Over the past several decades, many rural communities have experienced economic recession without recovery, family and youth outmigration, job loss and disinvestment. In the 21st century, the elements underlying a community (economic activity, healthcare, education, delivery of government services, etc.) provide new opportunities, new life, and new meaning through broadband and related technologies. These elements contribute significantly to the wellbeing of a place, and with access to high-speed infrastructure, meaningful adoption, and innovative and efficient use, any rural community can compete with any urban or suburban locale. Improved broadband access, adoption and use can help rural places stabilize, sustain and transform themselves.
The Connected Community Engagement Program (Connected) from Connected Nation (CN) helps rural places build a case for infrastructure expansion, while escalating the adoption and use of technology in key sectors through a comprehensive, facilitated local technology planning program.
Connected provides a roadmap for communities looking to expand their Internet capabilities, assisting with surveys, mapping broadband service, planning and stakeholder gathering, communicating with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and implementing action items needed to improve broadband access, adoption, and use. Using assessment criteria based on national standards and best practices, the Connected program helps cities and counties quantify their technology resources and build a plan for expansion as a Connected Certified Community.
As of summer 2015 CN has engaged over 300 communities across seven states. These communities represent over 250,000 businesses, 4.4 million households, and 12 million residents.
Tourist Turned Telecommuter
To expand broadband in rural communities, the first step is engaging leaders and determining where broadband exists, where it is needed, where digital literacy education is desired, and what community resources exist to bolster improvements. Connected Community Technology Advisors guide community stakeholders through this initial survey.
Some communities find that broadband Internet is widely available, but not being optimally utilized, advertised or understood. Indianola, Iowa, a Connected Certified Community as of February 2013, hosts groundbreaking Gigabit Internet. Yet a community survey showed that this exceptional technology was going unnoticed by many businesses and families. Status as a Connected Certified Community allowed Indianola to market its Gigabit technology and draw more people to the city.
“We learned about how much we had and how we can utilize that and promote that throughout the community,” said Chelle Klootwyk, community champion for Indianola’s Connected campaign.
Other communities discover through surveys that Internet availability is sparse, but highly desired. Limited access was available in Gogebic County, Mich. However, the county’s survey facilitated through the Connected program showed that visitors would stay longer or permanently if they could bridge distance gaps online.
“We recognize that our county is very rich in natural resources — hiking trails, fishing, biking, scenic areas — and we asked what we could do to take advantage of this,” said James Lorenson, president of Gogebic County Community College. “One of the opportunities is telecommuting. People are up here vacationing and that might translate into some folks living up here and working from home.”
When the survey in Ogemaw County, Mich. — a sparsely populated, agricultural zone — showed a strong interest in broadband expansion with limited access available, community leaders and their Connected team created a plan to use existing architecture in the area to support wireless equipment. The county conducted a vertical assets survey — including grain elevators, barns, and silos — as a part of its action plan to identify which structures could be fitted with antennas.
“Because of the large number of agricultural properties, this could be the solution for getting broadband in several of our underserved areas,” said Mandi Chasey, director of the Ogemaw County Economic Development Corp.
Such creative solutions and strong organizational ties have helped raise broadband adoption rates in Connected-participating communities higher than the national average.
Hilton Head Island, S.C., took on different issues in its action plan to address its needs as a tourist destination and resort/retirement residential community. To increase broadband coverage, zoning regulations in several subdivisions were relaxed, allowing new wireless towers to be built. Digital literacy classes were also conducted to help tourist-based businesses use online marketing, and a tablet program began through local schools to introduce children to new technology early. Hilton Head Island is one of eight Connected Certified Communities in the Palmetto State, joined most recently by Berkeley County in June 2015.
As new technologies continue to develop, so do the needs of each community. Connected’s community assessment criteria are evolving. Since the program’s inception, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission has increased the speed at which it defines broadband.
Whether to diversify economies, attract new business, strengthen the workforce or simply create more desirable areas to live in, Connected will continue to help leaders and residents organize and plan for the future.
Eric Frederick is Vice President, Community Affairs, for Connected Nation (www.connectednation.org).