Broadband in 2017 holds many similarities to the railroad’s opening of the country in the late 1800s. In both cases, a significant investment of time and materials was necessary to develop new infrastructure, and in both cases, the ultimate value of that investment is realized not simply through that infrastructure itself, but through the economic ecosystem that grows and evolves around it.
In the case of the railroads, that meant banking and financial services institutions; travel and hospitality providers; printing and communications companies; freight logistics and shipment handlers; and a host of other business activity. The railroad became defined by more than the ability to connect distant points; it became defined by the ability to create new businesses out of nothingness, to enable existing businesses to grow, and to change the way that municipalities viewed themselves in the broader economic landscape.
That’s true of broadband, too. Fast, high-speed connectivity offers more than just improvement in the lives of day-today ‘online citizen work.’ It also offers five broader areas of real economic benefit to communities – connection to the information economy, the Internet of Things, the engine of electronic commerce, the world of big data, and the visual experience era. In this paper, we’ll examine each one, and discuss the significant – and long-ranging – positive impacts that they have.
CONNECTING TO THE INFORMATION ECONOMY
In much the same way that the railroad opened commerce between towns, and expanded the focus of the municipal economy to the sale of products and services regionally and nationally, so too does broadband enable municipalities to begin thinking bigger. Remote work is among the most immediate and obvious benefits. Towns connected to fast, reliable broadband enable their citizens to take posts with firms headquartered in distant cities, creating new job opportunities that lie outside the reach of the local economic base.
The statistics only point toward remote work becoming the norm, too: work-at-home employees, among the non-self-employed population, have grown by 103% since 2005. While the total U.S. employee workforce grew by 1.9% from 2013 to 2014, remote work employees grew by 5.6% – nearly three times as fast. A survey of business leaders at a recent Global Leadership Summit in London found that 34% said more than half their company’s full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020.
But connecting to the information economy involves more than remote work. It also involves remotely acquiring the skillsets necessary to participate in that economy. Colleges and universities have steadily increased the amount of coursework that students can remotely participate in, and beyond traditional higher education, massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer many of the same benefits in a no-cost learning environment. Again, however, much of that coursework is best performed in a live, video-enabled setting that provides real-time interaction – and that is best served on a reliable, fast digital backbone that can accommodate the streaming content needs of tens of thousands of citizens simultaneously.
CONNECTING TO THE INTERNET OF THINGS
Broadband offers much more than simply the opportunity to connect to distant organizations, or to connect neighbors across town; it offers the possibility to connect citizens to the town itself, and to towns around, leveraging the emerging trend of the Internet of Things. Specifically, broadband construction offers the chance to rethink how town services and infrastructural components can communicate with town leaders – and with each other.
Consider the possibility of notifying citizens immediately when water quality changes; monitoring park usage by offering free wifi and tracking logins; enabling a train signal to talk to town stoplights to run longer green lights across the tracks when a train will be blocking the intersection in fewer than fifteen minutes. These are just a handful of the thousands of new projects towns across the United States are undertaking, based on the presence of reliable, fast broadband infrastructure in their localities.
The Internet of Things promises a better community by enabling city infrastructure to do more – more self-reporting and status checking, more intelligent conversation with related services, and more transparency to the population. Citizens don’t have to wonder any longer where the snowplows are; they can pull up a live map of where the plows are working, with a schedule of when they’ll be in a specific area. Traffic lights can dynamically re-time themselves to accommodate changes in weather in order to minimize drive times and pollution. Rain sensors can push text messages to citizens with recommended changes to lawn watering times.
To date, the IoT has been closely associated with Smart City initiatives in major metropolitan areas, but many of the same benefits that have been realized in cities like Stockholm, Songdo and Helsinki can be put to work in municipalities a fraction of their size. In many cases, the cost/benefit ratio is actually higher for smaller cities; while the IoT can be retrofitted to existing infrastructure, it’s most efficiently deployed in line with a larger municipal infrastructure renovation project – which is why it’s become an increasingly popular project to be implemented with broadband construction. It’s a chance to ‘start over’ in a truly digital sense and enable powerful new sensor and communication systems, all powered by a robust new digital backbone.
CONNECTING TO THE ENGINE OF ELECTRONIC COMMERCE
The ability of light manufacturers and specialty retailers in smaller cities and towns to connect to the global engine of electronic commerce is vital to municipal health and growth. As more small firms achieve growth-stage viability through microfunding and crowdsourced funding services, it becomes possible to develop a significant manufacturing and retail sector in municipalities that have historically been agricultural, ‘bedroom,’ or hospitality and service-based communities. Fast, reliable broadband is a significant enabler for small businesses in light manufacturing and retail that need to move significant volumes of data – engineering designs and CDC patterns, high-resolution color product images, volume ordering data – on a regular basis.
Broadband is more than an enabling technology for existing and within-community entrepreneurial organizations, though. It’s also a key economic development driver for attracting new entrepreneurs to specified electronic commerce zones within the municipality. Across the country, many towns have deployed defined enterprise zones with a specific focus on electronic commerce development, with tax incentives specifically designed to attract new businesses that rely on distant trade over a robust fiber backbone. Zones of this type generally provide qualifying businesses with credits against either their state income tax, corporate excise tax, or both, and generally tend to center around the range of 25% of the qualifying business’ capital cost for electronic commerce investments within a specified year or range of years.
