The Creation Orientation = Better Community Broadband

What happens when community leaders, stakeholders, and constituents take a creation orientation to broadband?

There are two ways to approach community broadband networks and “owning the business of broadband”: the problem-solving approach and the creation orientation approach. In creation orientation, you go about the process of creating something that didn’t before exist. This orientation is a different way of thinking about the task at hand, and leads to more effective broadband projects. Hybrid wireless/wired infrastructure facilitates the creation orientation.

The problem solving approach is typical when people deal with government. Instead of trying to bring something new into being, you’re trying to make something go away. “Make my taxes go away.” “Make this or that problem go away.” There’s often not a lot of positive energy in these types of meetings.

When constituents interact with local government officials to resolve a problem – a pothole, school crowding, poor broadband, etc. – everything becomes too narrowly focused on the problem. Things can get contentious. The problem might not even get fixed. And if it does, everyone goes on their way until the next problem. Or the original problem comes back.

When community leaders treat broadband only as a problem because their constituents are complaining, they likely shortchange the technology’s value. The request for proposal (RFP) for the feasibility study becomes a cover-your-ass effort, with most of it being a rote process with a lot of cut and paste from previous RFPs. This has led to communities having 60-page, heavily-boiler-plated reports sitting on a shelf somewhere. Sometimes two or three reports.

This problem solving approach seems to foster RFPs and deployment projects instilled with a “build it and they will come” philosophy. “Communities are being advised to build ‘x’ number of towers, and lay ‘so many miles’ of fiber, or give anchor institutions to providers and they will somehow magically generate residential customers,” says Sandie Terry, a vice president at the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) in Virginia.

Leaders who only see broadband has a problem can’t wait to hand off the project to a private provider with no regard to how successful – or not – that provider is. Or state legislatures, as the Virginia's legislators are attempting to do, try to pass laws to "fix the problem” rather then let communities create the best solutions to meet their needs. But what would happen if community leaders, stakeholders, and constituents take a creation orientation to broadband?

Luckily, communities are seeing the light

A creation orientation to community broadband has led to more successful build-outs in Chattanooga, Lafayette, and hundreds more cities, towns, and counties. With this orientation, creating a broadband-driven telemedicine service, for example, will engage and motivate constituents who otherwise might not care a fig about a gig. Create more opportunities to facilitate innovation that makes a difference. Create an economic tool to fuel start-ups. Bottom line: use this orientation when you want a better return on your broadband investment because you downplay the problem and sell the fruits that you create.

When you try to create something, you bring something new into being, and there’s a lot of energy you can get around “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” brainstorming. Consider President John Kennedy’s approach in 1961 when he presented his vision of going to the moon in 10 years and challenged the nation to create the best way (the creation orientation) to make it happen. You get this incredible vision out there with lots of people contributing to it because they can be a part of the dream.

When a community uses the creation orientation to address broadband and involve as many people as possible from the community, many ideas bubble up from focus groups and town meetings. People build on each other’s ideas. There is widespread ownership to bring this network into being. The creation orientation instills a vision that is concrete enough that people actually believe it can happen.

In Danville, Virginia, the public utility built a broadband network. With a problem-solving approach, you design a network, build it, and move on hoping you get some of the money back. But with the creation orientation, Danville’s elected leaders, the economic development team, and the medical community had a vision to create a healthcare Mecca in their part Virginia. The network was part of the investment in that vision.

The Danville Regional Medical Center is one of the city’s largest employers. Several clinics around town move a lot of data among the facilities. The network results in a quality and quantity of medical services that make Danville Regional a major draw for businesses looking to re-locate. Danville Regional expanded, opened a new facility, and partnered with the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine for its residency program. This subsequently drew a notable number of younger professionals to the area, some of whom started their own practices.

Rather then looking at the network as a way to remove a problem item from your checklist, look at what you can create with the infrastructure. When you conduct extensive broadband needs assessments, constituents’ key “needs” (i.e. problems) become creations the network helps them build, and thus you build vocal supporters and paying customers from within the community.

People and organizations with money love to see their money create new things that weren’t there before. They may not know a gigabit from a giraffe, but they invest in new creations and pragmatic visions. Providers and vendors need money, but they also benefit from customers that create new “stuff” because that makes it easier to sell services to new customers.

Hybrid infrastructure helps communities be more creative

With the latest developments in wireless speeds and capacity, we have a stronger set of tools in our broadband toolkit. Subsequently, we need to rethink our use of hybrid infrastructure as we increase community broadband build-outs. Even though some media treat hybrid networks as “the next big thing,” hybrid networks have been a reality throughout the history of community build-outs.

“I have long preached that the hybrid approach makes sense,” says Rick Harnish, Director of WISP Markets for BaiCells Technologies and former Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) Executive Director. “Lower costs, faster deployment time, standards-based equipment and network flexibility make fixed wireless the hybrid partner to fiber now and into the future.” Communities need creative minds to leverage hybrids to their full potential.

Need drives technology. If you’re going to pursue a creation orientation around broadband, from RFP to network launch, you have to consider various types of technology as the creative ideas flow. Given its flexibility, a hybrid infrastructure fits that bill. Communities’ various broadband needs, population and building densities, terrains, etc. require different categories of wired or wireless.

Visions cost money to implement. Do you want all of your money tied up in network infrastructure? When you have limited funds, the question becomes more pointed. Joe Starks, CEO of ECC Technologies, explains “Several studies have shown that 35 Mbps is tops in what the average family needs. It’s good to have gigabit capacity in a network, but communities that are working with limited resources will find hybrid networks are more cost-efficient ways to deliver the needed speed to customers.”

Ultimately, your community has to decide which course it wants to take. But look around and see which community networks have the greater success. Don’t you want to go with the creation orientation approach that yields the greater return on your broadband investments?

About the author
Craig Settles is a broadband business planner who helps communities get more from their broadband investment. He recently wrote Fiber & Wireless – Stronger Together for Community Broadband.