Does Kansas City own the business of broadband?

Studying the more than 150 successful community broadband networks (see map), and listening to mayors of cities that are driving significant innovations with broadband, a serious question comes to mind. Has Kansas City taken full ownership of the business of broadband? Communities nationwide with broadband hopes should ask the same question of their efforts.

We often read about the delays and uncertainties of Google’s actions while Kansas City constituents undertake many activities to foster innovation and find the “killer app.”  But will they and other communities become like Philadelphia and other cities whose broadband dreams were thwarted after they turned the initiative over to private-sector companies?

Owning the physical network and providing highspeed Internet access is a business. But “the business of broadband” is that process by which communities use the technology as a tool to improve economic development, transform education and expedite healthcare delivery. Owning this process, whether or not you own the physical infrastructure and services, is how communities reap significant broadband benefits.

To inject national perspective and create something of a benchmark to measure the city’s progress, here are “7 Habits of Highly Effective Owners of the Business of Broadband.”

1. Have a broadband champion. Usually one person, a Lead Cat Herder if you will, should be a key force uniting and driving community stakeholders to achieve broadband’s promised benefits. It’s ok if a group shares leadership responsibilities, but to maximize the effort, one local person should be the project champion.

Several years ago, “It got so people would see me coming and try to get away because they knew I was going to talk their ear off about broadband,” says Dan Speer, Pulaski, Tenn.’s broadband champion. He’s now hailed as the primary reason Pulaski shares the Broadband Winner’s Circle with its bigger neighbor Chattanooga. Research a broadband success story and you’ll find they succeeded largely due to their champion.

2. Establish a single purpose. Santa Monica, CA developed their fiber network initially to replace the city government’s aging data and voice communications systems. The savings were so significant the city could afford to expand the network citywide to serve government and local businesses. Chattanooga’s initial network goal was to modernize and enhance how electricity is delivered to business customers, an improvement collectively worth millions to local companies. Danville, VA’s network was initiated to tackle the city’s 19 percent unemployment rate.

Identify one broadband goal that is significant enough by itself to cost justify much of the network’s expense. It may not be sexy, or viewed as a “killer app.” This singleness of purpose launches the network and provides a foundation for future success. Hundreds of worthwhile applications will follow.

3. Do a thorough needs assessment. Kansas City’s day-long community-wide brainstorming session was a critical early step. Follow this with multiple assessments, financial analysis and planning efforts within various constituency groups (business, education, healthcare, nonprofits, etc.). The Cape Cod region in Massachusetts and Chattanooga, TN were planning for over a year before the 2009 broadband stimulus. This is how communities drive technology for maximum impact. A major grant or a benefactor such as Google accelerates the drive, but progress doesn’t stop if the benefactor doesn’t deliver as expected.

4. Determine how to financially sustain the network. The needs assessment should identify who’s going to subscribe to, or invest in, both the network and the business of broadband. The most awesome broadband technology won’t mean jack unless communities turn identified needs into grants, subscriber fees, donations, investments and so on.

5. Have a solid marketing plan. One project leader recently recruited to run a network project said “It’s clear these folks wrote a great application that won stimulus money. But it’s also clear that when they wrote it two and a half years ago no one really knew how they were going to market the thing.”

Awkward (panicked) is that moment when a community realizes they’re not getting providers to deliver last-mile Internet services to constituents because no one fully understands how to market, when to market and to whom. Relying solely on the private sector companies that owned “muni” wireless networks to also build market demand got Philadelphia, Portland, Ore. and many other cities in trouble. The community has to drive much of the marketing in partnership with providers.

6. Own the relationship with private sector companies. Or at least own half the relationship. Private companies have needs. The community has needs. Sometimes, these needs conflict. If the community has not negotiated a partnership that protects the community’s ability to use/leverage the network to meet its broadband needs, many of these needs will remain unmet.

7. Demand measurement and accountability. If the needs assessment and planning are done properly, it becomes evident how broadband progress should be measured. Don’t be shy in holding stakeholders, project leaders, vendors and others accountable for reaching benchmarks and on-going successes.

It’s necessary to have businesses help communities in any number of ways. But a community’s success in maximizing the technology depends on stakeholders owning the business of broadband.

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.

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