Using broadband to impact local economic development is not an exact science and it may never be. However, there are some threads of commonality that run through many of the community broadband success stories. Here are a few.
Needs analysis – don’t leave home without it
Unless you do sufficient needs analysis early and often, your efforts are in peril before you even leave the gate. In eight years of surveying economic development professionals nationwide, I’ve frequently found that some policymakers speaking on behalf of broadband are on a different page than those who work dealing with economic issues daily. For example, some FCC and other D.C. policymakers at times have been prone to put wireless on a pedestal as the Great Broadband Hope, whereas the econ dev professionals consistently report that fiber networks have a greater economic impact.
Only by doing thorough analyses can community stakeholders uncover the extent of constituents’ needs, and determine how meeting those needs will lead to financial sustainability of the network. Meeting these needs wins subscribers, which ties directly to your success. If you can’t cover a significant portion of your network’s operating costs, it won’t be an effective economic development tool.
Equally important, this analysis is how you identify the best paths to impacting your local economy, whether it’s properly identifying Internet services that help local businesses grow, or online educational programs to re-train your workforce for the digital age.
Include the four main food groups
Develop broadband strategy plans to address four main categories of activities that respectively impact the local economy: 1) improving current and future businesses’ communications, 2) transforming education/workforce training, 3) facilitating healthcare/medical services delivery and 4) making government operations more effective. This presentation (starting at minute 24) breaks down how meeting constituents’ broadband needs in each of these areas boosts your economy.
Improving current businesses and attracting new ones are the core of economic development. Mitchell, SD has proved with their broadband efforts that communities can build new industries around attracting and supporting the right set of companies. Long Beach, CA and Danville, VA have good examples of creating broadband-driven education programs that start with pre-schoolers and work right up the line to adults.
Prestonburg, KY’s economic director several years ago was ahead of the curve in foreseeing how video and wireless technology can facilitate preventative healthcare. Now, with a little legwork you can find dozens of communities that are doing the same with wireless and wired infrastructure. The pillar of Santa Monica, CA’s broadband plan was to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings by replacing the City’s outdated data and voice communication infrastructure. Quite a few local governments should first look within to find opportunities to self-fund broadband by overhauling internal communications.
Broadband-driven economic development is not a “build & boogie” deal
I’ve talked to people over the years whose actions and statements infer that once you build a broadband network for a community, your job is done. Just look at the various regional middle-mile infrastructure projects finally coming online that were funded by the stimulus program. Reading the media hype at the outset of the stimulus, you got the feeling that once these networks were done, market forces, local enthusiasm or some form of magic would lift up local economies.
Actually, you have to be ready and willing to integrate the broadband network and Internet services with lots of hard work on multiple activities. Several years after Santa Monica built its fiber network, they had to proactively lobby office building owners and create an incentive program to convince them to wire their buildings with fiber infrastructure and links to the city’s network. The result was half empty buildings within months were completely filled, boosting the city’s tax base. There are many new activities that can and should be encouraged to take advantage of the network, such as Chattanooga’s steady stream of initiatives that stakeholders launch to continually drive startups and innovation.
You will almost always find that it is a series of well thought out programs and policies combined with broadband technologies that lead to the greatest economic successes. Also, even though communities usually see notable economic development progress in the first year of launching a network, it often takes years for broadband to reach its full potential. Communities must be ready for the long journey.
Without a plan, you’ll likely wander aimlessly
In my 2011 survey of economic development professionals, 39% of respondents reported having an economic development plan that includes strategies and tactics for using broadband to achieve certain economic outcomes, and another 8% were incorporating such elements into plans they were developing at that time. This means 53% of the communities represented in the survey were merely hoping that broadband would have a positive economic impact – if they even believe the technology would help them at all. 15% of respondents said not everyone in their agency or group was convinced of the value broadband brings to economic development.
It was interesting to see that rural communities beat urban ones hands down in preparing to use broadband, with 46% that had strategies and tactics for such in their plans. An additional 12% of rural respondents were incorporating broadband into their plans. In some respects, rural communities have the most riding on their ability to pull out of today’s economic doldrums, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they are eagerly and intelligently embracing broadband.
My survey of IEDC members later this year will solicit new feedback to update these numbers, and see how much communities have advanced in their planning over the last two years.