The Rural Broadband Challenge: Use It

Rural broadband access is just half the battle -- maybe less than half, says Frank Odasz. Broadband doesn't produce jobs, people do, and they need training in best practices and entrepreneurship and trusted networks of support.

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“The number of jobs that broadband stimulus is meant to create is highly debatable.” —Porter Bibb,
Mediatech Capital Partners, on Lou Dobbs Tonight, Feb. 3, 2009

Here’s one debate I’d very much like to have.

As Congress discusses rural broadband as part of the nation’s economic stimulus package, nearly all the focus has been on broadband access. Is it worth spending billions to extend broadband to rural areas? It’s a legitimate question. Once access is achieved, the telephone and cable companies will have met their goal, but the challenge for citizens and communities to produce jobs and income will have just begun.

With broadband in place, how will new jobs be created? Can we identify replicable broadband training best practices in a world of booming bottom-up entrepreneurial innovations, in time to produce jobs on a massive scale? Yes, we can. In fact, it is already happening.

Ten Sleep, Wyoming, (pop. 350) has fiber optics to every home, church, and bar in the community. Over 20% of the locals work via the Internet as professionals, having moved here seeking a rural lifestyle; they brought with them Internet know-how and the capability to use it. The majority of homes here have subscribed to receive the benefits of broadband, and many other residents are learning how they too can enjoy sustainable flextime employment as remote home agents (also called teleworkers). Eleutian is training English speakers to be English teachers via fiber optics, servicing the $100 billion/year English-instruction market in Asia. These jobs pay $15/hour. Eleutian trains its workers using mainly self-paced multimedia instructional systems that minimize training time and produce quality controls and assurances. Eleutian, based in Ten Sleep, is only one example of how rural Americans are creating new jobs using broadband. Its success raises the question as to what more might suddenly be possible, with imagination and effort

Lone Eagle Consulting
Just in back of the office: Frank Odasz’s Lone Eagle Consulting is based in Dillon, Montana

Teleco and cable company lobbyists conspicuously have overlooked a decade of grassroots innovations generated by community technology centers and community networking. (For just a sample of the community work being done see Community Technology Review; Community Technology Centers Network; Association for Community Networking; and Community Networking Clearinghouse.) These community groups have been active in providing local Internet service, broadband, and the teaching resources to make the most of it.

The telecos have also promoted the assumption that broadband alone created high tech jobs. But in many cases, “Build it and they will come” has proven to be a dream. The Pew Foundation and Connected Nation published recent reports showing a lack of demand for, and understanding of “broadband benefits” in some rural areas. Do we start with infrastructure or start with creating compelling content and applications — or both together?

Pew’s surveys, conducted in December 2007 and May 2008, also show that pockets of the population that don’t use the Internet would need more than just a connection — they would also need training and hands-on support. Already, we have seen major investments in rural broadband sitting unused because no real training or understanding of the potential jobs and benefits yet exists.

The telephone companies will tell you they are not in the training business, nor is USDA, NTIA, or FCC, and when it comes to state-of-the-art broadband entrepreneurship, neither are most economic development agencies, universities, K-12 schools and other organizations. America is poised for a change; it is time to get up off the couch.

The formula for success is broadband + targeted training + smart support services + vision = jobs in the innovation economy. Certainly, the bottom-up innovations from the early adapters of broadband have produced and will continue to produce major insights as to what “best practices” actually can be taught, will scale and will work in other localities. Such innovations from early adapters exist in every community, we just need to begin to recognize their significance and engage them as mentors.

Spaghetti Western Replicas
Roy Martinez in a custom-made poncho just like the one Clint Eastwood wore in A Fistful of Dollars

Here are a few E-commerce successes in rural Montana. There are hundreds of examples like these, and there could easily be thousands.

In Malta, Montana, Roy Martinez averages over $10,000/month selling Western replicas related to Clint Eastwood Westerns.

In Cutbank, Montana, Ron Ridesatthedoor, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, sells alfalfa as rabbit food to supplement his farm income. He created his own wireless Internet business and was elected commissioner of Glacier County.

In Wolfpoint, Montana, Chuck and Joyce Trinder created www.nativeamericanjobs.com four years ago; they now average $4000/month in income.

In Plentywood, Montana, one enterprising fellow inherited a junked car lot and began selling used car parts on eBay – he made $200,000 and is now brokering parts from other such “junk lots.”

These newly created rural jobs aren’t solely the consequence of broadband access. They are entrepreneurial successes made by innovative broadband users. Mining raw human potential is the new gold rush; communities and nations will compete based on their ability to mass motivate and mass educate. Some communities are succeeding at this already.

Donnie Morrison championed a partnership with the UK government for a high speed wireless network end-to-end across the Outer Hebrides Islands in northern Scotland. He created a citizen skills database and successfully marketed the islanders’ collective skills to international corporations in London. Today, the rural decline has been reversed, young families are returning to the islands, and hundreds of new telework jobs have been created. A metric has been created for gauging successively greater Internet applications by sector. Donnie says, “If we can do it, you can do it. Watch this 7 minute video for an introduction to the teleworkers of the Outer Hebrides. (Details at www.work-global.com; find E-Readiness Metrics manual and Excel based software at www.birraproject.net.)

Lone Eagle Consulting
Cemetery near the Athabascan village of Koyukuk, Alaska; Frank Odasz took part in a 2006 conference of youth and elders, training tribal elders to preserve their wisdom for future generations via multimedia

The immediate need, and opportunity, is for fast-track broadband entrepreneurship training with an ongoing emphasis on emerging best practices. There is an explosion of bottom up entrepreneurial innovation underway worldwide, yet the proliferation of scams for get rich home-based businesses has created a major barrier to those seeking home-based employment solutions. A recent article on work-at-home scams cited a ratio of 54:1 scams to real opportunities.

Keeping current on the rapidly evolving advances in broadband training is fundamental, as is educating youth starting in primary grades so they grow up with entrepreneurship as a lifelong option. Rural citizens need help to leapfrog ahead of the mainstream. The level of quality outcomes will be determined by the quality of education and support services provided. Imaginative innovation for broadband implementation is the immediate political opportunity and the missing piece. Is there a budget line in the economic stimulus package for this implementation?

Of the 306 million Americans, many need 21st Century skills and jobs. The solution is mass engagement using social media for service-learning and peer mentoring on the best practices in broadband entrepreneurship.

I advocate reframing the value of broadband as targeted access to needed expertise and solutions. We need to teach the innovation and imagination process while creating local community networks as safe, trusted, peer mentoring “human networks.”

If 100 million teenagers can turn MySpace into a $2.6 billion capitalization in 18 months, anything is possible – even with existing Internet access.

Lone Eagle
Consulting
Frank Odasz

How much time and effort will this process take after the stimulus bill funding becomes available? Only limitations of vision and character will hold us back.

Frank Odasz directs Lone Eagle Consulting from Dillon, Montana, offering training and free online resources as guides to using the Internet. Odasz has worked for 10 years across the U.S. and abroad developing resources for communities, schools, and entrepreneurs. Find his recent white paper on best practices in broadband training, delivered at a 21-nation Global Rural ICT conference in Tokyo, March 2008, here.

 

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