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'The New Connected Countryside' Aims to Give Rural America a Road Map to Broadband

Rural American communities are geographically distant, but a new project from the Intelligent Community Forum will try to bring them together.

"Cities are the future" is one of the most common stories in tech journalism today. Breakthroughs in the realms of the smart city and urban design are accompanied by dramatic statistics about urban growth. The United Nations estimates  thatthe global urban population to surpass 6 billion by 2045. A Fast Company report estimated that more than 70 percent of the world's population will live in urban centers by 2050. But what about the farmers and the folks who don't live in urban centers? Won't someone think of them?

Some of the most important things the world creates -- oxygen, food and water, to name a few -- come from the rural landscape, and that's why the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is now raising money to create a new online community for the people who live there. Robert Bell, executive director of ICF, explained that rural citizens can make huge improvements to their lives with technologies like precision agriculture and online businesses, but they need broadband and strength in numbers to make it happen.

"The real challenge is how do we make rural areas of the world just as exciting, just as dynamic a place to start a business, to grow a business, to raise a family, and have your kids have the option to stay there and get great jobs or build companies of their own, and really exploit broadband for its full potential as opposed to just using it for another means by which we all live cheek by jowl in cities?" Bell said.

On Sept. 29, ICF will launch a two-month Indiegogo campaign to raise $40,000 for a project called The New Connected Countryside. The funds will go toward an online platform and community that allow rural citizens to share ideas, meet digitally and gain solace in the fact that they're not alone.

The New Connected Countryside platform will allow video and chat for collaboration, conversation archiving, a Facebook-like posting platform, and annual virtual conferences that allow groups to brainstorm and share their best ideas -- a TED for the countryside, so to speak.

Rural citizens are separated geographically, but broadband could bring them together, Bell said, and this will allow their communities to connect and thrive. Precision agriculture is an emerging practice that, through the use of technology, can allow farmers to document crop yields, monitor irrigation, model weather, negotiate new crop leases and otherwise optimize their output. And as city populations grow, farms will need to raise their output to meet demand.

Bell recalled a visit with a farmer in Holland who invented a precision agriculture system that increased his crop yield by 20 percent. Other farmers around the world might be interested in learning about how he did that, and that's the kind of collaboration The New Connected Countryside offers, said Bell.

Municipal broadband networks are a growing trend in many rural cities and towns across the nation too, but the process is tortuous and potentially ruinous. Building a municipal broadband strategy today means relying on help from experienced strangers and anecdotes supplied by advocacy organizations like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Organizations like Next Century Cities are bridging communities together to share information, but best practices and well established avenues for creating successful municipal broadband networks remain elusive. The New Connected Countryside will provide structure for rural community information sharing.

"There's a reason the private sector hasn't already put up networks in a lot of these areas," Bell explained. "People are far apart from each other. It's more expensive per customer, it's not as good a profit opportunity as a denser area. So there always needs to be some kind of public-sector involvement in reducing the risk of the project."

Developing successful municipally run networks that follow the model of those launched by Lafayette, La., or any of the nation's many open access networks requires knowledge, resources and collaboration that this project hopes to facilitate, Bell said.

"When we go out and speak in rural areas in particular, everyone thinks they're on their own," he said. "They don't realize that some of the interesting things they've invented are being invented other places, in better or worse form, that there's new ideas out there and there's hundreds of thousands of people worrying about these same sets of problems. You're building a community that isn't based upon location, it's based upon a community of need around the world."

Donations for The New Connected Countryside will open on Indiegogo on Sept. 29. If the project's goals are met in the following two months, Bell said he expects the platform to launch in late January of 2016.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.