In this episode, we speak with Alex Kelley the Center on Rural Innovation’s, Broadband and Future of Work Program Manager. He shares how the COVID crisis is affecting CORI’s mission and the municipalities that support. He helps us understand some of the best practices, we dig into digital economic ecosystems and talk about the future of work.
Center on Rural Innovation Background & Mission
Alex Kelley: I’ve worked in technology in the Bay Area and I also worked naming products and companies for a long time, which I worked remotely in and transitioned that job to a remote job and worked across a few rural towns over the past. That was about five years ago, but I’ve been with the Center on Rural Innovation since it started three years ago. I head up our broadband work where we work with towns to do feasibility studies for fiber deployment and then we create actionable business plans and engineering plans they can use to go and build the network. I’m also heavily involved in our future of work activities – future of work, of course, broadly meaning, how can small towns and rural areas that have good broadband cultivate a workforce of the future and how can they use that broadband to really benefit their town and the local economy?
Because, as I’m sure your listeners know, good broadband is a foundational element for economic development. But having it doesn’t necessarily mean those economies are going to grow without help. So, what the Center on Rural Innovation does, is help communities really transform their economies all the way from broadband through to creating what we call digital economy ecosystems. Which would be the combination of technology, jobs, and remote work, and amenities, and entrepreneurship that you would see in cities, like San Francisco. That’s the sector of work that’s really creating wealth and prosperity and driving our economies today.
Pete Pizzutillo: When you and I first spoke, I was impressed with CORI’s mission focused on the importance of innovation in rural broadband because of the huge gap that was there. But since then there’s been a giant spotlight projected onto this marketplace where we are seeing not only the strengths, but also some of the weaknesses of our infrastructure. I’m obviously speaking about the COVID crisis right now. So, the work that you’re doing is even more important, and we will dig a little bit more into that. But, given the shift in the national attention and understanding, I would say, of the significance of broadband now that we have distance learning and staying at home and jobs are online, how has that impacted the way you all are thinking about your accomplishments in 2020, in this year?
Helping Rural Communities Innovate to Survive
Alex Kelley: The COVID crisis has consumed us, as with many other groups, not only because we’ve had to transition ourselves to a fully remote and isolated, but because it is, well, let’s put it this way, our organization started in 2016 when it became crystal clear that rural economies were still struggling after the 2008 recession. And that economic shock created a geographic divide. And so, as we go through this time and this economic shock, our worry, and our concern, and our work is really both about … It had been about helping communities recover after that shock because, still, and we can talk about this more if you want, rural areas hadn’t recovered even to pre-recession levels by some metrics.
But now as we go through this new shock, it’s about how can communities survive in the short-term, but also come out of this on the far end in a better position than they did with the last economic shock. Because a lot of the conditions of our economy that rural areas struggled with post 2008, which would be things like a heavy focus on automation that impacts rural economies disproportionately and rural jobs. Things like, all types of manufacturing going overseas, including advanced manufacturing, rapid prototype and design and then a real decline in entrepreneurship, which we saw after 2008, which was a major factor in the rural economic divide. Because when you don’t have entrepreneurs, five years down the line, you don’t have employers. So, what we’re really thinking about is how can we help rural communities across the country survive this and come out of it, and not make the same mistakes as last time and use this as leverage to set off on the right track in terms of building a new resilient, future-proof economy.
Pete Pizzutillo: It’s almost a compounding problem? If you’re talking about recovery from almost 12 years ago (and you used a great term) the economic shock, which if you’re already behind as a community, as an industry or as an individual, this kind of setback doesn’t hit everybody equally? And so, being able to be more resilient and recoverable in some of the more affluent areas because they have better infrastructure, or proximity to talent, or resources that are just much more readily available, may feel a shock but not of the same caliber or consequence that some of the other folks that you all are talking to. So, the gap is going to get broader, in my perspective. Do you see the same?
Universal Broadband Access is Critical to Nation
Alex Kelley: What this crisis has made clear is that broadband is a critical backbone of the economy and it really should be provided universally to all Americans, or at least they should all have access to it because what it took was this to happen and everyone has to go home and use Zoom all day long. And the people who have broadband can do that. The children who have broadband can keep taking classes and the music teachers and yoga instructors that have broadband can give lessons online. The restaurants can take orders online if they have all that. But there are huge gaps across the country and even just trying to get to a stable place where kids take their classes online and we can do some telehealth is a real challenge in a lot of these areas that don’t have it. So, couldn’t agree more that this has the potential to continue to exacerbate the problem unless we really make broadband a focus, nationally, coming out of this.
Pete Pizzutillo: I’m going to ask you to use your crystal ball, what is the recovery timetable?
Alex Kelley: I think, before this happened, we were seeing some positive signs, for example, the cost of living in cities was just through the roof and it was getting harder and harder to live in cities, harder and harder to find talent. And so, you saw a large percentage of people who lived in cities, express an interest in wanting to move to a rural area. And you’re seeing employers be more and more amenable to hiring people remotely across all levels of roles. So, I think in some ways now that all companies are remote, we might see some more flexibility coming out of this, in terms of, spreading out the workforce and allowing people to work from wherever more readily, which would decrease congestion, decrease the concentration of technologists and cities and help spread things out a bit. But at the same time, I really have no idea. It’ll be a while and it will depend on what position we’re in coming out of this and what’s in the stimulus and all of that.
Pete Pizzutillo: Two things to comment on that because I think this might be a catalyst or an accelerant to the state of broadband, nationally, if not globally. As you mentioned, there’s always been a tepid reception to distance working. I’ve been in software for 20 years and it’s funny, and it’s one of the more leading-edge areas of it, but even there was some mild resistance. And now when we’re all forced in this model and we’ll see the productivity, whether it’s measurable or experiential, can we maintain it? But I think the rural areas have the most to gain because now if this model persists, you don’t have to live in New York City. You don’t have to live in Silicon Valley. You can move out to less densely populated areas where there’s less likely to be viral spreads and that kind of outbreaks. It’d be interesting to see how that flows back into some of these areas.
Built on Fiber Broadband – Future Proof Economic Development for Rural Communities
Alex Kelley: I would add that I’m concerned about is that one of the things that we work with, we’re working with 20 communities around the country to help them do economic development in new ways, so that it’s future-proof and built on their fiber broadband networks. One thing that I’m particularly worried about is that an important aspect of economic development in rural areas today is the amenities and the culture in town. Because to attract technologists and retain technologists who can really live anywhere and work anywhere, you have to have a quality of life and the amenities that they enjoy. And I worry that with all of these restaurants and cafes being impacted, that if a fraction of those or some of aren’t able to come back after this, that these towns are going to be set back with their amenities in a way that urban areas probably won’t, right? I would assume urban areas will be able to get their coffee shops and restaurants back up and running a little faster because there’s more of a capital base there.
Pete Pizzutillo: We’ll see how that all plays out with the business disruption plan that was released yesterday or last night. To add to that, finish that point there, distance learning, right? So, also part of the amenities is the quality of the education for the children of these workers. If all education can get an uplift from distance learning, I think that could be a good effect, supporting effect.
There are different kinds of impact to different communities based on maturity or the affluency that. What mindset or action do you see the communities that are prepared, or more prepared, say, for this type of situation than others? We’ve often talked about, if you haven’t started working on broadband, you’re already behind as a community. This is one of those, again, a spotlight that shines on the folks that … There are some folks that are doing this well and will come out okay, because the infrastructure was there. Rather than talking about what’s not there, what are some of the things that you’re seeing that has set people up for success in this situation? If that’s possible.
Fiber Broadband Enables Rural Communities to Plug into Remote Work Opportunities
Alex Kelley: I think remote work is a big focus area of ours and some communities actually have the capacity. I mean, look, everyone is in crisis right now, but I think as we get a little bit more used to this kind of new normal for the time being, we’re working with communities to help them match people to remote jobs because there’s actually still a range of people hiring right now and often communities that have … They can plug people who were in potentially service industry roles or anything, things like that, into roles that don’t take a whole lot of training, relatively quickly and easily.
What employers like to look for is either previous experience in working remotely or having taken some type of training course to teach them the best practices of working remotely, so that there’s less friction as they get on board. And that that includes everything from, usually training on how to use video conferencing, to how to communicate effectively, how to structure your day and your working environment and all of that. So, there’s plenty of trainings you can find online and employers like to see that, to know that the people they’re hiring will be able to dive right in. So, that’s one area. Another area is that, and it may be obvious, but I’ll state it, but if you have good broadband that makes that possible. And that’s one area.
