Everyone who remembers M*A*S*H and its zany cast of characters remembers the quirky, lovable and oh so efficient Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly who hailed from Ottumwa, IA. Radar likely would be very pleased with recent developments in Ottumwa to bring highspeed broadband and higher levels of efficiency to businesses, healthcare facilities and various local institutions.
Ottumwa began its journey in 2012 toward faster, better Internet access that has been deliberate, inclusive and thorough. Initially led by the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation, project leadership shifted this year to the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, which last month retained Pinpoint Services to begin engineering design for a pilot project.
The Ottumwa project offers valuable lessons in needs assessment, consensus building and informed decision making. I was brought in to conduct the needs assessment, lead several workshops and a couple town hall meetings, compile a technology inventory and create a roadmap forward.
Starting at the top
It’s best to have a 30,000-foot view of the communities needs to set the stage for the information-gathering phase, so we conducted phone interviews with leaders from within key stakeholder groups such as education, healthcare, local government and business. Besides gathering valuable information, these interviews educated and motivated the people Ottumwa needs to be lieutenants to help drive broadband adoption when the network launches.
The workshops with attendees representing the different stakeholder groups is where we identified the nature of constituents’ needs and put metrics to the benefits that will result once their constituents begin using the network. Once people started to see broadband benefits in tangible ways, support increased, word of mouth spread throughout town, more ideas for what to do with the network piled on and consensus developed within and between groups for what kind of technology would make sense.
The technology inventory is critical because there are resources available that can lower deployment costs. While the larger providers’ services are part of the inventory, the smaller providers in Ottumwa’s county offer the most promise to be part of the eventual solution. We also got a bead on right of way and permitting issues, which likely will present few challenges for the buildout. If there are two ways communities shortchange themselves or shoot themselves in the foot, it’s failing to sufficiently scope out existing technology resources and/or examine non–tech factors that influence a buildout.
Good surveys and maps are hard to beat
Putting a cap on the data-gathering process for the project’s first phase were the online surveying and mapping efforts. One survey for residents and one for businesses keyed on 1) how do folks feel about the usefulness of broadband they’re receiving – or not, and 2) what would they like to do with broadband that they currently can’t. The surveys tested other assumptions and concerns that our previous activities uncovered. We also tested a broadband needs mapping software a colleague developed. The software has a lot of potential and I plan to use it for other clients.
As consensus formed around a business model similar to one used in Steuben County, IN, we decided a road trip was in order. Primary stakeholders packed up and went to Steuben County to see their iMAN fiber network operation up close and personal. Not only did all of us learn a lot, it validated Ottumwa’s decision AND created a close professional bond with the iMAN team that will carry on into the future and benefit both communities.
Based on the ton of feedback gathered, we spent the last quarter of 2013 developing and refining a pilot project that will cover a five-to-six-mile section of Ottumwa, and early 2014 validating the scope of the pilot project. A significant part of the pilot will be devoted to testing buildout and business assumptions related to the potential citywide network. We’ll also look at the potential applications organizations will run, and how wireless technologies might be integrated with the network.
There’s a lot more to be learned, but all the signs so far indicate that Ottumwa has a lot of pent-up demand, there are good opportunities for organizations to partner with the community in this effort and the potential benefits to constituents are many. Radar should be pleased with progress so far and everyone’s diligence in covering the bases getting to this point.
Cpl. Walter ‘Radar’ O’Reilly: I’ve checked with everyone from Nurse Able to Sergeant Zale.
Col. Sherman T. Potter: A to Z, very methodical.
Cpl. Walter ‘Radar’ O’Reilly: Well, I try to use the alphabet whenever I can, Sir.
If you’re in Austin next week for the Broadband Communities Summit, stop by the Calix booth (#604) to get a signed copy go my book (“Building the Gigabit City”), and find out how I do that voodoo that I do so well for Ottumwa and other communities.
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