The Business Technology Opportunity Program awards have now been made. Most states have received awards for a combination of Comprehensive Community Infrastructure (CCI), Public Computing Center (PCC) and Sustainable Broadband Initiative (SBA) grants.
In addition, many lead state agencies received supplemental funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the continuation of data gathering and mapping, and the coordination of state broadband network development and adoption plans. There are ways in which the various work programs funded by BTOP can be coordinated to achieve maximum local benefits. Let’s explore the possibilities.
First, SBA projects, oriented to the promotion and advancement of local internet education and training for both area and vertical markets, can provide training content for PCCs and for the stimulation of demand by user groups for the broadband connectivity provided by the CCIs.
Second, local broadband networks should be used to support comprehensive and functional community, educational and economic development planning, with vertical market adoption strategies as well as historic TOP programs to maximize the number of subscribers to the CCI networks and the value of the practical broadband applications and services available over the Internet.
Third, an effort should be made by BTOP winners to document and share their experiences so that other groups throughout the state can benefit from the BTOP awards even though they were not funded by BTOP but could be funded in the future by other state and federal programs.
All states have received funding from NTIA for data gathering and mapping and to support other state initiatives and to advance the broadband promotion, deployment and adoption strategies in the state. In addition to the completion of their data-gathering and mapping efforts, states have proposed to use these supplemental NTIA funds to promote broadband and Internet use by: veterans, small businesses, county and city broadband adoption plans, healthcare, education, research, pilot projects and the ongoing administrative support for the development of the state’s broadband plan.
Promote Vertical Markets and User Groups in Area Broadband Markets
While BTOP grants have provided capital for the engineering and construction of broadband networks, the long term sustainability of the networks requires the maximum use of the networks by user groups, including stimulating the demand for network services whether voice, video or data. There are a host of potential users of broadband services in all of the areas served by BTOP networks.
These user groups include anchor institutions like local government, healthcare facilities, K-12 schools, universities and community colleges, government-assisted housing projects and Broadband Internet Service Providers that provide “last mile” connections to the ultimate residential and business consumers.
To maximize the demand for these network services, all of the intermediaries need to explain to their customers through persuasive presentations that a broadband subscription is a sensible and practical investment. The financial benefits of the BTOP grant are finite. The ultimate consumers need to determine that the practical benefits of broadband services are understood and worth paying for. Networks have to develop intermediaries and ultimate consumers in numbers and for amounts sufficient to assure the long-term financial feasibility of the network. The long term success of each network will depend upon the abilities of the networks to create and sustain local cultures of Internet use based on the successful user experience of customers.
As an example, in 2005 Connect Kentucky initiated the development of functional area broadband use by promoting local county-based broadband adoption strategies. Connect Kentucky collected broadband uses by county in nine functional areas: (1) business; (2) K-12; (3) healthcare; (4) libraries; (5) higher education; (6) community-based organizations; (7) government; (8) tourism, recreation and parks; and (9) agriculture.
Connect Kentucky then organized county broadband development teams to gather experiences from their own counties to share with other counties throughout the state so that one successful experience in one county could be adapted to other situations throughout the state.
The newly created Partnership for a Connected Illinois is also using local e-teams to promote broadband in towns, cities, counties and regions. The goal is to maximize broadband use in conceptual spreadsheet “cells,” which reflect the intersection of geographical “columns” and “rows” of users representing vertical markets and applications.
Connecting Broadband Deployment with Regional Comprehensive Planning for Community and Economic Development, Education and Building Human Capital
Historically, urban and regional planners have used the physical infrastructure of sewer, water, roads and transit intersections as supporting foundations for city or county economic development plans. Increasingly, cities and counties are using broadband investments as justification for business recruitment and retention efforts. In large part, this was the justification for the development of municipal broadband networks in the past ten years.
Large businesses require broadband connectivity to compete nationally and internationally in the 21st century economy, typically installed private, proprietary broadband for cost savings and to ensure availability of sufficient capacity. Recently, broadband is increasingly thought to be essential to the cost-effective distribution of government, health care, educational and workforce development services as well. Increasingly, small businesses and start-ups are using the Internet for supply chain management, marketing and sales to grow their businesses and to create local jobs.
