s hard to do if half of your population lives below the poverty line. Here is where you create a broadband economy.

When broadband becomes the industry

This is a radical concept, but if a town is dying and the schools are merely holding pens until students fade away, replace much of the education system with programs that train future workers to become a digital workforce. Though more challenging, refine this training for unemployed adults. Some will drop out of such programs, but others will stay the courses if designed and presented effectively.

Broadband makes people's homes their offices.

Recently we published a story about a program worth replicating that gives over two thousand students a year hands-on long-term training that builds business-level proficiency in digital media skills. They graduate from training to become technology instructors, editors, music producers, paid interns, and managers and staff for the program. The students even created a company to provide online digital media consulting services to clients around the country. Broadband becomes the means of training as well as the vehicle for telecommuting to jobs outside the community until they bring more jobs closer to home.

Broadband can entice new businesses to town, but even the best results require time to cultivate. Focus initial broadband efforts on current constituents, while leveraging high-speed access to recruit future companies. As recruitment succeeds, use broadband to spawn new local companies to support incoming companies. Russ Brethower, Fiber Optic OSP Manager for Grant County (WA) Public Utilities Division and a Summit speaker told the audience how Quincy, Wash used their network to attract seven data centers to town. Besides construction jobs as well as sizable tax revenue, he expects a tech ecosystem of maintenance and service workers and companies to spring up.

Aggressively train small business owners with the goal of getting every business in town online. As much as possible, transform local regular and home-based businesses to support larger tech industry companies remotely and then locally. Corrie Teague, Marketing and Research Manager for Danville’s Office of Economic Development observes that “their network enticed technology companies to start up here or move to the area. This in turn created a positive spiral effect as this high-tech presence grew. Organizations such as Noblis, which is a nonprofit science, technology and strategy consulting organization is bringing a supercomputer to the office it opened in Danville.”

Addressing medical and healthcare, one of Danville’s largest employers is the Danville Regional Medical Center. It has several clinics around town that use broadband to move a lot of data among the facilities. This results in a quality and quantity of medical services that make Danville Regional a major draw for businesses looking to re-locate to the town.

The final word from the Summit is, if they talk the talk of broadband and economic development, communities have to walk the walk. If there’s no path, make one.

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.

  1. Kate Schackai Friday, April 27, 2012

    I love these ideas, but I think you’ve made an assumption that should be examined: namely, that people in unwired areas are already sold on the importance of connectivity.

    Honestly, as one of probably <50 people in my town with broadband, I can tell you that people who are currently living outside of the digital economy don't necessarily have their noses pressed against the glass, just wishing that they could participate in the high tech world. Many are skeptical — or even hostile — about "work" that happens digitally.

    And schools? I wish! You're facing entrenched curricula and often change-resistant staff who see technology as a challenge to their employment. I'm sure my little local elementary school could cut its budget in half and double its test scores by using easily available tech in the classrooms. But as of this moment, they don't seem to want to.

    That is to say that it's more than an issue of access. It can also be a matter of mindset.

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  2. Chris Conder Friday, April 27, 2012

    Kate, I agree we have some mindset issues, but mainly its just plain old common sense. The rural people and the teachers know that the internet to them is a semi-closed book. If it takes too long to open a page, they remain analogue. Rural people are not fools, and when the tech is available and fit for purpose they will embrace it. They won’t waste time wishing upon a star. Its up to the few amongst us who already know its value to strive to get it, and to get it to everyone. Those who have slow connections at the moment moan about it so much they put a lot of people off even trying. Until it is all easy, affordable, ubiquitous – we are leaving a lot of people out. We need some rural fibre, high speed connections that just work, and then folk can do what they need to and get on with life.

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  3. There is no doubt that mindset is an issue. However, my argument here is that there are communities pursuing broadband grants or funding from other sources who may be going in with the wrong mindset. Communities that are so far behind the curve it’s frightening.

    The leaders pushing for broadband in those distressed cases need to approach broadband differently than communities pursuing money but have a better economic foundation. If you have 40% unemployment, how many are going to buy broadband even if it’s cheap? Who’s going to use the Internet effectively if much of the employed and unemployed in the area have a 10th grade education?

    Either you go in with a different mindset, or don’t bother at all. What I fear is the situations in which people throw a whole bunch of money at a problem, but manage it with strategies and expectations established more from habit and yesteryear’s best practices rather than adapting new strategies.

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