Connecting Local Communities: The Relationship Between Broadband and Economic Development

Infrastructure as a public good generally refers to water and sewer services, energy and other utilities, parks and recreation, and highways and roads – telecommunications services, specifically broadband or high-speed Internet access, do not usually fall under the umbrella of publicly-provided services.  One of the reasons is that it’s primarily a market dominated by for-profit providers, with seemingly little room for users or policy makers to have much input.    

But technological innovation through robust communications services are at the heart of what drives local governments’ ability to innovate and enhance the way they provide services for their residents and steer their community’s economic growth.  A local government’s success in understanding what their community’s levels of Internet access are and how to improve and/or leverage that access to meet local goals requires strong relationships and dialogue with a variety of partners.  

Tom Ferree, President of Connected Nation, a non-profit organization that provides broadband planning services to communities, believes that there is a role for government in maximizing technologies through better broadband access for their communities.  But this can’t happen in a vacuum amongst policy makers.  “This thing really works when it goes across sectors,” says Ferree.

Broadband Planning

When a local government undertakes a broadband planning initiative, what they are essentially trying to assess is:

  • What kinds of levels of access (Internet service) exist and who is providing them?
  • Does the community understand the importance of broadband, and are there education programs in place to help residents understand its importance?
  • Once the community understands the relevance of broadband and has access, are residents using it to its maximum potential?

This case study profiles two communities that sought to gain a better understanding of why broadband matters to them and how they decided to use it to meet their community’s needs.

Greenwood County, South Carolina

When thinking about broadband, Greenwood County, South Carolina was initially hesitant about embarking on a process to assess their levels of access in the community.  Access to the Internet was taken for granted and there was an assumption that current service levels were adequate.  It was not until they found out one of their local companies had been having issues with its Internet connectivity did they realize the impact that better services would mean for local businesses.  The county then also realized that enhancing their broadband capacity would do much to retain existing businesses and attract new ones to the region, thereby increasing the region’s potential for economic growth.  

Community outreach meeting in Greenwood County. In creating a competitive environment for the business sector, Greenwood County also saw the potential broadband could have for its residents.  The Greenwood Partnership Alliance spearheaded a community outreach initiative and found that there did not seem to be much interest from people in wanting to know more about broadband.  

They tried again a few months later though and found success by appointing a community champion to create some relevance for broadband in terms of the changes it could bring to the community.  Catalina Valencia, Business Development Director for the Greenwood Partnership Alliance, interacted with community residents to identify what their needs were and help them understand how the Internet could help them gain better access to education, take advantage of government services, and improve access to healthcare services.

Valencia also worked closely with the local businesses, healthcare facilities, education institutions, and economic development groups to better understand what their needs were.  All this information is vital in assisting county leaders to better understand the types of infrastructure investment that are needed and how they can create policies that will meet the needs of the various sectors of their economy.  

Du Quoin, IllinoisDu Quoin, Illinois

Du Quoin, Illinois is a community with a population of approximately 6,000 residents and an unemployment rate higher than the national average at 9.4 percent.  Mayor Rex Duncan saw broadband as an economic necessity for the community.  

The city engaged in education and outreach efforts as part of their broadband assessment and planning, which extended to public officials as well as residents.  Mayor Duncan understood the benefits that broadband could bring to the community, but he also knew that this topic can be very “techy” and that other local officials might lose interest as a result.  By translating how this telecommunications infrastructure can help alleviate rural poverty, unemployment, and create sustainable job opportunities in the community, he retained their attention and got their buy-in and support in developing this powerful resource for the community.

“We’ve found in Southern Illinois that communities that participate wholeheartedly in broadband expansion as an essential infrastructure are communities that are ready for growth and development.  High-bandwidth Internet service must be readily available in order for entrepreneurship and innovation to flourish.  Encouraging such systems is economic development of the highest order.  That’s the job of local officials.  The more they know about broadband as a community and economic asset, the more they can effectively communicate that asset to the world,” says Mayor Duncan 

What the Greenwood County and Du Quoin examples charge other local communities with is to be visionary.  If residents and/or local officials don’t realize the importance of having reliable, robust Internet access, educational efforts are crucial to ensure that the tangible benefits of broadband are communicated to and then implemented by a community.  

It’s also important that elected officials talk to their colleagues.  Each elected official brings a nuanced and important set of priorities and expertise to the table.  Some champion community development goals, while others focus on enhancing infrastructure assets, for example.  Policy makers should not be creating solutions in silos, because many of these challenges can be resolved through collaborative efforts.  Technological advancement shouldn’t be a goal for cities in and of itself; but it can be a platform to bring city leaders, residents, and other local stakeholders together to make great things happen for a community.  

This case study was written by Julia Pulidindi, Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the National League of Cities. Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.