October 17, 2011
Craig Settles, Industry Analyst
Connecting Communities: With Broadband, Better Perspective Leads to Better Vision
Three Lakes, Wisconsin (www.townofthreelakes.com)
What is the population?
2200 full time residents, 10,000 seasonal residents and visitors during the warmer months.
When was it started?
2010 was the year providers came to town offering services greater than the 3.1Mbps Verizon offered.
How many miles, what technologies, what speeds?
88% of Three Lakes' residents within the town's 99 square miles receive service from one of the five wireline and wireless providers. 12 Mbps is currently the top speed anyone receives.
What do services cost businesses? Individuals?
Prices for all subscribers range from $29/month for 1.2 Mbps to $69 for 12.1Mbps. Individuals and businesses are offered the same service packages.
Who owns the network?
Private sector companies own the networks.
Who (what organization) was the primary driver of the project initially?
The Town Board of Supervisors appointed an economic planning committee, which incorporated broadband strategy into the plan. Town Chair Don Sidlowsky put the plan in action.
Summarize the economic benefits of the network has brought:
- Already getting more business people to telecommute from Three Lakes
- Several businesses such as one dentist practice have expanded and opened several offices within Three Lakes that are all linked via broadband
- Local businesses taking advantage of the Internet to increase sales
- Businesses such as The Choo Choo Store moved to town and growing, plus there is unique enough that it attracts tourists and they spend
At the local level, sometimes the problem isn't that stakeholders fail to think big enough. It's that they don't start by thinking small enough.
Policymakers and others who influence federal programs and policies intended to help rural communities often don't live in small towns. Their collective worldview measures economic development success in hundreds or thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in new revenue.
Three Lakes, with a year-around population of 2,200, made broadband a reality by looking at one thing national policymakers may miss – the small picture. "Miniaturization made it possible to run a company from home, broadband makes it practical," states Town Chairman Don Sidlowsky. To impact economic development, use broadband to turn home offices into global operations.
For a town their size, a business that brings three or four new jobs in the community is a big deal economically. So if a corporate executive deciding to migrate here and telecommute also brings along a slice of his or her operation in order to be more productive, and eight jobs result, that's a major relocation.
In 2006 Oneida County mandated its towns, including Three Lakes, to create a 20-year comprehensive community improvement plan. Sidlowsky states, "we decided that everything related to economic development would have a technology underpinning."
Three Lakes has a seasonal population of 10,000, including a fair number of executives with salaries in the $100,000 range. Based on economic analysis data, they calculated that one such individual moving to Three Lakes and spending money all year for groceries, services and so forth make a greater impact than people realize.
"Every dollar they spend might exchange hands in town eight or nine times," Don says. "So we set a goal of trying to get five-to-ten such individuals to move to the area and telecommute. We also have to grow as well as attract the types of companies with fewer than 10 employees if we're going to build a strong local economy."
Once you realize these aren't very big numbers, it's relatively easy to form an economic development strategy and measure success. Three Lakes' strategy focused on convincing at least 10 executives a year to move here and telecommute or start businesses, while also increasing the revenues of existing businesses.
As a strategic direction unfolded, it became clear in 2009 that the town needed better broadband. "The demographic of the people we wanted to attract must have excellent communication services, not just for business but also for their kids' education. Other than dial-up, there was just Verizon's marginally valuable 3.1 Mbps service that only reached limited parts of the town due to our sparse density."
Convincing local providers to think small
Town leaders had hit a wall by 2010. Individuals and businesses were onboard with how broadband was going to help them economically, and they agreed the available broadband was insufficient. Small service providers refused to even consider helping Three Lakes because the town was too small. Without effective broadband the town couldn't reach either of its economic development goals.
Town fairs are a staple of small town life. So Three Lakes put on a fair just to bring constituents together with the area providers to make the case that, "yeah, we're small, but our corner stores, bakeries and doctors have business communication needs that aren't massive but they are significant. Small or large, we'll make it worth your while to come to Three Lakes." 200 people attended the fair. And they were very, very persuasive.
Providers who showed up skeptical left the fair thinking that maybe there was a valuable market here after all. Don then met with them one-to-one and laid out the numbers that had made him a believer.
Cellcom, the largest locally-owned and operated communications services provider in Wisconsin, jumped on board. First they introduced 3G service, and now they're rolling out 4G. Nearby cable service provider Karban TV Systems committed next with broadband services. The response was so great they quickly had to hire customer support staff and technicians. "For big companies, our market represents an incremental increase," says Don, "But for local companies, getting just 50 customers is huge and it sustains them."
For its part, Three Lakes made high tech (broadband) a key feature of an effective low tech marketing campaign. In 2011, billboards on key points of Highway 45 leaving town ask "Why are you going back to City when you can live here?" A radio campaign in Milwaukee drives people to the town Web site. Print materials in town co-brand the school, Three Lakes and their economic development plan with the theme come to play, maybe to stay.
The main takeaway here is that the first and primary best practice is to assess your economic needs – and subsequently establish your broadband objectives – from your community's perspective, not the "conventional wisdom" of out-of-towners. Many small towns will find that, relatively speaking, it doesn't take a lot to make a big difference. And though it would be nice, a gigabit isn't always necessary to join the digital economy.
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.