You’ve got a gigabit network, so now what?

Two news headlines of note this week highlight the challenges of getting what you wish for, especially if what you wished for is a gigabit network. From Chattanooga, Tenn. we learn about a contest this weekend to build a startup in 48 hours using the city’s gigabit broadband network, while over in Kansas City, soon to be home to Google’s (s goog) fiber-to-the-home gigabit network, people are unsure how they want to use it. The former highlights one community that’s reached a broadband objective, the latter reflects another’s uncertainty about what its objectives are.

Act now, plan later.

The broadband stimulus program of 2009, and to some degree Google’s Gigabit City contest last year, forced communities to quickly run a gauntlet designed to compare applicants and award grants. But the winners are realizing that conforming to an application process at breakneck speed is vastly different from the planning required to define and key reach broadband objectives.

Some participants by necessity had to forgo effective needs assessment and planning based on that assessment and are left wondering if the network they build will deliver what they need or want. Most believe, as the theme for the recent GigaOm’s RoadMap conference states, “Connectivity Changes Everything,” but it is the particulars of that change that give mayors and stakeholders heartburn.

Brainstorming for ideas is a logical first step, but it shouldn’t get too far ahead of effective planning. In Chattanooga this weekend, several hundred people will use the city’s gigabit network for a 48-hour united effort to help 27 entrepreneurs transform ideas to investment-worthy businesses. A great idea by itself, 48Hour Launch is part of a bigger, more complex and well-planned economic development program involving a variety of citizens, businesses and organizations.

Getting ideas and then getting them done.

For brainstorming to be effective, educational institutions, the medical community, small businesses and startups, government workers, and others first should understand what they need from a gigabit network and what such a network can deliver. Once the people who will use the network see what’s possible, then start the idea generation engines. Building the Gigabit City, written by The Brainzooming Group and the Social Media Club of Kansas City and released Thursday, reports on a recent day-long brainstorming session reflecting this tactic that involved over 65 local stakeholders.

One of the ideas in the report is to create “virtual doctors” using video and audio technology that enables doctors to reduce travel, increase time with patients and dispense general medical advice to a broader audience through interactive podcasts and video presentations. Another explores creating high-speed, high-bandwidth tools that enable inner-city schools to share resources with affluent schools. Similar applications could enable alumni, business executives and skilled workers to mentor high school and college students “face-to-face” from anywhere in the country or world.

Stakeholders should next go into planning sessions where ideas are prioritized, roadmaps laid out for each stakeholder group and people begin putting concrete plans for applications into place with benchmarks for measuring success. Other communities’ success stories should be incorporated where it makes sense. Software developers, UI designers and other tech experts should be brought in at this point to create technology roadmaps that complement the community’s plans.

Make the network the star.

As much as possible, use the network to integrate apps and activities. 48Hour Launch, for example, is one of a series of events interwoven under the banner Gig City to create startups. Another activity recruits college students from around the U.S. for a summer gig application development contest with a $50,000 prize. A second contest for entrepreneurs using Chattanooga’s gig network to develop apps offers a $100,000 grand prize. A complementary set of activities offers nearly $200,000 in seed capital to startups with prototypes of gigabit apps that seem likely to attract serious venture capital. All of these ideas are aimed at boosting economic development through getting startups to come to Chattanooga because of its gigabit network.

“We’re looking to bring together technology, people and resources that will define the next generation of broadband applications,” Gig City director John Wilson said on a recent Gigabit Nation show.

It’s still early in the game yet for Kansas City and many other communities moving toward better, faster broadband. Some may stumble along the way. However, understanding the community’s needs and planning appropriately – rather than just hoping if you build it, the applications will come – is what takes a city to exciting broadband destinations.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and consultant who helps organizations develop effective broadband strategies. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.