The introduction of technologies like 1 Gbps FTTH broadband and smart grid to communities like Chattanooga, Tennessee has given birth to the concept of a smart city. Google aims to do the same thing in Kansas City. Both of those communities can be considered urban. So what about rural smart communities?
The Rural Smart Communities Summit
The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA), a trade association representing the interests of small rural telco and broadband carriers, hosted the Rural Smart Communities Summit today in Washington DC. NTCA is opening a dialogue with rural interest organizations, including government and policy wonks, regarding the importance of ensuring smart communities also materialize in rural America.
The summit was attended by approximately 24 organizations and government agencies including NTIA, NRTC, NRECA, RUS, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, National Rural Health Association, the Rural School and Community Trust, the Southern Rural Development Center, and the White House Domestic Policy Council, to name a few. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, IBM, and Discovery Education represented the private sector.
Definition of a Rural Smart Community
Step one in this dialogue is to bring consensus to the definition of a smart rural community. NTCA has published a whitepaper, The Smart Rural Community, which offers the following definition, “A smart rural community relies on broadband networks to enable a series of applications that the community can leverage for innovative economic development and commerce, top‐notch education, first‐rate health care, cutting‐edge government services, enhanced security and more efficient utilities use,” as a beginning point. The recurring theme throughout today’s discussion revolved around broadband and its critical role for smart communities of any type, in any geographic location.
Today’s summit kicked off with opening remarks from RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein. Adelstein made no secret of his view regarding broadband and rural America stating, “I advocate a telecom diet rich in fiber,” alluding to his desire to see continued investment in fiber optics technology, both in the last and middle mile networks of rural America.
As many broadband advocates do, Adelstein equated the need for a robust broadband network in all of America to the need over 60 years ago for a national highway network. The completion of that highway network “…wasn’t just good for rural Americans, it was good for all Americans, and the same can be said for broadband.”
Adelstein also put the need for robust broadband in all U.S. communities, urban and rural alike, into a global competitive context. “China has 1.3 billion people and we have 300 million, which means they’ve got us by 1 billion people. Rural America has 50 million citizens. We need them and can’t afford to leave 50 million citizens behind,” in the global competitive race. Interesting way to look at it.
NTCA policy analyst Jesse Ward followed Adelstein with a discussion of the NTCA white paper highlighting several examples of smart rural community applications which are already in progress. Ward identified a rural smart grid example taking place in Ellendale, North Dakota with Dickey Rural Networks and several partners including the local rural electric cooperative.
Key Issues and Next Steps
Key issues were raised by the summit attendees regarding broadband and the goal of building rural smart communities. The role of education was a recurring theme, both in terms of K-12 schools and post-secondary education, and education of rural consumers as to the benefits of broadband. Important input was heard from other rural constituencies including the revealing fact that close to 50% of veterans reside in rural America.
The importance of broadband adoption was in heavy rotation as well. Several participants discussed the disconnect between broadband availability and actual broadband adoption. In many pockets of rural America, “build it and they will come” does not seem to apply.
NTCA believes this is a first step in this important discussion – one they want to continue. Today’s summit validated a key point that Ward of NTCA stated in her presentation, that “… the definition of a rural smart community is dynamic.” Next steps discussed at today’s summit include increased collaboration among the participating organizations, a follow up meeting with more tangible goals, and perhaps the identification of a pilot rural smart community. Such a community would put many of the applications of a smart city into practice for further study, with the goal of establishing a roadmap for rural communities who want to become “smart.”