For Quitman, Mississippi, the crisis hit in the early 1990s.
Fifteen hundred textile industry jobs vanished, as well as 400 jobs in the timber trade. In a town of 2,300 located in eastern Mississippi, the impact was dramatic. The population dropped 17% from 1990-2013, tax revenues fell, school enrollment plummeted by 30%. Quitman’s young people were moving on.
It is a story often repeated as the Industrial Age reached its zenith in the U.S. Large cities pulled ahead of rural areas. Millions left rural communities for the economic opportunity of cities, where the proximity of people accelerated innovation and specialization – two critical factors in economic growth, economists say.
While industrialization was a path to prosperity in the past, today there’s a new way forward through broadband connectivity, many folks say. And Quitman is getting a rare opportunity to rebuild itself to participate in the new information technology.
The small town beat out much larger competitors to become one of 10 cities in Mississippi to receive a broadband network one hundred times faster than standard speeds. With a blistering 1-gigabit per second, users can participate in multi-person, high-definition video conferencing, transmit high-resolution radiology images, download a half-hours’ worth of television programming in three seconds. And they can be creators and providers of digital content, taking advantage of faster upload speeds.
It’s a dose of what Quitman needs to remake itself, town leaders say.
“Having 1-gigabit high speed Internet throughout the city is the key to accomplishing our goals,” said Mayor Eddie Fulton, a major force behind the city’s efforts to secure and build the high-speed network. The mayor said that assistance from other groups like the Intelligent Community Forum have given the town the “impetus and guidance to see a very bright future for our city and our county.” (The writer is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum.)
A Mississippi-based telecommunications company, C-Spire, announced it would deploy 1-gigabit Internet connection through fiber to the home in a small number of communities if 45% of homes in the community would subscribe to the service. It is expected participation in Quitman will be 80% by next year.
Quitman would not normally be considered for such a project because of its small population, but the city had such a strong commitment to building on broadband that the company decided to make the investment.
A volunteer organization was formed in Quitman of 25 groups called “Small Town, Big Future.” The organization works with a wide range of organizations: Quitman schools, city and county leaders, 4-H members, the Mississippi State Extension Service, Mississippi Development Authority, four local banks, Dart Container Corporation, and 12 of the 17 churches in the city. This collaboration brings together the key sectors that are crucial to digital success. The Intelligent Community Forum calls this the “triple helix”: government, educational institutions and businesses.
Quitman’s build out will cover the entire city and several large areas in Clarke County. The first connections will be made this month. Five trial homes are already in operation. The cost estimate to construct each line to a home is $10,000, an estimated $10 million total cost. The additional cost of establishing the backbone network is proprietary information, according to C-Spire. Consumers will pay $80 per-month. Business cost will be higher because each will be given a dedicated line, although Quitman officials have asked C-Spire to review that situation since so many small business owners do not need a full 1-gigabit line.
Some residents asked, Why do we need this? A community wide effort was put in motion. Pizza parties to engage students, who are more knowledgeable than their parents of the benefits of high speed Internet, provided a head start. Four local banks, school administrators and generous citizens provided $500 to cover marketing materials and to pay the $10 registration fee for low-income homeowners. Churches planned Internet and website training events to enable Sunday school teachers to prepare better lesson plans. Through the state, library and local industry, 20 computers were purchased. A volunteer will update the computers’ operating systems. By the spring of 2015, the city will establish a business incubator at a cost of $200,000. The incubator will coach small business owners.
Professor Roberto Gallardo at Mississippi State University Center for Technology Outreach has helped to educate and advise the community and has helped create new services based on broadband. Those have included courses to help local business build websites and conduct online sales. Professor Gallardo and the Extension Service also arranged for the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), where I work, to get involved in the project. Subsequently, ICF has designated the Mississippi State University Extension Service as an Intelligent Community Institute, clearing the way for more collaboration in the future.
The residents need to understand what they individually will be able to do with broadband. It’s important not only to provide the big picture, but also the concrete ways they will be able to use the broadband and capitalize on the opportunities it presents. Quitman has set out what it believes are achievable goals as they re-shape the community.
The city aims to increase broadband participation from 50% in 2010 to 85% by 2020. It plans to increase the high-school graduation rate, lower the median age of residents (one measurement of whether young people find ways to stick around), reduce the poverty rate, and increase household incomes and home values.
Quitman has jumped on this challenge and joins 10 Mississippi communities in the 1-gigabit world. Led by Mayor Fulton, community leaders understand that broadband will give them a new opportunity to revive and redefine life in the countryside. With broadband, residents of the countryside can closely match the opportunities their urban compatriots have for learning, innovation, health care and participation in the global economy.
The signature line of the song “New York, New York,” written at the height of that city’s industrial prominence, proclaimed: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”. This century, in the post-industrial era, the line should be: If broadband helps make Quitman a success story, then it can happen anywhere in the countryside.
Dr. Norman Jacknis is senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum of New York City responsible for the Rural Imperative for A New Connected Countryside. The project acts as a demonstration of how rural communities can be connected to the world and as a platform for the exchange of ideas about the “new countryside.” The Rural Imperative is organizing a global virtual summit for innovative rural leaders. For more details contact firstname.lastname@example.org