Observations from the Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference

Last week, I attended a conference in Springfield, MA, sponsored by Broadband Communities Magazine, on broadband for economic development. This was the most cross-functional business event I’d attended in a very long time.  There were town planners, activists, civil servants, elected officials, academics, consultants, economists, not-for-profits, educators, healthcare experts, regulators, lobbyists, lawyers, trade groups, analysts, design/build firms, hardware, software and outside plant vendors, among many others.  So in addition to a big stack of business cards, here are a few things I brought back.

What brought all these people together was a problem:  business and residential broadband access is now a necessity,  yet many communities are un-served or under-served by incumbent telecom and cable providers.   Community leaders recognize that since the incumbents cannot make a business case for investment in their communities, the public sector has to step in.  The conversation revolved around “how?” rather than “why?”

Springfield would probably not come up on the typical  conference organizer’s screen.  Yet it is an ideal place to talk about community broadband.  New England is a hive of activity.  All of the states have broadband plans and are in the process of planning broadband networks.   In particular, Springfield is close to WiredWest, a consortium of un-served western Massachusetts towns.  A few western Massachusetts towns outside the consortium are planning their own broadband networks.  A new initiative for broadband deployment in Connecticut was just announced; Springfield is a short drive from Hartford.  Vermont is a straight shot on I-91, and New Hampshire not much further.  And finally, Springfield is the hub of Mass123, the middle-mile network serving the western part of the state.  So there’s lots of good stuff happening within easy driving distance.

My world is centered on the technological  complexity of broadband networks.  So I learned a lot about the many political, regulatory, financial, Federal funding,  legal,  marketing, urban planning, educational and economic development complexities with which the technology must mesh.  I was particularly happy to get a deep dive into the financial analysis toolkit developed by our sponsor.  Attorneys from Baller-Herbst took their audience through a great survey of the legal landscape.

All of this activity is fueled by small piles of Federal cash, plus various State sources.   In particular, the critical middle mile infrastructure was built out mostly with Stimulus money, through the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP).  There’s FCC money for educational user under the e-Rate program,  Universal Service Fund money,  Connect America Fund “Experiments” grants.  There are USDA grants.  There are HHS grants.  State grants.  Private philanthropy grants.  And they are all painfully hard to get.   Somehow, the would-be network operator has to cobble together enough of this “free” money to make a financial plan that would pass muster in the (troubled) municipal bond market, or at a bank.  A lot of the folks I met are determined to do that, and came to the conference to figure out how.

I got to meet a lot of people.  Overall, this was an impressive group.  I knew some of them from my past life, some I was meeting in person after first meeting on the web, some I knew by reputation.  I enjoyed a number of deep discussions, on history, economic development, Net Neutrality, and more, as well as the topic at hand.

I did not get to meet very many of my technology peers.  Many of these organizations are running on a shoe-string, or haven’t gotten to the point of figuring how to make their networks work.   Some are drawing on volunteers – local IT professionals,  civil and mechanical engineers, scientists, academics and enthusiasts – to inform the planning and procurement processes.  I heard that they were having fierce internal debates about  topics I’d thought had been settled.   I heard about RFPs that cost more in change orders than the original award. I heard subtle misunderstandings that could lead to poor decisions.   And the most of the technical folks I talked with recognize that broadband is outside their professional experience, or need a second opinion.

Plug:  This is the problem that NetAccess Futures is in business to solve.

As an aside, New Haven, CT is one of the three Connecticut cities that is undertaking a broadband infrastructure project.  It also happens to be the city I grew up in, and my family was deeply rooted in the New Haven community.  It was a privilege to shake hands with Mayor Toni Harp.

I’d like to thank Broadband Communities Magazine for their organization and hospitality.  This is not a typical trade rag.  One pleasant surprise was the degree to which the magazine supports this diverse community.  Plus the editors are multi-talented and exceptionally intelligent and passionate about broadband.  In particular, Steve Ross gave me the better part of an evening for a very enjoyable conversation, and valuable business advice.  For whatever it’s worth, I’ll have an article in their October edition.

 

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