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Craig Settles: It’s Time for Co-ops To Stand Up and Embrace Broadband

in Broadband's Impact/Expert Opinion/Rural Telecom/Rural Utilities Service by

In the battle to deploy broadband, cooperatives (co-ops) can be a decisive force to cover the rural flanks in states with aggressive broadband adoption goals such as California, New York, and Minnesota. In the more rural states, or ones without stated commitments to broadband, co-ops may have to carry the lion’s share of responsibility if their rural communities are to have a hope for broadband.

Co-ops ultimately exist to meet members’ needs, and currently there’s a burning need for broadband within communities across the nation. There are two ways for co-ops to address the need for better, faster community-owned broadband networks: the problem-solving approach and the creation-orientation approach. Both can work. But the latter might give you more return on your investment.

People use the problem-solving approach often when they want something go away. “Make my taxes go away.” “Unemployment is too high!” “Can we close the digital divide?” Things can get contentious. The problem might not even get fixed. Or the original problem comes back when the money runs out.

When it comes to broadband, the problem-solving approach sometimes fosters a mindset of “just build it (fix the problem) and they will come.” Build ‘x’ number of towers, lay so many miles of fiber, or give large incumbents truckloads of tax dollars and they will somehow magically generate residential customers.

On the other hand, with a creation orientation you bring something new into being. There’s a lot of energy you can get with “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” brainstorming. Or an approach similar to President John F. Kennedy’s in the 60’s who presented the vision of going to the moon in 10 years, and challenged those around him to create the best way to make it happen. You create an incredible vision with lots of people contributing to it because they can be a part of the dream.

Rural Danville, Virginia in 2006 had two problems: unemployment was 19% and the available broadband options sucked. They could have deployed some fiber and solved the problem of sucky broadband. But they went further and leveraged the network to draw new industries to town. They retrained tobacco industry employees. They networked area medical facilities and physicians into a medical community that attracted companies and people. And they lowered unemployment to 9%.

Your communities probably differ from Danville, but many of you probably agree that the potential benefits of having a broadband network are great, and it would solve a problem. But what your communities can create with the network is how they would achieve maximum return on the infrastructure investments.

With a creation orientation, broadband-driven telemedicine services, for example, constituents who otherwise might not care a fig about a gig will be motivated and become engaged. It’s great to have fast speed when all you have currently is dial-up. But more people will support – and fund – a community asset that creates more education opportunities, improved access to healthcare, facilitates innovation or fuels start-ups.

A word of caution, though. When we make statements such as “broadband is good for economic development,” realize that it’s not just putting in wires and wireless videos and “poof,” like magic things change. You have to put the right type of training programs into place, raise the community’s overall digital literacy, find someone in the community who understand how technology is changing the world.

Adidas replaced 1000 cheap laborers in China who know assembly line shoemaking with 400 German who know squat about making shoes, but understood everything about building, operating, and maintaining 3-D printers.

You don’t get your community ready for this 3D world by laying down fiber in the mist of a dying industry, you create a new world in which broadband plays a part.

To maximized 3D printers, you end up creating huge files. You’re not going to be pushing those files through a 5G cellular network, you’re going to need fiber or serious high capacity fixed wireless.

Editor’s Note: BroadbandBreakfast.com welcomes broadband-related commentaries from a variety of industry observers. Send them to commentary@broadbandcensus.com.

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