Can a town of 2,300 people in the countryside of Mississippi create a future for itself with broadband? The answer is yes if you speak to the visionary leader of Quitman – its Mayor, Eddie Fulton – and about two dozen community leaders from business, education, churches, health care and other fields.
Quitman is not what you might think of as the likely star of a broadband story. It has suffered de-population, economic difficulties, community tensions and all the other problems people in many small towns across America have witnessed.
Then along comes the Mississippi-based telecommunications company, C-Spire, who announced it would deploy gigabit Internet connection through fiber to the home in a small number of communities. The key requirement was that a fairly sizable percentage of the community’s residents had to sign up for the service in advance.
Quitman was the smallest town to take on this challenge. It would not normally be considered because of its size, but they had such a strong commitment to building on broadband that the company decided to make the investment. Now, Quitman is ahead of the others in deployment and plans for developing their community.
Anyone who has ever been involved in a big technology project knows that the biggest obstacles to success are not technical issues, but human issues. That’s why the chances that Quitman will succeed are good. They have the necessary leadership, motivation and willingness to innovate.
They’ve also been helped by one of the long forgotten secrets of America’s agricultural and economic success – the extension service. In particular, Professor Roberto Gallardo at Mississippi State University Center For Technology Outreach has helped to educate the community and been their adviser.
And so it was that last week I was in Quitman leading what the Intelligent Community Forum calls a Master Class, as part of its community accelerator program.
I pointed out that, rather than being an anomaly, a small city like Quitman could be the quintessential broadband success story. I told the community leaders that a number of recent studies have shown that broadband has a much greater impact on small towns and rural areas than in cities. As I’ve written before, this is not surprising. Big cities provide many traditional ways that many people can interact with each other. It is only when residents of small communities get connected to everyone else through the Internet that they can start to level the playing field.
I reviewed the historical context that is opening up new opportunities for rural communities. I provided various examples, from elsewhere in North America and beyond, of the ways broadband can make a difference to the countryside. The point of the examples was to give the community leaders ideas and also to see small towns, like theirs, doing great things with broadband.
Then to bring the strategy and examples home, I asked them what they would do with broadband when it was deployed. The community leaders separated into three groups, one each focused on education, health and economic growth. They had a good discussion and came up with good ideas that will enable them to move fast when the connectivity is available later this year.
The signature line of the old song “New York, New York”, written at the height of that city’s industrial prominence, proclaimed: “If I can make it in New York, 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.
I’ll keep you apprised of their progress.
© 2014 Norman Jacknis