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NEW YORK — In 2004, the British research firm PointTopic reported that broadband had become the fastest-adopted technology in history. It took mobile phones 5.5 years to go from 10 million to 100 million subscribers. In the G7 nations and China, broadband did it in just 3.5 years.
Wherewas all that growth taking place? The answer, of course, was in large metropolitan areas, where there were thousands or tens of thousands of potential customers within a single postal code. As with every service from electricity to telephones, rural areas were left to play catch-up.
Broadband investment programs from governments, together with continued commercial investment, have helped close that gap. As an example in the State of Minnesota, its rural areas have a 67% average broadband penetration rate, compared with the US national average of 68%.
Rural Minnesota’s broadband penetration makes it a great place to ask a more profound question: what is broadband for? If it is just to play games and watch Netflix, broadband is hardly an issue of national importance. But most city leaders accept that broadband is about much more. It is the next essential utility on which economic prosperity depends. Research by United Nations agencies indicates that every 10% increase in penetration on a national level drives 1.3% additional growth in gross domestic product.
In 2010, I joined a project funded by the US broadband stimulus program and managed by Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation. The goal wasn’t simply more broadband. It was to equip a group of 11 rural places to use the new infrastructure to create employment, prosperity, social progress and cultural richness – and to see what progress they could make in a short, 18-month period.
The plan for what Blandin called the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities program came from a framework developed by my organization, the Intelligent Community Forum. (ICF). We set out to understand how cities and regions can prosper in an age of intensive disruption in business, markets and technology. For the 11 “demonstration communities,” we did before-and-after measurement of the factors that underlie economic and social successbased on our study of nearly 120 cities and regions around the world. Those factors are; broadband deployment, the ability to create a knowledge-intensive workforce, a high rate of innovation in the private and public sectors, digital inclusion to deal with the negative effects of the digital revolution, and advocacy, in which communities turn their constituents into champions of positive change. At the ICF we launched the Rural Imperativeto take the lessons learned to a global audience.
In our final report, Partners in Progress, we tracked stories and statistics showing substantial progress through a wide range of community development projects. Each project was proposed by residents, approved by a community-working group, and guided toward completion with Blandin Foundation support. Over18 months, the communities posted a 9.4% average improvement in their scores. Broadband adoption grew at an average of 12% compared with a rural Minnesota average of 10%. Advocacy scores improved the most, up 26%, because the MIRC project emphasized creating a leadership group and building a base of support in the community. Digital inclusionadvanced by 14%, as the communities invested in public-access computers with broadband connections, and expanded access to computer skills training.
Two of the core success factor for Intelligent Communities, knowledge-based workforce and innovation, showed much smaller gains. Changing a workforce and launching programs to spur innovation in business and government takes far more than 18-months. Nonetheless, there were signs of successes, measured by an increase in computers in schools and growth in access to financing for businesses.
But it is the stories of the MIRC communities that stay with the reader of the report.In Worthington, population 11,000, MIRC funds went not only to IT in schools and community centers, but to equip a new biotech incubator. The city’s economic development director used that improved facility to persuade a South Dakota biotech company not only to locate a laboratory there but to move its entire headquarters into town as well.
The Upper Minnesota Valley, with only 15 people per square mile, moved government information online for the use of citizens and businesses. Schools developed multimedia collaboration centers, the community hospital beta-tested remote care and a mobile computer lab brought broadband to people at the farthest reaches of the region.
The MIRC program was a model, showing rural communities that with the right strategy and a committed populacethey can seize their own destiny and prosper in a broadband age.
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank that studies and promotes the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities as they adapt to the demands and seize the opportunities presented by information and communications technology. He can be reached through the ICF Web site www.intelligentcommunity.org.