Courier Staff Writer
Broadband, very simply, is communication.
It’s a way of digitizing every way people communicate and sending that information from Point A to Point B relatively quickly, said Craig Settles, broadband and fiber optic community assessment consultant, who spoke to an audience Wednesday night about what broadband can do for a community.
“There needs to be a certain level of education, translation and explanation to help folks understand so they make better decisions about whether to have it,” Settles said. “The value of broadband comes down to who in the community, who in businesses, who in the schools can benefit by moving voice, video, graphics and text from Point A to Point B faster?”
And by moving that data faster, how will that improve education and health care?
“Ultimately that’s what’s important,” he said. “Whether you have a network that moves 10 megs of speed or a gigabit of speed, if you have a network that’s fast enough to help businesses communicate better so they can improve, grow and provide jobs, that’s what you need to focus on.”
This is not something that happens magically overnight, he said. It takes community involvement and it may be a year or two before benefits are seen.
“When I say broadband is an asset, that means it has value by itself that increases in value with time,” he said.
Broadband, he said, has value in entertainment, social circles, business, education and health care.
“What’s been interesting about broadband from an economic development standpoint is having it has economic value,” he said. “Having broadband means some people stay or move to the community who would otherwise go somewhere else.”
Settles used several cities as examples of where broadband has changed daily life, including Chattanooga, Tenn. and Kansas City, Mo., who both have gigabit networks.
“The ability to communicate with other communities shrinks the world and provides new opportunities,” he said.
The rural city of Prestonsburg, Ky. was suffering from a deteriorating downtown. By offering loans, rehabilitating their buildings and providing wireless access, the downtown drew 40 businesses within the first year of installing a broadband network.
The city saw thousands of dollars more in tax revenue, improved relationships with businesses and the network connected those living in remote areas with doctors.
“For a number of folks, because of the distance, it wasn’t easy for a number of different reasons, so they wouldn’t get preventive health care,” he said. “They were able to increase the number of people communicating with doctors and medical professionals more often and get ahead of the problem rather than coming in when the problem was critical.”
In Riverside, Calif., a program was created to train families how to use software in order to go look for jobs or further their education.
“The greater aspect is that these were low-income families who were otherwise shut out from technology, who are now able to participate,” he said.
The city recycled used electronics to cover $320,000 of the $500,000 operating costs, with the balance paid for through a citywide golf tournament.
“The community got behind the program because it was a self-sufficient, self-funding program to bring people across the digital divide,” he said.
But broadband doesn’t solve every problem by itself.
“You can’t just turn on the network and miraculously jobs appear,” he said. “You have to have programs in place, cooperation from businesses and medical centers and someone planning how this all evolves in the community. It’s a lot of hard work.”
One county resident asked whether broadband would be available to those outside of Ottumwa.
“The goal of the project is to assess where the needs are first in Ottumwa but also give consideration to where there are additional needs,” Settles said.
State Rep. Mary Gaskill said the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation should consider making this a regional effort, since they will be more likely to receive federal funding than if it was solely focused on Ottumwa.
OEDC executive director David Barajas Jr. said the biggest concern for Ottumwans will likely be how something like this is funded.
“I feel there are probably 10 to 12 clearly defined options for how to both pay for and run broadband networks,” Settles said. “On one end of the spectrum, the city itself ... hires people to build it, then they market and run the network. On the other end, communities create a wish list where they go to the private sector.”
Cities can pay for the network through bonds and taxes — “which are less popular at this time,” he said — or through variations of constituents and businesses chipping in.
“The thread that runs across the most successful fundraising efforts is when the community is involved,” he said. “For those who see the value, they invest in it.”
Chris Hickie, systems analyst at Mahaska Health Partnership in Oskaloosa who lives in Ottumwa, said he is an example of the “brain drain” cities like Ottumwa experience, since he moved away from Ottumwa after receiving his education. He and his wife eventually moved back to Ottumwa from Chicago.
“The future is dictating that everything is data-driven,” he said. “Let’s be pioneers in the beginning of something great in Ottumwa, instead of simply sitting back and watching the rest of Iowa cruise on by.”