The NTCA-Rural Broadband Association held its annual meeting and expo this week in San Diego with more than 2,000 people in attendance.
I was on a panel to discuss the idea of a Virtual Metropolis, a topic I introduced to the Rural Broadband Association and have written about here.
The idea is simple. In the pre-internet days, cities — especially big cities — brought together lots of people. Because these peoople were near each other and could casually interact, these cities became hotbeds of innovation and economic production. Along with increased agricultural productivity, this led to the shift of population from rural to urban areas that has threatened many small towns.
As a sort of last gasp, after World War II, many small outlying towns tried to substitute factories as a source of employment. In the face on increasing automation and cheaper labor markets elsewhere, that strategy crumbled too. In the last couple of decades, the drop in small town and rural population has increased. Many bright, ambitious young people can’t wait to move away to a big city.
And, if you’re an entrepreneur with some great new product or service, it’s easier to start up in New York or Silicon Valley or some other equivalent place. Why? Because no single person has all the skills they need to succeed and it’s easier to find skilled people in those cities than in your small town.
When I write this, you may be thinking about high-tech entrepreneurs. But the historic limitations of small town life affect everyone, even artisans or those in other low-tech businesses.
This all may sound bleak and many people share that bleak outlook. Even some of the members of the Rural Broadband Association can be overwhelmed by this picture.
But what I’ve described is about the past, not the potential for the future. In this digital age, if you’re connected by broadband you can live anywhere. If you enjoy country living and love the quality of life there, you no longer need to compromise your economic prospects by continuing to live in the country.
We’ve seen some of the positive impact that broadband can have on those rural communities who have invested in broadband, but that impact has not been widespread enough for people to take notice.
Partly this reflects the lack of reasonably priced broadband in many rural areas. The Rural Broadband folks are working hard to fix that.
More important, there hasn’t been a digital platform devoted to the needs of people in the countryside that would provide a substitute for the casual face-to-face interactions and the breadth of the skill pool that people in big cities take for granted.
That’s where the Virtual Metropolis comes in. We are building this platform to make it easier for people in small towns and rural areas to see and talk to each other about how they can work together for mutual economic benefit.
Broadband makes this possible because it provides the bandwidth that’s necessary for visual chat. Visual chat is especially critical in helping to establish trust, compared to email, messaging and other forms of communication that are limited to text.
The shared small town experience is also an essential basis for mutual understanding and trust. That common experience gets drowned out in the overwhelmingly urban outlook of much larger social media and job services.
If even 10 or 15% of the people living in more rural areas join in for business purposes, they will be virtually part of a metropolis of more than five million people. In that way, they can achieve many of the same benefits of physically residing in a big city.
(While my focus is on economic opportunity, broadband will also give these folks access to great educational, cultural and medical resources.)
In addition to creating and setting up the technology for a Virtual Metropolis, we need to build a community — to get people to participate.
In part, that’s where the NTCA plays a key role. They can reach out to the early adopters, the innovators in their regions and let them know that the days of isolation are over. Clearly, from a business viewpoint, the Virtual Metropolis provides their customers and potential customers with a strong business justification for increasing their bandwidth.
One of the panelists, Dusty Johnson of Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell, South Dakota. Despite Mitchell’s selection among the ICF’s Top 7 most intelligent communities in the world, he was initially skeptical as a self-described “cranky old man.” But as he thought about others in Mitchell, particularly his own children and other young people, he realized the value of the idea.
The other panelist, Michael Burke, CEO of MTA, the local broadband provider for 10,000 square miles of Alaska is already an unusually innovative leader. MTA goes way beyond merely providing connectivity in many ways, for example providing customer training on new technology and funding coding classes in the schools.
Mr. Burke quickly championed the Virtual Metropolis. Of course, considering the distance from the lower 48 and the nature of winter in Alaska, the necessity of being part of a much larger virtual community is crystal clear.
[If you’re interested in joining and helping to build this virtual metropolis, please contact me.]
© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved