If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

By January 2023, many of the decisions affecting long-term rural broadband investment and deployment decisions will be made. Local governments will have allocated their ARPA dollars.  States will have created and begun implementing their BEAD plans.  NTIA will have awarded the funds from their Broadband Infrastructure, Tribal Broadband Connectivity and Connecting Minority Communities Programs.  The FCC will have finalized their due diligence on RDOF funds.  Everyone will have their own eligibility and technical requirements.  It is hard to imagine how all of this  chaos will turn out and even, harder to imagine that it will turn out as well as we hope. To quote famous railroad man Leonor Loree, “This is no way to run a railroad.”

The current broadband investment boom compares closely to the railroad boom of the late 19th Century.  The federal government, led by President Lincoln, spurred private investment in the trans-continental railroads. Decisions made in Washington DC and in state capitols determined local futures.  Communities invested their own precious local dollars with railroad developers with mixed results.  There were many winners and losers, just like today.   With the many positives of population and economic growth came monopolies, robber barons and swindlers as well as loss of tribal lands.  The effects of these 19th Century decisions can still be seen on our US geography today.  (As a side note, abandoned rail lines are now bike trails which demonstrates the ongoing value of infrastructure investment even if the long term benefits are drastically different than anticipated.)

Lewis Carroll’s “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” highlights the range of community role choices.  To ensure that your community ends up as a busy station on an advanced broadband network, community teams must carefully create their community vision and then assume the roles necessary to achieve that vision.  Or wait for someone to do something and hope for the best.

With ARPA funds, some communities will simply issue an RFP that invite providers to make proposals, selecting the projects that provide the best results in terms of cost per household, number of households, quality of service, etc. without much discussion of “What’s next?” or “How do we get service to the next group of houses down the road?”  I fear that many of these incomplete solutions will be permanent with long lasting impacts.  Others will work with provider partners ready to embrace a comprehensive solution to your community broadband needs.  This approach requires community leaders to adopt John Henry – the famous steel driving man – as the role model.  Here is some motivation

And then again, maybe not!  🙂 If not the lyrics, get inspiration from the teamwork!