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Small town, big economic story

/ October 1, 2014

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Small town, big economic story

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 economic development story. It has suffered de-population, economic difficulties, community tensions and all the other problems people in many small towns have witnessed.

Then along comes the Mississippi-based telecommunications company, C-Spire that announced it would deploy Gigabit Internet connection through fiber to the homes 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.

So far Quitman is the smallest of ten communities to take on this broadband 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, starting with their visionary mayor, Eddie Fulton.

They’ve also been helped by one of the long forgotten secrets of America’s agricultural and economic success – the extension service. This is a nation-wide network of offices staffed with experts who can provide practical and research-based advice to those in rural communities. In Quitman’s case, Professor Roberto Gallardo at Mississippi State University Center For Technology Outreach has helped to educate the community and served as an adviser.

In mid September I was in Quitman leading what the Intelligent Community Forum calls a Master Class, as part of its Community Accelerator program.

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. 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.

Nor is Quitman alone as there are other exemplary communities such as Mitchell, South Dakota and Stratford, Ontario — towns of 15,000 and 30,000 populations doing great things with broadband and both recognized as Intelligent Communities by the Intelligent Community Forum.

I asked the community leaders of Quitman to start to plan how they would use broadband when it was deployed and separated them into three groups, one focused on education, another on health and the third group looking at economic growth. They had a good discussion and came up with strong 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.

Dr. Norman Jacknis is Senior Fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum of New York City responsible for the Rural Imperative program. Government Technology Magazine named Jacknis one of America’s “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers.” For more information go to www.IntelligentCommunity.org.

 

 

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