New ideas are the life’s blood of innovation.

“You have to challenge the old way of thinking,” says Mike Burrow, CEO of NineStar Connect, an Indiana broadband provider formed by an electric co-op and a telephone co-op.

“We did not look ourselves as an electric co-op. We look at ourselves as a solution provider for our local community, an infrastructure provider. If it enables our community to stay connected and provides vital services that help our community survive and thrive, that’s what we were involved in.”

Communities that are building, or planning to build, broadband networks want better connectivity. But they also want to create tangible outcomes for their communities. As a Virginia state agency, the Center for Innovation Technology, puts it, they are after “improved economy, employment opportunities, education, healthcare, and public safety.”

Use 3-D printing and broadband to return jobs to America

By themselves, 3-D printers may seem to be expensive corporate tools or hip new “toys” that attract visitors the local library. But Burrow believes 3-D printing technology and broadband can be combined with data centers, libraries, and other local organizations to create outposts for corporate manufacturers that otherwise are shipping jobs overseas.

A Chattanooga Public Library patron happens to have a little boy who doesn’t have arms or legs. Luckily Ezra Reynolds is a design specialist for Signal Centers, which helps disabled people live full and independent lives. Reynolds uses the Chattanooga Library’s 3D printer to build prosthetics for his son as he grows. Reynolds returns to make changes or to design replacements. Library patrons in smaller communities can form workgroups with people such as Reynolds, doctors and medical manufacturers to manufacture certain devices – but only if they have highspeed broadband.

Burrow foresees 3-D printing and fiber changing farming life. “John Deere produces and stores spare parts for every tractor they’ve ever built, which means costs for storage, lookup time and shipping costs. Now manufacturers can just store computer files rather then millions of parts. If the 3-D printers are cheap enough, Farmer Joe may just ‘print out’ and replace parts. The challenge for communities is to use technology to adapt to this new world order.”

It’s expensive and time-consuming to create the molds they used to make sneaker soles. But now, says Gerd Manz, Adidas’ VP of technology innovation, “once the design is finished, you press a button and you [3-D] print your midsole. This is a matter of two hours. Traditionally, it takes you more than a month.”

Manz says Adidas foresees being able to quickly create soles tailored to specific sports, or even specific markets. Ultimately the goal is to enable the customer to walk into an Adidas store and have a customized sole printed for them while they wait. “You’ll go into one of their stores, get your feet 3-D mapped, upload that file to the closest manufacturing facility where they they’ll give you a size 9.356,” says Burrow.

The key to communities surviving these technological-induced changes is technology. “I hear other co-op executives say ‘we have to stick with our core business, which is electricity,’” Burrow says. “Co-ops owe it to their members to harness technology to meet these changes.”

Rehab’s not good TV drama, but it’s still telehealth

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 800,000 people suffer from strokes. Good news is that 84% survive. On the flipside, many of these survivors face several years of physical rehab, while some are permanently disabled. Products are coming on market from companies such as Flint Rehab that use video and audio capabilities to, in essence, deliver physical therapists to patients’ homes. Broadband helps.

Dr. Nizan Friedman, CEO and Co-Founder of Flint, believes broadband has particular value in small rural communities because it bridges the gap to knowledge, medical or otherwise. “People can access and use applications such as ours,” he says. “Patients can tap into expertise leading medical facilities nationwide use. Furthermore, with sites such as Twitter and Facebook, collaboration and motivation between patients is now possible. It all helps the healing.”

It is possible for communities to partner with local and regional rural healthcare facilities to create multimedia apps and locally based social networks that drive broadband-assisted in-home rehabilitation services. Dr. Friedman believes, “Not only stroke patients can benefit, but those recovering from heart attacks, knee or hip replacements, auto accidents other dramatic events. Also, people who have diabetes or other chronic illnesses and have to maintain strict medical regimens.”

Not just tech products, tech-based services maximize broadband

For years, municipalities and co-ops that wanted to build broadband networks had to resolve daunting challenges providing cable services. It used to be conventional wisdom that unless a provider offered broadband, voice and video (cable) services in a combined package – the triple play – they could not hope to have a profitable network.

However, supporting video services to customers is a daunting expense. Negotiating contracts with movie studios, television shows and other video content is expensive and time-consuming. Equipment such as head-ends was expensive. Now there are services that provide everything the community needs to integrate cable into their triple play. All the network operator has to do is negotiate the cost/profit-sharing contract.

Longmont, Colorado’s public utility and their NextLight gigabit broadband network partnered with Layer3TV. Layer3 provides the interface that seamlessly integrates local, cable and premium channels with streaming online video content, social media and smart home devices. Layer3 TV also operates a “super headend” inside a large data center based in the Denver area. NextLight provides access to the fiber network

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative follows a similar route and provides access to their fiber and bandwidth to whatever companies are in the video content business. The triple play data, voice, and video is still necessary, but communities don’t have to carry the high overhead costs yet remain competitive with Dish and Direct TV.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” His latest analysts report was “The Co-op’s Broadband Plan for Success.”

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