Needs Assessments: Building block to broadband success

My previous post explores some of the facts of life when you treat community broadband networks as a business venture. Today’s post addresses needs analysis, the foundation of any network project if you want to be sure that people actually pay for and also use it. It’s also a necessary exercise if you want a decent shot at broadband grants.  

What created many the muni wireless disasters, even with private sector companies offering free networks, was the complete lack of thorough needs analysis to determine who was going to use these networks. Politicians fell for the three myths of tech innovation: 1) if you build it, they will come, 2) market it enough, they will buy and 3) first one out with an innovation wins.

Cities that claimed they were going to cure all the ills of modern life with muni WiFi could not answer the question, who exactly would be the network users and was WiFi really the best technology for them? When faced with skeptics, many clamored louder for “free” networks. And I could have financed a car if I had $10 for every headline in 2006 claiming some city or other was going to be the “first” with wireless for everyone.

The lure of all this government free stimulus money is driving similar action without forethought once again. However, if you haven’t walked the streets, attended town meetings, surveyed businesses coordinated focus groups and the like, how can you know with some degree of certainty which constituents and stakeholder groups will financially sustain the network?

Ask, build, ask

I recommend the ask-build-ask-again approach to needs assessment. After presenting a general picture of the benefits possible with highspeed Internet access (both wired AND wireless), ask constituents what they want or need, how getting what they want will benefit them and how much can they pay for the service. Also pose these questions to the type of businesses you want broadband to bring to your community.

After asking the questions, develop on paper a prototype of the network infrastructure and capabilities you think best suited to meet these stated needs. Take this prototype to those constituents and ask “this is what we think you asked for, but is it really what you want?” Even if you’re talking to constituents who aren’t able to afford to pay a lot for service, you still have to know that they’ll be able to use what you build.

One community leader from a low-income neigborhood in Philadelphia who was involved with focus groups for that city’s wireless network explained how city representatives would talk to them about being able sit in the park and use laptops. She told them, “our folks do not have little laptops that they can take to the park. Listen to them. Otherwise you’re just wasting people’s time.”   

The creation orientation

When you’re doing needs assessment, I strongly suggest you use a creation orientation. When you try to create something you bring something new into being. There’s a lot of energy you get with “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” brainstorming. Or President Kennedy’s approach in the 60’s of presenting the vision of going to the moon in 10 years, and challenging those around him to create the best way to make it happen. This inspires incredible vision with lots of people contributing to it because they become part of the dream.

To get the most accurate picture possible of your constituents’ and stakeholders’ needs, cast your net wide to get feedback from a variety of people. Get people within each targeted segment who have opposing opinions and have different needs for the network. The more needs one network can meet effectively, the more potential customers you’ll have. Look at needs a couple of years down the road as you do your best to forecast for constituents what technology is on the horizon.  

When you’re developing schematics of how the network might look, evaluate a range of technologies. Consider the practicalities of your different options when you evaluate geography and costs-versus-benefits issues. The biggest threat to the network’s success is the foregone conclusion that you create before doing your needs assessment, rather than the logical conclusions that should come from an effective assessment.

Broadband mapping 

One element of the needs assessment I’ll tackle in my next post is broadband mapping. Though is it often discussed in policy wonk circles, it’s starting to break into everyday discussions. Mapping is a core part of determining needs because if you don’t know who has or doesn’t have adequate broadband, it’s difficult to convince NTIA and RUS that your grant proposal is more worthy than someone else’s.

A company that I think people should seriously consider for mapping is RidgeviewTel. I interviewed them recently and found their approach to the task to be simple, logical, accurate, quick and affordable. You can see a sample of the output their software produces in the last slide of my PowerPoint.

More on mapping and needs assessment soon.

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