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Empowering Rural America - A New Model Emerges

Sustaining economic recovery through broadband coupled with workforce development, collaborative entrepreneurship and innovation.



Sustaining economic recovery through broadband coupled with workforce development, collaborative entrepreneurship and innovation.

Entrepreneurship and social innovation abound in Franklin County, Virginia where local government is utilizing a successful wireless broadband strategy as a catalyst to release the trapped potential and empower the latent talent that resides within marginalized populations throughout rural America.

The plan includes a rural-focused sustainability strategy for the diverse education, training and employment initiatives made possible by funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). The plan also incorporates an integrated online forum for students engaged in STEM, Service Science and entrepreneurship education, along with career exploration, workforce and small business development components. They collectively represent innovative and socially-conscious elements of a national broadband deployment plan and are available for FCC consideration.

The effort represents a comprehensive rural response to the sentiment recently expressed by the new FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, who stated, "If I could say one thing that I'd like to make sure the FCC does, it would be to unleash the power of innovators and entrepreneurs in the United States."

In 2005, the local government of Franklin County set out to increase connectivity and provide broadband options to its citizens and businesses. Under the leadership of Sandie Terry, the Director of Information Technology for Franklin County, the process resulted in the expansion of Franklin County's wide-area network, which now connects all remote offices, supporting data sharing and communications. The broadened connectivity is providing cost reductions and improved efficiencies, and Franklin has been successful in leveraging local assets while limiting their financial liability. The County now has 24 facilities connected via the wireless mesh, including the County's data center.

The County has expanded broadband services throughout the 721 square mile area for a total investment of $83,000 from the general fund and a $50,000.00 federal grant because the County connected fire and rescue stations. The deployment model was awarded Virginia's 2008 "Technology Award of Excellence".

The project included the establishment of a public/private partnership between Franklin County local government and B2X Online, a start-up wireless Internet service provider (WISP), which, in fact, was the only respondent to a County RFP. Motorola contributed greatly to the deployment strategy. From the very beginning, civic, business and social entrepreneurship were present in the endeavor, which captures the essence of rural entrepreneurship. B2X Online has grown from 2 to 21 employees in two years, but the broader socioeconomic implications are the heart of the story.

Fostering Entrepreneurship

As a by-product of the Franklin County project, a replicable public/private WISP small business model has been developed that includes the diverse technology, social and civic applications and funding strategies required to mobilize in any rural location. Deployment options include the capability to roll-out using combinations of unlicensed and 2.5 and 3.65 licensed spectrum. The rural WISP model incorporates consumer and business demand aggregation strategies, which include entrepreneurship education, service learning and youth entrepreneurship activities. They assist in creating the public awareness required to invite, justify and ultimately obtain the public, private and philanthropic capital required to advance the business model.

The model, which is being advanced under the national brand Sectorforce, positions rural technology deployment as a series of aligned products and transforms them into an efficient, socially-conscious, large-scale and sustainable broadband service and delivery system. The existing "system", as represented by B2X Online and other WISP service offerings, provides traditional services, including triple-play, but is also capable of delivering social, civic and environmental solutions that can be easily mobilized to transform public service systems into massive agents of improved economic opportunity for underprivileged, underserved and unserved citizens, businesses and communities across rural America and throughout the nation.

Working in partnership with the WISP, community anchors assume enhanced leadership positions in asset-based community economic development.

They are enabled to provide fee and subscription-based services to citizens, businesses and employers. High-speed Internet access provides a conduit for the provision of assessment, testing, certification, staffing and other human resource and workforce development services to all high-growth industries of the service economy, including the broadband technology sector.

Community anchor institutions and organizations, such as colleges and universities may be able to acquire status as approved E-rate service providers. In context, subscription fees paid by e-rate recipients to community anchor e-rate approved providers are considered reimbursable expenses, but this aspect must be carefully scrutinized for applicability based on specific criteria. Non-profit private schools, public schools and libraries can receive discounted telecommunications services through the E-rate program, which was established in 1997 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Universal Service Order implementing the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The Order was designed to ensure that all eligible schools and libraries have affordable access to modern telecommunications and information services. Up to $2.25 billion annually is available to provide eligible schools and libraries with discounts under the E-rate program for authorized services. The E-rate provides discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent for eligible telecommunications services, depending on economic need and location (urban or rural). The level of discount is based on the percentage of students eligible for participation the National School Lunch Program or other federally approved alternative mechanisms. (Non-public schools and others not participating in the National School Lunch Program can use federally approved alternative mechanisms contained in the Improving America's Schools Act.

Another important component of this public/private model is the inclusion of Service Science education in the mix of online and classroom applications. Perhaps it represents the most compelling aspect of the vision that drives the social innovation and collaborative entrepreneurship behind the effort. Service Science, or its more formal designation, Service Science Management and Engineering, is primarily the result of IBM uncovering the fact that more than one-half of its revenue is now generated through the provision of services and the percentage is growing at a rapid pace. IBM recognized that, over time, they had converted their product offerings into a large-scale service and delivery system.

Mentor-Based Workforce Development

The WISP model provides a Web 2.0 technology platform for community-wide information exchange and knowledge-transfer that powers a unique mentor/protégé relationship among students engaged in STEM, Service Science and entrepreneurship education and includes job-seekers, employers and industry associations. The technology and applications were designed specifically for the WISP model by Internet Pathways and I-CAN Network. Service Science is an academic cross-discipline designed to produce students with the combined business and technology skills needed to enter today's workforce and ready to contribute immediately to their country's economic and innovation agendas. Jai Menon, IBM's vice president of technical strategy and university programs said, "We're finding that a combined education in business, technology, and social sciences is the right education needed for students to have the baseline of skills for innovation. IBM has been working with universities and other industry organizations to identify the skills needed in this ever-changing world economy."