Fiber Broadband Enables Rural Communities to Get Kids Connected to Distance Learning
Alex Kelley: The second area is, we’re talking with our communities about in the short-term, how to use your good broadband or your fiber broadband to get kids connected who really need the internet for their school work, but might not be able to afford it. Affordability is still an issue in the communities. So, we’re talking about communities that are doing things like they’re putting a wireless receiver at the top of a government building that has fiber and beaming it to an affordable housing complex where they can then create a free Wi-Fi network. So, there’s actually some really creative stuff going on in the short-term to use the fiber backbone in these communities to make sure everyone has the broadband access they need to even do their homework or watch the lectures or do telehealth things.
Pete Pizzutillo: Telehealth is interesting. Just as you mentioned in terms of remote training and remote support – do you see any areas where there’s telehealth workers that have that capacity? It’s not just the patients that need to be able to use it, but hospitals and doctor’s offices need to have the same infrastructure, same training, the same kind of culture around that. Any good examples there?
Alex Kelley: I will add two things to my previous answer, which is that, again, as communities stabilize a little bit, this is a great time for people with good broadband to take more advanced training online, really upskill themselves to become a more part of the digital workforce. And there’s a lot of really robust and top quality online boot camps that you can take, some of which utilize a kind of income sharing agreement model, which allows you to not pay anything until you get a job on the other side that pays $40,000 a year or more, or something like that. In fact, some communities can think of this as an opportunity and for people who have broadband and that ability to take a bootcamp for the next couple of months, now is a great time to do that. And I would say the other thing that we’re encouraging communities to think about, obviously, again, after they deal with the immediate crisis at hand, is that, how can we spur entrepreneurship coming out of this? Because that was a major cause of the previous geographic divide. But if you’ve got an idea, if you’ve got broadband, our win rates will be favorable coming out of this. And it’s not actually crazy to think about starting a company coming out of this, if you’re able to do that.
Fiber Broadband Enables Entrepreneurship in Rural Communities
Pete Pizzutillo: What I’m seeing is crowdsourcing innovation, right? There’re folks on Facebook, whatever other platforms they have that are 3D printing medical supplies or any other kind of necessity in this time, that we’re running out of, I don’t think anybody is 3D printing toilet paper yet, but I’m sure there’ll be in time. But what I’ve seen and it’s been really … This is just kind of a personal experience where people are looking for solutions on how to fill in the blanks on some of the ideas that they have. Right? And so, if you’re not connected to, like you said before, a digital ecosystem, you can’t participate, or you can’t benefit from that. I think this rapid connection and plugging people in, even if it’s fundamental or basic, you start on that path of being able to enable yourself to be an entrepreneur, or at least participate in entrepreneurial efforts that are happening globally, which is a really interesting point there.
Alex Kelley: And by the way, that also, coming out of this, that’s going to mean all types of entrepreneurs, not just the technology entrepreneurs that you see on Silicon Valley, but people starting their amenities back up, all the way through to people starting technology companies that are going want … The kind of venture capital seeking companies that you see in San Francisco. And all of that really can happen in rural areas that have fiber, it takes, in some instances, helping local potential investors who aren’t used to investing in an idea or investing in software, coaching them and helping them get comfortable with that. But also, figuring out how to find access to capital from bigger markets too.
Center on Rural Innovation Helping Communities Develop Economically with Education & Training
Pete Pizzutillo: You’ve mentioned it a couple of times around training and I do think that’s a gap and something that I’m sure you’re having conversations, or at least I’d be interested to understand how you’re having these conversations with economic development folks. Just building the infrastructure is the first step, right? But getting adoption and training and getting past senior citizens and children and low-income folks, understanding how to leverage it. So, maybe you could speak a little bit about what CORI’s doing to help communities think about adoption.
Alex Kelley: There’s training of all types that’s out there on the internet. And everybody’s doing training and schoolwork on the internet right now. So, everyone is in good company, but everything from this remote work, best practices trainings that I’ve been talking about, all the way through to intensive coding bootcamps is available. And what we talk about when we talk with economic development folks is, their main problem is that people who get trained and have skills that are in demand can sometimes be more likely to leave the small town, leave the community. So, if you take a bootcamp, and you all of a sudden have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in coding, you know, you’re going to be looking at jobs in the nearest city and think, oh, you know, maybe I should go move there and work there.
What we really help economic development people think about is, how can you help ensure those people stay in the community so that their investment in training, and the town’s investment in them can stay and benefit everyone? And one of the ways that we tackle that is putting an effort to talk to local employers early and often, as people are being trained. And the thing that many people might not realize is that there are tech jobs all throughout rural America that needs to be filled. You just need to do a little digging to find them, right? Every bank has three or four people doing technology in some back office somewhere, right? Every manufacturing facility has people programming the machines or doing data science on supply side, or supply and demand stuff, right? There are tech jobs all throughout rural America. And the trick is making sure both parties, the person taking the training, and the employers, know that those opportunities are there and making the connections so that people don’t feel like they need to leave to find a tech job.
