Voices of Digital Communities

Sugar Beets in the Broadband Economy

ICF is one of many organizations helping Blandin deliver on a $4.7 million broadband stimulus grant from the US Federal government.

by / October 15, 2010

I am in Baxter, Minnesota, two hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, having just finished the Broadband 2010 conference hosted by the Blandin Foundation.  This nonprofit is dedicated to strengthening communities in rural Minnesota, “with the vision of healthy rural communities grounded in strong economies where the burdens and benefits are widely shared,” according to its Web site. 

ICF is one of many organizations helping Blandin deliver on a $4.7 million broadband stimulus grant from the US Federal government.  The goal of the program is unusual.  It is not to roll out a local broadband network, or even a “middle-mile” network designed to reduce costs and increase capacity for local service providers.  It is not really about technology at all.  The goal is to prepare 11 Demonstration Communities to make use of broadband assets as they are developed.  It is about the people, not the bits and bytes.

The foundation is using ICF’s Intelligent Community Indicators as a framework for community development. The communities are forming public-private collaboration groups that solicit and fund local projects in digital inclusion, the creation of a knowledge-based workforce, public and private-sector innovation, and advocacy for vision of broadband-based growth. There are specific deliverables, like putting refurbished computers into the hands of 1,000 low-income households, but I personally think they are almost beside the point.  The real deliverables are in the mind and heart: a real understanding of the demands of the broadband economy, and the determination to succeed in it.  

These are truly rural communities – towns of 2,000 to 5,000 souls, and entire counties with populations of 15,000. Money is scarce and the challenges to continued community survival loom large.  But this is the third year that the Blandin Foundation has gathered them together for a broadband event, and the people attending show a remarkable sophistication in the principles of ICT-based economic development.  There are a few – very few – Mayors among them, some members of Council and County Commissioners.  Mostly they are local, county and regional “staffers” – the people who get the work of governing done day in and day out.  Yet most that I heard from and spoke with are visionaries.  They see a future for their communities, counties and regions that is utterly unlike the past and are ready to embrace it.

It’s a good thing, too. Several of these communities are the beneficiaries of separate stimulus grants.  They will be installing fiber backbones, wireless mesh networks and fiber-to-the-home projects.  Like rural electrification and rural telephony before it, broadband is coming and it is coming soon.  Some of the communities already have successfully high-tech clusters based on the success of local entrepreneurs.  Others are using a strong agricultural base to weather downturns for several technology employers.  Think about that: farmers of sugar beets, soybeans and corn keeping the economy going until high-tech businesses can pull out of a cyclical slump.   

It will be my privilege to work with these people for another 18 months or so.  Our job is to create metrics for measuring the readiness and the subsequent progress of the communities, which is an unrivaled opportunity to adapt our Intelligent Community methodology to the unique needs of rural communities.  But having met the people and seen what they are trying to do, I am determined to do much more.  I want to make sure they are armed with examples, best practices and arguments for their less visionary colleagues – the other members of Council and county commissioners and CAVE-dwellers (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) – so that these communities can capitalize on the success they already have achieved, and build an even brighter future. 

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.