Today I begin a two-day broadband site visit in Chattanooga, TN to check out the progress of their public utility’s (EPB) broadband network. One of the objectives of the visit is to put a face (well, several faces, really) on community broadband success.
Incumbent telcos, cable companies and their allies like to attack community networks by portraying them as failures. But in reality, over 130 of these networks are up and running quite successfully, thank you very much.
Chattanooga has done an excellent job promoting their successes, and the hits keep on coming. But they’re not the only superstars in Tennessee. I’ve interviewed Dan Speers a couple of times. He’s Executive Director of the Pulaski-Giles County Economic Development Council.
As I’m running around gathering all kinds of interesting stories and insights from Chattanooga, this is a good lead-in article for you to get a feel for what’s happening in this state.
1. What are some specific examples of your community or municipal broadband network impacting business or personal economic development?
There’s a printing operation here with their corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. They have to be able to send artwork all the time to headquarters. There’s a guy who works developing catalogue books that are published by an outfit in Canada. Before the network it would take him six hours to upload materials and now it’s done in minutes. One company has their offices on the north side of community and the manufacturing plant on the south side. They’re always sending large data files back and forth.
Hospitals here can upload and download files such as x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans immediately between other hospitals and doctors 75 miles away in Nashville. Patients don’t have to be transferred there, and they don’t have paper records that have to be carried by hand to specialists like they did in the old days. All of this saves lives and it saves money. There are communities much more rural than us and this technology can really add to the effectiveness of their medical care. None of this can happen without broadband.
WiFi is fast but it can’t deliver the necessary bandwidth that the educational components of our economic development program require. We can do it through fiber, though. The World Wide Wait is over in Pulaski.
2. For a local business economy, do you see broadband networks having the greatest impact by bringing more new businesses to town, or by improving current local companies’ competitiveness and profitability?
The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got. Take care of your existing industry first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get an industry to come in because they need the broadband, than that’s gravy.
During this current economic downturn, we’ve focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We’re teaching businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they can broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet. Our philosophy is to tie in the use of technology to help the businesses we have.
3. Can these networks lead to the increase, and eventual success, of home-based businesses?
We’re going to try to do certain things to make this happen. We’ve been investigating several organizations such as Kauffman Foundation and SCORE that do entrepreneur training and research studies on entrepreneurialism. We believe the future of economic development is in what’s called economic gardening, meaning you teach people entrepreneurial skills such as bookkeeping and business development. You show them opportunities in the knowledge industry, for example, that they can take advantage of from home. We’re doing this now during the downturn, but if it’s successful we may continue when things pick back up.
4. In what ways can muni networks facilitate the re-training of jobless individuals for the new digital and global economy?
First, you make it available where adult education occurs, which for us is in career centers and technology centers. They offer a great deal of this type of training. When a plant is closing, there is a direct pitch to these workers to take the courses. There’s also a Web site run by the International Commission on Workforce Development (www.icwfd.org). They partnered with Microsoft to offer people skills training so they can pass the various Microsoft certification programs. People do this work at home. You’d rather have something more structured, but this can be done effectively online, so consider it.
This training is key to success of economic development, so the leadership in a community has to explore ways to bring in these kinds of services inexpensively. By delivering to computer-based training over the network to the schools, the potential is unlimited to getting these teachers to use the tech for adults as well as students. We’re talking about life-long learning here. Some people can’t seem to grasp this concept, but it’s very important. Technology can deliver that if it’s harnessed and used in a correct manner.
5. Besides highspeed access, what technologies and programs need to be put into place in order to impact economic development?
This tech is supposed to level the playing field. However, if all you do is put in the pipe, you haven’t leveled field until content comes through that improves the individuals at the other end. Any type of software that encourages training and education of youth and adults is a good start.
Another valuable asset to have is a computer lab that’s open to the public. That can be an after-hours school, sort of like they do at some libraries, with maybe 12 computers and a guide who can walk through things with people.
Whatever programs you put into place, you have to have someone within the community who has the capacity to organize people to use the service. It doesn’t matter if that person is with the education system or economic development, but they have to be someone the community can trust. I remember in ‘94 talking to people about what was going to happen with Internet access. Something like this has never been done before, and people looked at me like I was crazy.
6. How do you fund these network projects given the current economic climate?
We did our network with bonds when they were very inexpensive. Now the revenue from the network is paying for the bond. If you’re just getting in, the cost of technology has gone down, but the bond market not doing well and money is going to be harder to get. Then there’s the difficulty stemming from the fact that municipalities are constantly in conflict with cable industry because they perceive that we’re competing with them. But my position is, this isn’t about TV. They’re trying to sell cable programming while we’re trying to build communities.
7. What can the Obama administration do to improve the advancement of broadband network projects that improve local economies?
From a Tennessee perspective, first put us on a level playing field with the telcos. Allow municipalities to get into the business with none of the restrictions we have. We wanted to be able to wholesale our network services. Take Lawrenceberg, for example. They have no broadband and the telcos flat out refuse to build it there. We can expand our network over to them and they’d save $3 Million. But with the law the state legislature passed, we can’t serve them because they’re out of our area. If we shared head-in facilities, this would go a long way for economic development there.
Make telcos part of the equation, give them an incentive, but also give communities incentives. Don’t penalize one for the other. Tell them if they’re not going to go into the rural areas, we’ll give a grant to Pulaski Electric System to sell this service. The other part after getting telcos out of the way is paying for broadband. We didn’t have these issues when highways were built because a lot of importance was given to that project. We’re going to start to experience bandwidth issues given telcos will start limiting access speeds because the coaxle technology can’t handle the increasing demand. This will force people to address the issue.
Find a way to fund fiber optic development in rural America, along with a creative way to introduce, and manage content to the public. The government needs a clear policy that has working definition of broadband that’s fits the reality of the 21st century. If they raised the speed that defines broadband, it would change the math of how the telcos show how much coverage they’re providing. Here in Pulaski our Internet speeds are faster than they are in Sweden. But we’re nowhere close to France, Japan. America as a whole is on par with 3rd world countries.
8. What are the top three things a local government needs to do if they want a muni network to impact economic development?
Sometimes people can’t define economic development, but they know it when they see it. As an elected official I know this technology can do what we need to make life for citizens better and this translates into economic development. The better the information technology you bring in, the better you’re going to strengthen the four elements that define economic development. Fiber to the home touches every one of them.
First is business retention and expansion of existing businesses. There’s going to come a time when the manufacturing industry, for example, will require higher broadband speed than what’s available for downloading maps, blueprints and so forth. If you don’t have it you’re not going to keep the ones you have or get new ones. Second is workforce development and training.
Then you have tourism development. This can be done for small cities. I’m not talking about building a Wally World or Disneyland. This is about making your city a destination community. If you can do things with the technology that brings people from 50 or 100 miles away, this would be great.
Finally there’s small business and entrepreneur development from among people in the community, home based businesses in particular.