By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
I find myself writing more often about the challenges of getting broadband installed – financing it, building consensus, partnering with the private sector. The goal, as has been written many times, is create a foundation for economic growth.
But even after broadband is installed, economic growth doesn’t just happen automatically. It has to be nurtured. That’s the challenge that cities, regions, and countries have to be aware of. The work doesn’t stop once broadband transmissions start.
That’s why the work of US Ignite is so interesting. It “fosters the creation of next-generation Internet applications that provide transformative public benefit,” according to its web site (Cisco Systems is also a partner). Its members range from Cleveland and Chattanooga all the way down to its smallest member: Red Wing, Minnesota (pop. 16,000) joined in August of 2012.
For all the small towns that are trying to figure out how to benefit from broadband, Red Wing is at the head of the pack, using its foundational broadband to rewrite the rules of how small towns can boost their business acumen.
I first learned about Red Wing from my late mother. Before she embarked on a tour of Greenland and Iceland that departed from Minneapolis (about 45 miles away from Red Wing), she spent some time exploring the vicinity. Upon her return, her greatest enthusiasm was not about icefields or geysers but about the historic charm of Red Wing, sitting on bluffs over the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
In fact, those bluffs are part of the reason why Red Wing Ignite – the local representation of the national group – needs to conduct its incubation efforts. “Because we’re a bluff community, we don’t have the flat land to build factories,” says Scott Adkisson, CEO of software developer Diversion Solutions and one of the founding members of Red Wing Ignite. “Our growth has to come from smaller businesses.”
Providing a Broadband Test Bed
Enter Red Wing Ignite. “Being rural makes us unique,” says Neela Mollgaard, a community organizer who became the group’s executive director, but it also provides opportunities in terms of providing a test bed for broadband applications. One of its local telecom providers, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, had already installed broadband in the community.
The applications can relate to anything from education and health care to public safety and senior-citizen services. “When developers need to pilot an application and get feedback before they bring it to market, we’re able to disseminate it quickly,” says Mollgaard.
Adkisson’s firm is developing a public safety application. It allows drivers who’ve committed traffic violation to undergo online training to keep the mark off their record, rather than challenging the ticket in court and tying up municipal resources doing so. Officers give drivers a brochure and a password to go online and take the course.
River Systems is based in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, but is using Red Wing as a test bed for its cloud-based video-connection application, according to CEO Joel Ackerman. “We’re not inventing functionality, we’re just integrating it,” he says. “We take the functionality of Skype and contact management applications and combine them with a simplified user interface.”
Ackerman sees it as a boon for seniors who need telemedicine or who may be homebound and want to get a video feed of their church services. But the benefit goes to more than seniors. “It could be for anyone who can’t get to a medical clinic,” adds Mollgaard. “In the depth of a Minnesota winter, that can be a real issue.”
Red Wing held a particular value for Ackerman. “It’s got the best of urban and rural character,” he says. “Its hospital is part of the Mayo Clinic system. It has a culture and a community attitude of embracing better ways of doing things.”
And its size helps. Ackerman’s efforts require collaboration with city government, the health care system, and even the faith community. “I can schedule a meeting in Red Wing with no problem,” he says. “If I tried to do the same thing in Minneapolis or St. Paul, I’d be bogged down in bureaucracy. That allows us to move quickly. It’s a smaller, more approachable ecosystem to work with, and a great showcase for activities.”
Red Wing Ignite already has two employees dedicated to working with developers like Adkisson and Ackerman. “We will help developers launch their businesses in what capacity they need, whether with physical space or a [broadband-based] test bed.” Mollgaard anticipates that another half-dozen developers will sign on with Red Wing Ignite in the next three months.
Strengthening Communities’ Broadband Destiny
There’s a bigger issue afoot here, though, notes Matt Schmit, a native of Red Wing and now its representative in the Minnesota state senate. “We have to give communities a stronger hand in controlling their broadband destiny,” he says. “We have to put together incentive packages that make it clear to private providers that there’s an ROI to broadband development, even in rural parts of the state. You have to show that there’s real value in having the conversation.” It’s not a question of designating a telecom provider as a “winner,” he adds. “It’s going to take multiple tools in the toolbox.”
The lesson to rural communities – indeed, to all communities – is the importance of nurturing business to take advantage of broadband applications. Broadband itself is not a panacea.
“Yes, the challenge for most cities is to get broadband,” says Mollgaard. “But then it, what do you do? It’s important for the community to embrace it to spark their local economy. Sometimes that’s hard thing in a rural community, because you have to explain the capacity gigabit technology has to change lives. Our challenge is to explain that to the community and make it real.”
But Mollgaard is more than optimistic. “Years from now I believe we’ll be known as a technology epicenter. With our connectivity and the tools and applications we can provide, we can help launch new businesses more quickly and more effectively, and make next-generation technology a reality. The possibilities are endless.”