What, Exactly, are We Stimulating?

I was asked the other day for my perspective – as I currently live in Europe but am from North America – what I thought of the United States Broadband Stimulus initiative to-date.

Well how do I answer this?

On the surface – I am of course thrilled that the U.S. is recognizing the importance of broadband to remain competitive in today’s economic environment. As we so often say, broadband is the platform for innovation, competiveness and progress in the 21st century. Without this as a foundation, modern societies cannot compete in terms of economic opportunities – or quality of life.

So investing in broadband is a great thing – it creates jobs and opportunities… so far I have not exactly broken new ground with this article.

But beyond our “gut feeling” and pointing to other areas of the world where broadband has meant the difference between stagnation and prosperity – how do we really know how effective stimulus is… and will be? Are we simply checking a box that says “get more folks broadband” or are we taking a measured approach to make sure all the benefits of broadband are realized? 

Just recently the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it would be evaluating the economic and social impacts of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).  This is important, but just what they’re going to be able to measure remains unclear – as data on impacts will largely depend on what will be provided by each individual initiative, region, program administrator, etc.

With a disparate set of metrics for each project, it becomes difficult to combine data, compare results, or truly know the impact of the Recovery Act’s broadband initiatives.

Let’s be clear on my position – the investment currently underway as part of the stimulus package is truly one of the most significant, and encouraging steps towards the United States building a robust “platform” for innovation – an infrastructure that will change lives and deliver progress not unlike railroad and interstate investments have in the past. But with the benefit of past experience in this field, we all can learn a thing or two about broadband investment, and the right way to go through the process.

Research should be used… not just for validation… but for stronger decisions and strategies. Missing in the application process was the ability for applicants to conduct significant research. With a NOFA (Notice of Fund Availability) coming out weeks before due-dates, made it logistically impossible for regions to gather the intelligence they needed to develop the most effective “ask” – based on identified gaps and prioritized needs. And whenever you administer a study/survey – ask yourself, why are we doing this? Am I just validating what we already did?  Validation is nice, but it is passive information.  Research should include an “active” component – data that guides better decisions and strategies.

 “WHY do I want the money… who wants to know? Each region should be required to have specific goals and outcomes in mind – tied to economic development. Yes it is hard to measure the impacts, but only through precise feedback from a region’s residents and businesses can you have the biggest impact.Let’s not forget that broadband stimulus is part of larger stimulus package designed to create jobs and advance our economy. Each project needs metrics in place to measure the ongoing impact on a region’s economy.

Measure twice… Don’t cut corners. In order to truly understand the impact and potential for further investment, it is imperative that each region takes a measure of where it is before investment, and what those investments produce. Here is where validation comes into play – by doing a “before” and then an “after” study, you are not only able to prove the efficacy of the original investment; you’re able to clearly see where additional investment and/or course correction is required.

Apples and apples… not oranges. Each region should have guidelines for measurement – making results comparable. Just by introducing consistency, regions can learn from each others’ successes – and avoid their failures.

It takes a village. Involving regions citizens and businesses from day one engages them and makes adoption and innovative, transformational solutions much more likely to occur.  It is an opportunity missed to not show citizens from day one how broadband (and better broadband) will transform their lives.

It’s the economy, stupid. So a little more than a year after Round One’s application deadline… where are we with broadband stimulus? The easy answer is that we believe that the investment is good and will create opportunities throughout the U.S.  But questions will always remain with this as they do any broadband initiative – how much have we achieved… and have we achieved all that we can for the investment we made? Without proper tracking and measurement, it will never be clear how much benefits were realized from the investment, or how to build upon each.

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