Will there come a time when we look at today's consumer broadband the way we look at other technologies that have seen their day? By the way, that's a 5 1/4 floppy drive.

[imgcontainer] [img:3274694267_819e573c25_z.jpg] [source]Photo by Phil Strahl[/source]

Will there come a time when we look at today’s consumer broadband the way we look at other technologies that have seen their day? By the way, that’s a 5 1/4 floppy drive.


In the early part of the 20th century when the United States started to get serious about electrification, some folks dismissed municipal power by saying, “Why do I need electricity when candles work just fine?”

They didn’t realize the new technology was about a lot more than just illumination.

We’re at a similar point in the deployment of ultra-high capacity broadband networks. We may be able to do simple things efficiently with our current broadband connection speeds – things like downloading email or even streaming a video.

But digital communications is going to do more than change how we send letters and watch TV.

As we step into the digital age, is your community thinking and acting digitally? Or are you stuck with old ideas about digital communication, the equivalent of thinking candles are just fine and electricity is not needed.

After losing some momentum, the connection between broadband and community economic development is back, due in part to the explosion of social media platforms in the mid-to-late-2000s.

Nowadays the connection between broadband and economic development is a bit clearer. In addition, access to information about broadband infrastructure – or lack thereof – exists. Though it’s not perfect, it’s nonetheless available.

But thinking and acting digitally go beyond using social media. They require adopting a digital mindset. This is especially true for small cities and rural areas, which face special challenges in building and using broadband infrastructure.

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) has been studying places around the world for the past 15 years to better grasp how communities plan for, transition to, and prosper in the digital age. Six consistent themes emerged, they say: Get connected, innovate, create a knowledgeable workforce, include diverse populations, market smartly and make the work sustainable.

There’s nothing new with these themes. But what matters in the digital age is how they are packaged.

A digital mindset includes, among other things:

  • Exploiting digital platforms for getting people involved in local government and in community organizations and other civic-minded activities.
  • Ensuring that your online presence doesn’t depend on just a single outlet – what the experts call “implementing diverse online presence strategies.”
  • Creating ways for entrepreneurs and small business owners to sell and conduct other business online.
  • Reaching broader segments of the population by making broadband available and affordable, and training folks in how to use it.
  • Exploring telehealth and telemedicine capabilities.
  • And making sure the workforce is prepared for what employers need in the digital age.

But what about rural areas?

Well, keep in mind that broadband technology – when available and used (or “adopted”) – has an important effect in rural areas: It can remove the population-density advantage long associated with urban areas. Access to people, services, ideas and resources is no longer an urban monopoly.

Broadband – but more importantly the applications broadband allows – are now a quality-of-life issue. Let me explain.

Millennials – people born between 1980 and 2000 – will drive the economy and society for the next 30 years. They also live for and crave Internet applications. Their access to jobs depends on digital tools. Finding work and and applying for jobs online is more the rule than the exception today, and telecommuting is far more common than it used to be. Millenials are also finding educational opportunities digitally through massive online open courses or MOOC’s. From a local government perspective, when institutions don’t communicate or engage millennials digitally, that’s one more reason this important age group may consider leaving rural areas.

On the other hand, rural communities can offer better quality of life to baby boomers (who are the second largest generation after the millennials) through services like telehealth and telemedicine, since access to health care is a major disadvantage for rural areas. Also, targeted digital literacy efforts can truly bring this great generation up to speed and make their time, expertise and resources even more productive.

Rural communities (see here and here) are already planning for and making this transition.

In fact, the Mississippi State University Extension Service has been designated by the Intelligent Community Forum as an Intelligent Community Institute. The object of the institute is to conduct outreach and learn how best to help communities plan for, transition to, and prosper in the digital age.

It is clear that broadband connectivity is just one of many options to consider if communities are to thrive in the digital age. Broadband on its own is not a silver bullet. However, coupled with natural amenities and other qualities intrinsic to rural areas, thinking and acting digitally provide an excellent opportunity for citizens to experience the best of both worlds.

Thanks to the changes brought by the digital age, the size of a community does not matter as much in the 21st century. The will to act does.

Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., is a faculty member of the Mississippi State University Extension Service and spearheads the efforts of the Intelligent Community Institute.

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