Getting beyond the magic broadband bullet theory

Too many national discussions about broadband’s impact on economic development get caught up in wonky mumble jumble and blue-sky numbers. Meanwhile, at the community level, many a discussion regresses to “why should my tax dollars help teenagers surf YouTube?” No wonder U.S. broadband speeds languish behind Iceland and Slovenia.

Policymakers (many well-intentioned), government agencies, and elected officials, as well as big telecos’ lobbyists conning their way into more government subsidies for empty broadband promises, seem to fall into two camps hindering progress.

Bold weavers versus assumptive forecasters

One camp is the bold weavers, those who spout numbers and stats that seem woven from whole cloth, indicating broadband’s responsible for “x” million new jobs or “y” billion dollars. It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw clear lines between these types of grandiose statements and local economic realities to create good policy.

The other camp, assumptive forecasters, touts economic outcomes that seem reasonable, but whose validity is based on assumptions and anecdotal evidence. Case in point, it is accepted gospel that one big value broadband brings to underserved individuals is it enables them to look for jobs. This assumption is based on observations such as, “you can’t even apply for a job at McDonalds without going on the Internet,” but never addresses how to prep workers for jobs they might find online.

The bold weavers muddy the water with numbers while contributing to some local officials’ and stakeholders’ paralysis as they hesitate to move broadband plans forward until they see numbers that make sense. The assumptive forecasters can motivate individuals and local businesses to take action, but pointing to the wrong or the least valuable economic outcomes raises expectations now that produce disappointments later.

Want to understand broadband’s economic impact? Ask a pro

A better way to jumpstart a real national broadband discussion is to involve more people who best understand how to create economic development assets. I recently conducted a survey in partnership with the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) about what economic development professionals think about broadband. In August IEDC sent an e-mail message with a link to the survey to 7,000 people, and 365 senior managers and staff in economic development departments or agencies completed it.

Because it’s difficult to show a dollar-for-dollar correlation between technology and economic development, communities need other benchmarks and perspectives for assigning economic value. The survey tries to assess those.

Survey respondents critiqued outcomes including how broadband helped attract new businesses to an area, made local companies more competitive, and improved individuals’ ability to earn income. For each outcome, respondents indicated whether wireless and fiber networks had a direct or indirect impact on the outcome, and what minimum data speeds are needed by 2014 to produce these outcomes. These professionals also assessed if and how individuals can use broadband to increase their economic wellbeing.

Reading economic developers’ take on the economic impact of different broadband technologies and speeds gives communities a more accurate basis for decision making than they might get from policymakers defining broadband as 4 Mbps. Most communities don’t look at that as being a real benefit when attracting business to an area for example.

Getting experts involved also helps separate some of the hype from the reality of broadband and economic development. The often-repeated mantra – the Magic Broadband Bullet Theory – that broadband’s big economic value is helping people find jobs, results in national policies and multi-million dollar programs to bring low-income people online. But once they have access, then what?

What’s the value of spending $1 billion dollars a year for the FCC’s $10/month Lifeline program (once it’s reformed to support broadband access) if after five or ten years we’ve done very little to pull people out of poverty? Forty-seven percent of economic developers indicate that money spent for broadband could produce a greater return by helping individuals improve job and professional skills. Another 25 percent see transitioning people from dying industries to 21st century job skills as the broadband potential we should be cultivating. Nearly one in five at 17 percent say using broadband to help people get a better education is the greater value of broadband for personal economic development.

What happens when thousands of Lifeline recipients go online inspired by the rhetoric that they can more easily get a job, only to learn they are not prepared to effectively compete for the jobs they find? Or the broadband infrastructure in their communities is so bad that recipients can’t capitalize on Web-based training and professional development.

Communities across the U.S. want to be the next Chattanooga, Tenn. or Bristol, Va. or Lafayette, La. by bringing a gigabit network to town (by the way, a majority of those surveyed did not select a gigabit as the minimum speed needed). However, to emulate those success stories communities need to understand exactly how broadband impacts local economies. Throwing broadband at a problem isn’t going to change deeper problems. It’s a lever for change, not a magic wand.

Get the abstract and full survey report, “Moving the Needle Forward on Broadband & Economic Development.” See how to connect the dots between the technology and economic outcomes.

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.