CONNECTING TO THE WORLD OF BIG DATA
Big Data – simply put, datasets too large to analyze with conventional analytical tools – is a trending technology for Fortune 1000 CEOs, data scientists, and city managers alike. The promise of the Internet of Things is more than just the ability to connect infrastructural components in real time; it’s also the ability to populate and examine an ever-expanding body of collected data and look for emerging trends in municipal operations and citizen services.
Big Data offers valuable use cases for municipalities of all kinds. In agricultural communities, sharing crop health and pricing data across the city – and even across a region – can help every individual contributor to that centralized body of data to see emerging trends before they become problems. Similarly, comparing annual yields over time compared with commodity pricing can help to predict future economic performance of the sector within the municipality.
From a broader perspective, the same concept – capturing and examining Big Data either horizontally (in a specific moment in time across a wide geographic area) or longitudinally (over a long period of time in a specific and defined area) – can apply to other municipal endeavors, too. From studying town and regional weather patterns to better predict and inform the citizen population to analyzing infrastructure and utility usage over time to plan a more efficient power and water system, Big Data holds immense promise for the improvement of citizens’ lives – and the efficient use of their tax dollars.
But access to Big Data’s long-term benefits require the kind of resilient, fast broadband infrastructure that makes the daily transfer of gigabytes of data a straightforward and unremarkable task. It’s for this reason that more and more municipal governments are looking to combine their urban and exurban Big Data initiatives with the installation of new fiber-optic broadband infrastructure. The benefits of municipal and regional Big Data visibility substantially outweigh the cost of installation and operation.
CONNECTING TO THE VISUAL EXPERIENCE ERA
The last benefit area under discussion in this paper is one that places the heaviest demands on a city’s broadband infrastructure – ubiquitous telepresence, or the ‘always-on visual experience.’ Increasingly, HD-quality video is being used to break down perceived barriers of distance, whether between an employee and employer, a patient and a physician in a distant city, an air quality sensor and a central utility operations room, or a distant field irrigation meter and a city water planner. The closer we can bring distant entities together with video, the less relevant the real distance between them becomes.
That distance is important to consider in both directions for municipal planners – in terms of both ways to bring the citizenry closer to outside opportunities, and ways to bring outside services closer to the population. The first of these includes remote work (see above), but so much more as well – from bringing cultural and artistic events in distant cities to smaller towns in full HD, to enabling citizens to take part in political events on a regional basis.
The second of these – bringing outside services closer to the population – makes a small town feel ‘bigger’ when need be. The promise of distance telemedicine delivered in full HD means that a small town can have access to specialists in other cities. Working in conjunction with local healthcare staff, distant physicians can instruct the on-site team what to look for, and gauge patient reaction and response and act appropriately.
Faced with the immensity of the opportunity base that broadband offers, our clients generally have one immediate question: how do we get started?
At Ronin, we use a five-step process to build a holistic service and infrastructure plan.
- Start with the end in mind. We recommend working backward from the desired community outcomes, through the broadband service layer, and ultimately to the design of the network and the associated service ecosystem. By beginning with the end in mind, it’s easy to draw functional throughlines to the architecture and partner group. That process, in turn, starts with identifying the key performance indicators (KPIs) that citizens want to see changed as a result of implementing broadband.
- Centralize & productize community KPIs. When communication, for instance, emerges as a citizen concern across multiple areas of service, establishing a center of excellence around communication and pulling together multiple services into a centralized environment becomes a cost- and time-efficient idea. These centers of excellence become delivery, innovation and planning hubs that reduce overall cost to serve and work together to deliver quality service to citizens.
- See the full landscape. Since 2010, an increasingly complex ecosystem of Smart City service providers has sprung up, offering technologies and professional services in areas ranging from city parking and waste management to city data traffic, transport, connectivity and more. Choosing the right technology partners, and building out the right Smart City ‘stack,’ is a unique endeavor for each specific municipality. That effort benefits from selecting an overall transformation partner that sees the full landscape of potential partner organizations and can guide the development of that stack on an agnostic basis.
- Define value delivered to the citizen. Broadband can seem, to citizens, like a ‘shovels’ project – when in fact, it is much, much more. Understanding how each use case in a deployed broadband ring provides tangible benefits, as discussed in this paper, can provide real insight on the value of the investment, and the many forms of fiscal and experiential return that taxpayers can expect for their money.
- Build the delivery ecosystem. With the preceding steps in place, it’s time to build the delivery ecosystem – from the broadband infrastructure through the service layer and out to the citizenry. The resulting plan should consider everything from broadband service billing and customer care through service quality feedback and ongoing ecosystem evolution roadmapping. Again, it’s important to have a partner that can assist in every step of this process stage.
ABOUT RONIN TECHNOLOGY ADVISORS
At Ronin, we believe that broadband is about value – the value it creates for the company, the investors, the customers, and the community. We bring to bear decades of experience designing, building, and operating broadband infrastructure. Through this expertise, we enable our clients to create long-term value. The market today is fast-paced, and companies find themselves at different levels of technology evolution. We meet our clients where they are today, and work with what they have to get them where they want to be.