August 23, 2012
Craig Settles, Industry Analyst
Connecting Communities: The World Wide Wait is Over In Pulaski, TN
When was it started?
How many premises serviced, what speeds?
15,000 homes and businesses serviced
Speeds: 5M-30M (Dedicated speeds for businesses only)
What do services costs to businesses? Individuals?
Personal: Basic Package (Analog Cable, Bronze Internet, Unlimited Phone line) $104.95
Fastest Residential Internet Service: $149.95
Business: Small Commercial Internet $39.95, Highest Speed (30 Mbps) $499.95
Who owns the network?
Pulaski Electric System
Who (what organization) was the primary driver of the project?
Dan Speer was the original network champion, starting in 1993 with Pulaski’s dial up network, and carried on in this role for many years.
Summarize the economic benefits of the network has brought
Two of the primary benefits are: 1) the fiber network created employment opportunities, in part by improving the computing skills of people in the community who were then able to apply for better paying jobs; and 2) residents are taking advantage of business opportunities the network facilitates, such as running home-based companies.
One of the on-going discussions regarding broadband and economic development is, do we focus more resources initially on trying to attract new business, or on improving the businesses we already have. The media tends to give more coverage to attracting new companies, probably because a company bringing 1,000 new jobs is big news.
In Pulaski, TN, similar to many small towns and rural counties, the emphasis is more on existing business. “The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got,” Dan Speer, executive director of the Pulaski Giles County Economic Development Council, said. “Take care of your existing companies first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get a company to come in because they need the broadband, than that’s gravy.”
Looking at the demographics of Pulaski-Giles County, the numbers seem to bolster Speer’s theory. Self-employed workers make up 45 percent of the population, and that’s a strong base for broadband subscribers. Businesses that have nine or fewer employees make up 94.2 percent. These small businesses can see a notable improvement in sales leads pretty soon after moving to a network with tens of megabits of data speed.
As the economy started its downturn in 2008, Speer recalls, “we focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We taught businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they could broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet.” The county still keeps an eye out for the opportunity for a major score. A Frito-Lay facility is located in Pulaski, as is Johnson Controls, so there is a precedent for the occasional “big win”.
Pulaski Giles turned to the Rural Policy Research Institute’s Center for Rural Entrepreneurship for assistance with helping businesses maximize the network. The organization provided a series of Webinars, one-month course on Internet basics such as using e-mail and the Web for research and other training programs.
Of particular value is the assistance Speer’s team receives to help identify and nurture entrepreneurial skills such as marketing. While the Center did provide software and data tools companies can use to grow their businesses, smaller communities have limited resources to invest in them. Speer’s staff also learned they have to think in terms of hitting more singles and doubles rather than home runs. The goal is to regularly create two or three new jobs per businesses rather than just 30 or 40. Getting 10 new jobs is a big deal.
As with many small communities that have been ignored by large telecom companies, getting network subscribers is relatively easy at first because there is such great pent up demand. Businesses in these communities understand the value of the Internet.
The county did surveys to understand more about what businesses needed, and then developed a marketing plan for the network.
“The price point for services [is] low, but we don’t use that as the main marketing message,” Speer said. “We emphasize to subscribers that we appreciate them doing business with us. They subsequently respond faster. We also emphasize that we’re building a community around the network. We carry local events on video, plus we dedicated a channel to the local college for whatever programming they want to do. If you want be part of this online community, you have to subscribe.”
How those responsible for broadband programs structure their training programs have a significant impact on the success of their efforts.
“First, you make training available where adult education occurs, which for us is in career centers and technology centers,” Speer said. “When a plant is closed, we made a direct pitch to these workers to take the courses.”
There’s also a website run by the International Commission on Workforce Development. The organization partnered with Microsoft to offer workers skills training so they can pass the various Microsoft certification programs. People can do this work at home.
Leadership in a community has to explore ways to bring in these kinds of services inexpensively. By delivering computer-based training over the network to schools, the potential to get these teachers to use the technology for adults as well as students is unlimited. This is life-long learning, and it’s important stakeholders grasp this concept. Technology can deliver this benefit if it’s harnessed and used in a correct manner.
Craig Settles is a broadband industry strategist, marketing expert, author and speaker. He helps municipalities and organizations use broadband technologies to improve operating efficiencies and boost local economic development. In addition, he is frequently called upon as source of broadband expertise by leading media outlets.