In fact, the mentor/protégé component is being introduced as a major component of a process that will help to transform the public education and workforce investment systems with the assistance of an innovative wireless broadband deployment service and delivery strategy, made available through the WISP service mix. The public education and workforce investment systems are now well-positioned for the level of transformation that can produce the masses of essential talent required to advance, maintain and sustain the very systems from which they emanate.

The entire process provides a large measure of investment leveraging, cohesiveness and sustainability to diverse Recovery Act initiatives. Here is a relevant case in point.

The Employment and Training Administration (ETA) of the US Department of Labor is charged with

the allocation of approximately 4 billion dollars of Recovery Act funding to be used for training and employment services. ETA strongly encourages the workforce investment boards that receive the revenue, along with their education partners, to take an expansive view of how the funds can be integrated into efforts to improve the effectiveness of the public workforce investment system, which serves several millions of citizens, many of whom are the personification of trapped potential and latent talent. ETA believes that Recovery Act funding presents an extraordinary and unique opportunity to advance its transformational efforts and demonstrate its full capacity to innovate and implement effective One-Stop service delivery strategies.

This ETA conviction provides an opportunity to apply Service Science to a transformative process that is already underway, and thereby position this academic cross-discipline as an agent of social innovation through an applied classroom approach. Recovery Act legislation also strongly encourages socially innovative and entrepreneurial approaches to systemic, large-scale and sustainable transformation. When diverse technologies are aligned for social impact purposes and deployed in conjunction with efficient spectrum utilization and management, they represent significant community "assets" capable of making major contributions to efficient, systemic, large-scale and sustainable social change. ETA's Access Points program, which seeks to serve remote citizens with training and employment services, is a primary target for expansion.

A rural entrepreneurship initiative entitled "Helping Communities Work" (HCW) has been formed to house, align, mobilize and support the education, workforce and small business development components of the WISP model. HCW defines rural entrepreneurship as a perpetual process that, 1) uncovers a societal imbalance that limits individual upward mobility and collective economic equity in rural America, 2) identifies an opportunity to change the status quo, 3) engages and integrates the vision, resources and action of collaborative entrepreneurship among the business, civic, social and philanthropic sectors and, 4) creates and mobilizes a series of solutions that unleash and empower the latent talent being suppressed by the imbalance.

The solution should be innovative, systemic, large-scale and sustainable. HCW operates on the premise that each new connection enables entry into the realm of enhanced economic opportunity if a structure is in place to encourage and focus the individual in a way that adds value. A strong employer voice is an important component of the HCW strategy, and consequently a business coalition of high-growth industries and employers, which includes the information and communications technology sectors, has been established to provide insight and support to the HCW rural entrepreneurship initiative.

All human resource and workforce development services provided by HCW community anchor participants are focused on the rapidly growing needs of the service economy, which now employs greater than 75% of the civilian workforce. Other than HCW, there is no public or private labor exchange system that specifically addresses this need for Service Science leadership, which directly impacts global competitiveness.

HCW fosters the funding and growth of distance learning while bringing new employment opportunities in telemedicine, telecommuting and remote work to the area of deployment. The resulting "brain gain" enhances the corporate site-selection potential of a community while providing its citizens with opportunities to work locally for companies located outside the region. Overall, the strategy enables the integration, advancement and sustainability of jobs creation, business growth, broadband adoption and social impact throughout rural America. Also, non-profit Recovery Act stakeholders gain sustainability enhancements through significant earned-income opportunities and improved positioning to attract new grants.

Model Attracts Growing Interest

Stakeholders in Washington and Allegheny Counties are currently forming the strategic business alliance required to ensure a successful launch of the WISP strategy in rural western Pennsylvania.

Chris Brussalis, President and CEO of The Hill Group, Inc, a Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm, emphasized the potential of wireless broadband to deliver education, workforce development and other innovative social applications when he said, "Pittsburgh's culture of innovation, along with its leading healthcare

and education institutions and nearby large rural communities make western Pennsylvania an ideal location for this type of endeavor. The Hill Group is now in the process of assembling suitable community anchor institutions and organizations and other public and private sector participants. Discussions are underway, which include Sandie Terry of Franklin County and Jon Beard, the CEO of I-CAN Network, in order to tailor the model into the appropriate configuration and strategy for that region.

Among the insightful expressions of interest are remarks made by Simeon Ananou, the Associate Provost of Slippery Rock University, who said, "A wireless broadband initiative, such as this, will ultimately liberate people in rural areas from perceived or real situations that have so far imposed limitations on them. Wireless broadband also expands affordability and accessibility to the education and workforce sectors."

As stated by Ms. Terry, the "visionary doer" primarily responsible for the technology innovation and many other aspects of HCW, "If local governments partner with private providers, solid broadband services can become a reality for a fraction of the cost and in a much timelier manner."

Vetrepreneurship, a word coined to describe collaborative entrepreneurship among military veterans, is a major contributor to the design and development of "Helping Communities Work" through the efforts of the Internship Institute, a non-profit organization located in Philadelphia and focused on rural entrepreneurship. The Institute has begun discussions with the Veterans Transition Franchise Initiative (VetFran) to introduce the WISP franchise opportunity. VetFran was created with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veterans Corporation, and the U.S. Small Business Administration, and with outreach initiatives of military and veteran organizations, the program continues to expand.
The initial goal of the Sectorforce brand strategy is to promote the name, in association with the education, training, employment and small business development opportunity, to military veterans across Rural America and throughout the United States.

Michael Sotire is national director of social entrepreneurship at the Internship Institute. He can be contacted at

Photo of the 1906 bridge over NS Railway in Franklin County, Virginia by Flickr Cmh2315fl. CC Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic