Is your community open for business?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/20/2004 - 06:01

I visit a lot of rural communities. Most of them are trying to chart a path for themselves in the Knowledge Economy. But there is still a lot of stovepipe thinking going on. Economic developers are rarely talking to town planners. Town planners are rarely talking to business people. Hardly anyone is talking to work at home businesspeople.

No one cares about broadband. Let me repeat that. Businesspeople that are engaged in the new economy don't care about broadband. What they care about is being able to meet their customers needs and expectations. Broadband is needed to do that, but broadband is not really an issue for them--what they are able to do with it is an issue.

What I'm trying to say is that broadband is simply one part of a bigger picture for communities, and the bigger picture, for the entrepreneurial, microenterprise businessperson (remember that small businesses are creating 75% of new jobs), is that they need a bunch of amenities and services in a community to be able to meet their customer needs and expectations. It's never just one thing (like broadband).

What are some of those things? Here's my list:

I found your life...

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/20/2004 - 05:52

In the "old days," (I find myself saying that a lot recently, and I'm usually talking about six or seven years ago), if you lost a roll of film, it might, at best, have 36 pictures on it, and no one would bother to spend the money to have them developed.

Losing your "roll of film" these days means misplacing a memory card the size of a postage stamp, with quite possibly hundreds of pictures on it. There is at least one person who has done this, and is now the subject of an entirely fictional online life, called I Found Some of Your Life.

The writing is pretty good, actually. And the fact that something like this is even possible demonstrates how much the world really has changed. Anyone can be a writer and publisher--anyone. Like the bloggers that broke the story on the CBS memos, it's a dramatic redistribution of power away from the "old" media conglomerates and toward a much more equitable and egalitarian model. Of course, it's also now easier to publish complete falsehoods, but as CBS found out, to its chagrin, if the falsehood is important in some way, someone, somewhere, will let the world know.

Wired says Idaho is hot

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/13/2004 - 19:52

A few years back, Idaho set its eyes firmly on the future, and the effort is beginning to have a major impact in the rural state. Idaho is not only not on the way to anywhere, it does not come to mind quickly as a hotbed of technology companies and entrepreneurs.

But it is. Wired's story is worth a read to see what can happen when a region sets a vision for the future and sticks to it long enough to see results. Idaho did not go after the quick fix. The state took its time, invested patiently, and kept it's eye on the ball.

Towns unite for broadband

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/13/2004 - 15:32

Three communities around the country (Palo Alto, CA; Lafayette, LA; and the TriCities area of Illinois) have formed a "Sisters in Arms" network. Each community is interested in getting affordable, widely available broadband to their citizens and businesses, and the loosely formed coalition is trading information on the process, how to move forward, and how to deal with pushback from the incumbents.

There are two national organizations that I recommend to any community or region interested in this area: The Association For Community Networks (AFCN) and the Rural Telecommunications Congress (RTC). Both nonprofits have a sharp focus on getting better services to communities, and the members have a wealth of experience that they willingly share with other members.

Broadband saves $6000/month

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/13/2004 - 12:06

MuniWireless has a story about Scottsburg, Kentucky and the importance of broadband to the future of the community.

Scottsburg is a rural community of 6000 north of Louisville. The problem they were facing there is common to rural communities: a T1 line in metro Louisville cost $300/month, and in rural Scottsburg it was $1300/month--that's the difference between a thriving business sector and and an economic disaster.

A modest investment in wireless allows Scottsburg residents and businesses to get broadband for $35/month, and a full T1 (via wireless) costs only $200/month--cheaper than Louisville.

The school system estimates that it saves $6000/month in telecom costs (that's taxpayer dollars!), and several businesses have been able to stay open, including the local Chrysler dealership, where 60 mechanics who use laptops to repair cars were told by Chrysler to get better broadband or close down.

When the local garage needs broadband to stay open, the whole "value of broadband" issue is closed to debate. If your community still has elected officials and economic developers who are not taking this seriously, show them this article. Ask them if saving $6000/month in taxpayer funds is important, and if not, ask them to please explain why.

Broadband saves jobs and money. It's just that simple.

FCC says broadband use is up

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/13/2004 - 08:00

There is a good news/bad news quality to a set of FCC press releases that went out late last week. The good news is that broadband availability in the U.S. is up significantly. The FCC says the number of broadband lines has tripled from 2001 to 2003. Cable modems have about 75% of the marketplace, with DSL far behind with 15%. All other technologies (e.g. fiber, wireless, satellite) composed 10% of the marketplace.

Some of the bad news is that the FCC defines broadband as anything faster than 200 kilobits, a remarkably low bar compared to the rest of the world, which is typically measuring broadband in megabits. The FCC keeps the bar that low so that they can claim we all have lots of broadband.

More bad news is also masked...the FCC says only about 7% of U.S. zip codes have no high speed access. What they don't say is where those zip codes are, but it's a safe bet they represent a lot of rural households. Another telling statistic is that zip codes with four or more providers is up to 46%. Again, that does not represent rural areas.

To be fair, FCC chairman Michael Powell stated in a separate press release that "200 Kbs or even a 1 megabit connection is wholly inadequate for the demands of a growing number of consumers." Powell goes on to say that "information at the speed of light" (i.e. fiber connectivity) is what we really need. He mentions the goal of "universal and affordable access to all by the year 2007," but the Federal government does not really have a plan to get there, except to wait for the private sector to take care of it.

The numbers, to those that aren't out in rural communities (huge areas of the country, actually) look very good. But the reality is that communities that want univeral and affordable broadband will have to make some investments to get it. It's at least as important as roads, water and sewer, and communities routinely spend lots of money on those things.

Connected cities

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/10/2004 - 08:21

Over the past couple of weeks, three major cities in the U.S. have announced ambitious plans to extend connectivity of one kind or another. New York and Philadelphia are moving forward with plans to create wireless blankets over most of each city.

New York's plan is more ambitious. The city is looking at making virtually every lamppost available for WiFi and cellular telephone access. Part of what is driving this is money. Even at the modest fees the city says it will charge for the right to mount antennas, it represents new income to the municipal government. What is less clear is if the plan will succeed. Some elected officials and citizen groups have raised concerns about the amount of additional EMF radiation that will be propogated by the plan. Not everyone is keen to have 24 hour/day gigahertz frequency radiation emanating from an antenna just a few feet from their second floor apartment window.

Philadelphia's plan is to create a WiFi blanket throughout the core area of the city, to make the place tech friendly. Both cities will rely on the private sector to spend the money to do the work, and will simply put the ordinances and fee structure in place that will allow those companies to place antennas and equipment on public property.

The third city, Chicago, is planning to put 2000 remote control surveillance cameras throughout its neighborhoods and city streets, with the dual aim of curbing crime and providing better coverage of potential terrorist targets. The system will be tied directly into the 911 system, which will allow 911 operators to pull up real time video of a crime, fire, or accident in progress. In Chicago, some groups have raised concerns about the potential privacy issues related to such comprehensive surveillance. In the end, the city will probably have its way, as we have no constitutional guarantee to privacy in public places.

All these initiatives are mixed news for smaller and rural communities. On the one hand, these initiatives not only raise the bar for what kind of infrastructure is expected in our communities (i.e. WiFi blankets), but as this kind of infrastructure becomes commonplace, smaller communities especially lose any competitive advantage they may have had from early investments. That is to say, instead of touting public WiFi as an economic development advantage that other places do not have, public WiFi is now going to be increasingly seen as part of the base, required infrastructure--imagine trying to promote your community without a public sewer system in place.

Last chance to save money on RuralTelecon conference

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/07/2004 - 09:10

If you have been thinking about attending the Rural Telecommunications Congress 8th Annual Conference, Friday is the last day to save $100 on early bird registration. If you are a vendor, it is a great place to meet the representatives of community and regional broadband projects from around the country. If your community is interested in broadband, it's a great place to hear about what has worked and worked well.

For the past eight years, RuralTeleCon – the annual conference of the Rural Telecommunications Congress – has been the premier venue for understanding the issues surrounding the deployment and use of advanced telecommunications in rural communities. Each year, the event focuses on a critical issue facing rural communities and rural residents as they use telecommunications for community and economic development. This year’s theme is “Putting Broadband to Work.”

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS

For more info and to register visit www.ruraltelecon.org.

Taiwan well ahead of U.S. in broadband use

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/07/2004 - 09:01

A new report from Taiwan shows that the country is far ahead of the United States in broadband use, with more than 56% of the population using high speed services, or about double U.S. use. That makes Taiwan the fourth biggest per capita user of broadband in the world, behind South Korea, Hong Kong, and Canada.

It is important to remember that Taiwan is smaller than many U.S. states, and probably smaller than some planning districts/regions in the U.S. The higher population density there makes it easier to justify the investments. Nonetheless, it suggests that here in the U.S., regional approaches to broadband are more likely to be successful than individual town and community projects.

Fiber to the home projects in the U.S.

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/07/2004 - 08:52

PCWorld has a nice summary of fiber to the home projects, mostly from the telephone and cable company perspective.

Some of the key ideas in the article:

Supercomputers for hire: the new ED infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/07/2004 - 08:38

Almost a year ago, I wrote enthusiastically about Virginia Tech's low cost, high powered supercomputer, and suggested that supercomputers for hire were a way of attracting businesses into a region, just as water and sewer were attractors forty years ago.

This Slashdot story describes Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's latest venture--a supercomputer for hire in New Zealand.

Jackson's 500 node machine is relatively modest, ranking only 77th among the top 500 supercomputers in the world. A modest cluster can be assembled for a lot less than some regions are spending on shell buildings out by the interstate, and as a marketing tool for Knowledge Economy businesses, even a small supercomputer cluster is more likely to get your region on the short list for a relocation than a shell building.

RuralTelecon Conference one of the best

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/03/2004 - 11:17

Early bird registration for the 8th Annual Rural Telecommunications Congress Annual Conference is still available through September 10th.

If you live in a rural community and are interested in economic development and broadband issues, this is one of the best conferences going. The RTC conference works hard to keep the sesssions focused on best practice, lessons learned, funding opportunities, and solid, practical information.

If you are interested in funding opportunities and national policy issues, some of the most important Federal and private agencies will be in attendance, with staff and speakers, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the USDA, NTIA and the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), and RUPRI.

The conference is being held in Spokane, Washington, with affordable downtown hotel rates, lots to do after hours, and of course, the conference is a tremendous opportunity to meet vendors, network in the hallways, and get valuable information for your community. Disclaimer: I'm on the RTC Board of Directors, but I agreed to join the Board because I was so impressed by the RTC conferences.

MIT invents community network

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/03/2004 - 08:58

Apparently at least one faculty member at MIT has been off the 'net entirely for the past twenty years. This story discusses Professor Keith Hampton's iNeighbor network.

Distributed by the New York Times New Service, apparently both MIT and the Times failed to do even a single Google search for "community network," which would have shown that there is not only a well-established national organization focused on online communities of place (the Association For Community Networking), but also hundreds of thriving local community network projects, some of them more than a decade old.

The article has the look and feel of a press release; apparently the Times no longer bothers to do any research or get second opinions. It's almost laughable in parts, especially where someone describes in glowing terms how they found a tennis partner online. This is news? Community networks have been supporting local social networking since the eighties.

Web sites gone wild

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/02/2004 - 09:05

I visited two Web sites this morning that illustrate perfectly two problems that I write about frequently:

The first site I visited was a well-known educational software publishing house. I wanted to order a typing program for one of my kids. For the second time in the past six weeks, I went through the entire order process, only to have the final "procesing your order" screen sit there and grind away without ever finishing the order. I had tried to place an order back in July with the same results.

I picked up the phone and got a nice salesperson who took my order, but I added another item, and she had to put me on hold because her internal company sales system would not show the item. She first had to look on the Web to establish what the product was, and then had to go ask someone how to enter the missing product into the system. She also admitted that the company knew the Web site did not work; "they are working on it," she told me.

It's almost beyond belief. The Web site ordering process has been broken for at least six weeks? This is pretty simple stuff these days. Even more unbelievable is that the in-house system can't even show all their products, and they probably have less than a hundred total. Here's an idea--give your ordering folks a piece of paper with the product names and numbers on it so they don't have to waste time looking on the Web site for it.

This is tyranny of the IT department in its purest form. Everyone in that department should be fired--they are costing the company untold amounts of revenue while they fiddle around with their software. The only possible explanation is "IT bullies;" the IT folks have completely flummoxed the company with jargon, arcane technical mumbo-jumbo, and IT fiddle-faddle. The IT department is running the company, with disastrous results. The IT department serves the company, not the other way around. Companies do not exist to provide full employment and ever-increasing budgets to the IT staff, but many IT departments have managed to pull this off.

UPS trucks powered by hydrogen

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/02/2004 - 07:39

If you think the Hydrogen Economy (part of the emerging Energy Economy) is some distant pipe dream that your region can safely ignore for another twenty years, think again.

UPS is testing hydrogen fuel cell-powered delivery trucks in three different parts of the country.

UPS says the trucks have power and acceleration comparable to the same size gas or diesel powered trucks, and 10% more space for cargo because of the compactness and efficiency of fuel cells. Even better, the trucks have zero emissions.

Yes, they cost more right now, but UPS has 80,000 vehicles in its fleet. Fuel is a major cost and rising. Over time, the new trucks can potentially save the company money--savings that will go straight to the bottom line.

As Skip Skinner, in the Lenowisco Planning District in southwest Virginia, is fond of reminding me, coal has a lot of hydrogen locked up inside it. Could it be that the coal belts in the U.S. become the hydrogen producers of the future? Could coal become "king" again? If it did, would your region be able to participate in that boom?

Carbon nanotubes generate electricity

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/01/2004 - 14:34

An Indian researcher has discovered that passing a gas over specially designed carbon nanotubes can generate measurable amounts of electricity.

Windpower is a growing industry that is increasingly competitive with coal and oil-generated power. But current windmills have drawbacks, including the noise, potential danger to birds and wildlife, and complex mechanical design.

The carbon nanotubes are solid-state (no moving parts), generate no noise, and would be much less intrusive than windmills. The system is still strictly experimental, but it's another piece of the emerging Energy Economy. One of the most important things to remember about the Energy Economy is that it will create entirely new businesses, and in turn, entirely new kinds of jobs. Is your region ready?

Design and community portals

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/01/2004 - 09:31

Community portals should be clean, simple, and easy to use. Jakob Nielsen, one of the top Web usability experts in the country, has a new column out on the importance of good, usable Web sites.

I see too many community portals that make the same mistakes Nielsen outlines.

Your community portal is how the rest of the world learns about your community. You want to put your best foot forward, so that you attract Knowledge Economy businesses and entrepreneurs who will want your broadband and your great quality of life. If your community Web sites are the very best they can be, you are missing a lot of economic development prospects. Disclaimer: Design Nine helps communities design and develop high quality community and local government portals.

Why USAir is nearly broke

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 09:46

The news is full of stories about USAir's financial woes, which they blame on the airline pilots. Their labor costs are probably too high. But I think there are other contributing factors. I just had to book a flight to Pittsburgh (round trip from Roanoke, Virginia). USAir has a hub there, and direct flights from Roanoke. The other three Roanoke airlines fly you through one of their hubs before getting to Pittsburgh.

You would think USAir would have a natural advantage, since businesspeople don't want to waste time in airports--a nonstop flight is always preferrable to one that requires a stop. Except when the nonstop flight costs two-thirds more! USAir is going broke because they are charging $800 for a single flight segment when all their competitors will fly two legs for under $500. Not only that, the times of the USAir flights are lousy, so I don't really lose that much time with the extra hop.

Another airline got my business, and USAir lost out because of absurd pricing coughed up by hideously complex pricing schemes generated by computer programs that only a bean counter could love. It's obvious that NO human being has ever looked at the Roanoke-Pittsburg pricing and asked, "Does this make sense?" If they had, the prices would be different, and USAir would be making money instead of losing it. Applied over their whole flight network, it's a wonder they have lasted this long. And it explains why the pilots are reluctant to make concessions--why should they if the real problem is not being fixed. Your costs could be zero, but if your prices drive your customers to another airline, it won't make any difference.

In part, this is a natural consequence of the Knowledge Economy. In the old days, travel agents worked mysteriously and invisibly to come up with ticket prices. They had special access to airline fee schedules, and we did not. So we took pricing more or less for granted. We had no information with which to make an informed decision. Today, I can hop onto Orbitz or Expedia and see every price from four or five airlines, and the pricing insanity that USAir calls a "business" is patently obvious.

FCC says broadband cable is not telecom

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 08:09

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is on the side of businesses and consumers when he declared:

“This is about ensuring that high-speed Internet connections aren’t treated like what they’re not: telephones. A successful appeal of this case would ultimately mean lower prices and better service for American consumers. Applying taxes, regulations and concepts from a century ago to today’s cutting-edge services will only stifle innovation and competition.”

Powell and the FCC have appealed a 9th Circuit Court's ruling to the Supreme Court. The Circuit Court previously ruled that cable modem service is a telecom service, which would subject new, cost-saving services like Voice over IP to century old regulation and taxes--an anti-business and anti-consumer stance that benefits only the incumbent telephone service providers.

Rural Wireless--not traditional "high tech" businesses

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 07:42

USA Today wrote an article about a month ago that I just stumbled across that's worth a read if you live in a rural area. The article details some of the new breed of rural wireless ISPs (WISPs) that are changing the way broadband is delivered in rural communities.

I am constantly surprised at the number of people who believe rural farmers don't want or don't need broadband. It's a myth, pure and simple. An ag agent told me over a year ago that half the cattle in Virginia are sold over the Internet. I met a farmer in southern Illinois last year that had built his own WiFi network to connect up weather and moisture sensors on his three farms. As we sat in his 150 year old farmhouse, he pulled up real time weather information from his sensors; he checks moisture levels every day without having to waste time riding around--he is using technology on a family farm to be more efficient and increase production.

The USA Today articles chronicles the work of big and small wireless firms, with an emphasis on the small outfits. One used an old farm silo to mount the antennas that supplies broadband to his customers. Another got into the wireless business to sell off expensive excess bandwidth he needed to run his own business.

As you read this article, one thing you notice is that these are not typical Manufacturing Economy businesses. They are not building manufacturing plants and office buildings. They are not renting space in business or industrial parks. They are not even renting space in the local business incubator. Many are home-based.

Does your economic development strategy include: a) Identifying these businesses (clue: they aren't relocating to your area and are not in your business park), and b) Providing capital, business planning and management, and marketing assistance?

These are "classic" Knowledge Economy businesses; they don't fit any of the old business stereotypes.

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