Small businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, need to be online with interactive websites and an understanding of how to use social media marketing to their fullest advantage. PCCs can provide this training, access to hardware and software as well as an understanding of marketing techniques. These PCCs can be located in local libraries, schools or community media centers which also manage local ublic educational and government access channels on cable systems, connectivity that can be used for the cablecasting of outreach and education programs to stimulate broadband adoption.
Community and economic development agencies need to understand the training required by these small and home-based businesses. The training required includes the development of a business strategy and the effective use of websites and social media for marketing and the use of wireless and wireless broadband networks.
Another important contribution would be to coordinate comprehensive broadband network deployment to maximize the contributions of area small businesses to the local economy and jobs. Jobs are not created by governmental mandate or wishful thinking. They are the result of the successful start up, incubation, growth and expansion of businesses competing in an increasingly national and international broadband dominated marketplace.
The TOP program, which was the Department of Commerce/NTIA predecessor grant program to BTOP, funded 650 innovative telecom projects from 1995 to 2005 at an average grant of $750,000. These grants represented venture capital investments in telecom research and development, a substantial and well documented set of applications that should be considered by the local BTOP CCI networks as they develop local economic and community development plans.
All of the extensive TOP project proposals and performance reviews can be accessed at the TOP database at the University of Illinois and managed by Professor Kate Williams. TOP-funded projects in a variety of functional areas from workforce development, to medical and healthcare applications, to government programs, education, entrepreneurship and support for small business. The TOP files represent examples of earlier efforts to use telecom to promote the same type of local community development efforts which were the object of the Connect Kentucky county plans. While the TOP projects were developed prior to the technology and broadband developments of the last five years, they represent innovative, collaborative approaches to the typical community and economic development problems for which broadband networks can provide even more effective solutions.
An Effort Should Be Made to Fully Document the Local BTOP Demonstrations
The BTOP awards represent well thought out project proposals that succeeded in the rigorous national competition. However, the many excellent proposals that failed to receive funding in BTOP Rounds 1 and 2 should be considered for local implementation by local public/private investments by foundations and government programs and private sector investments
Similar to the “unbundled network elements” that were much discussed – but not resolved – in the Illinois Commerce Consideration of the SBC/Ameritech merger in 1998 and 1999, there are many individual initiatives in the implementation of each CCI grant that can be shared with other CCI networks in the state. The experience in complying with Environmental Impact Statements is one example. Others include engineering and construction work, market research, marketing and sales, operations and financial modeling and reporting. The objective would be to “unbundle” proposals to consider their constituent parts that might be of interest and value to others.
The PCC projects can share experiences related to education and training curricula, the effective use of supplemental equipment like Internet-connected white boards, thin clients and cloud computing, initial needs assessments and evaluation procedures and forms. The impact of SBA programs can also be maximized by sharing experiences and results related effectiveness of education training efforts in vertical markets like senior citizens, people with disabilities, skills and job search for low income families, kids not learning at grade level, non-profits and small, start-up businesses
The experiences of SBA programs can be collected from the state and around the country, assessed and disseminated to other parts of the state to vertical markets and user groups with similar interests and needs through the use of online web sites and cable access channels. When completing a successful computer and online training effort, the goal should be to consider how these experiences could be helpful to others.
States Should Facilitate Information Sharing and Replication Efforts
The BTOP Team and the BTOP winners should share with one another through the BTOP databases and website. This process can begin at the two-day workshop for Round 2 BTOP winners in Washington on Nov. 9-10. States should be using a portion of their supplemental NTIA funding to perform similar, but more granular, efforts to collect, analyze and disseminate through websites, webinars and webcasts the BTOP experiences in the individual states. The state recipients of BTOP funds should also promote and support the sharing of information among awardees and other organizations in the state that make up the state broadband network. The goals of the state should be to develop broadband marketing strategies within networks and among vertical markets and user groups that can prepare all segments of local town, city and county economies for success in the international marketplace.
The positioning of local economies for success in the 21st century international marketplace – as well as the short term emphasis on jobs – was one of the two principles that were foremost in the creation of the federal stimulus programs. The goal of BTOP was not simply to fund worthy projects. It was to integrate the use of broadband into the basic fabric of our local communities and economies so that America is best prepared to compete internationally for the rest of the 21st Century.
Don S. Samuelson can be reached at DSSA310@aol.com.