Pete Pizzutillo: One of the things that we hear a lot from the smaller communities, I’m just interested on how you guys help, is really around the enormity of moving forward on these programs. Anywhere from funding, to policy, to technology, just it seems to be a nonstarter for some folks that are just not necessarily born and raised in this world. What is that it that you all do to help folks understand or take the steps through that process?
Helping Rural Communities with the Funding Process for Fiber Broadband & Economic Development
Alex Kelley: That’s a good point. And for one, we’ve gotten pretty good at helping communities identify potential funding sources for that, all the way from national sources, from the EDA , all the way down to local, statewide and local sources. So, there is money out there, but it’s hard to find. And oftentimes towns don’t necessarily have the grant writing capacity in-house or everyone’s wearing 10 different hats and they don’t have time to really pursue those, so that is part of what we do. I would say the other thing is that we have developed some online that communities can use to help do some of this discovery work on their own. We have a website called ruralopportunitymap.us where a community can go and find peer communities that look like them and look to find out what federal funding sources they’ve been able to leverage. So, that’s just a way of saying, “Okay, I live in a town of 25,000 in Ohio, you can use this tool to find all the other towns that look like you across whatever demographic markers you want. And then actually drill down into what that town is doing.”
You could even do this for broadband, right? If your listeners are thinking, wow, we really need to get going on broadband as soon as we can meet each other face-to-face again. Now, one of the things you can start by doing is figuring out what other communities in your state have done and talking to them about how they got it done. So, that means you can, again, go to that website, ruralopportunitymap.us. Filter to find communities that resemble yours but that have done fiber to the home. And that’s a good place to start when you think, A) That this is difficult. I don’t think I’ll be able to do it, it can give you some hope, but also it can teach you some real things about how similar communities in your state have done it.
Pete Pizzutillo: And it’s also a great way to connect with the folks that have walked in your shoes, right? There’s a lot of events out there around the municipalities and it’s amazing. People are so freely available and willing to help each other along that journey. So, if you can find the right communities that are like yours and reach out to those contacts, you’ll get some good support and guidance that way, as well. What about beyond that? You have folks with different stages of development and they’re the folks, like we said before, you build it and they will come, and that’s not, as we all know, the best-case scenario. How is it that people could think about realizing the full return on this investment moving forward?
A View to the Future of Thriving Rural Communities
Alex Kelley: We’ve studied different communities across the country – to see which ones are outperforming their peers and which ones have been able to make this work. And of course, then we also have 20 communities we’re working with. So, we’ve got a lot of real-world experience with what’s working and what’s not. And we’ve distilled that into direct drivers that you need to be in place to grow a digital economy ecosystem and then the foundational elements that are really good to have in place to make sure that it’s stable and can grow. And those elements include things like remote work, that must be a piece of the puzzle to build a talent base as fast as possible.
It’s got to be training and training pipelines, all the way from K-12 students to adults taking bootcamps and stuff like that. There’s an entrepreneurship component, as I’ve mentioned, there’s an amenities component, as I’ve mentioned, to make sure that the places and spaces in the town are desirable to digital economy workers. And we’ve built out a bunch of self-assessment tools and asset mapping tools on our website, ruralinnovation.us, that communities can use to start thinking about, what assets they have, be it proximity to higher ed or community colleges in town to local family foundations that could support this, to digital employers in the vicinity that could be partners in hiring or building out programs, to think about all your community’s assets and think about how you can pull them together in a cohesive way.
I think one of the main things we’ve learned is that, any one of these programs on its own is not going to cause a small town ecosystem to thrive, right? They all have to be going at the same time, and they all have to be working in concert so that the ecosystem strengthens itself by cohesion, for example, it’s really great to integrate entrepreneurship stuff with potentially after school coding camps or robotics camps, so that students can see that entrepreneurship and tech work as a possible path for them, right? You can’t be what you can’t see. So, just figuring out ways to create all of these ecosystem components and integrate them together is the secret to success.
Center on Rural Innovation Resources & Tools
Alex Kelley: You’re welcome to reach out to me directly, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m happy to talk with anyone about what we’re up to and how we work with rural communities. And then beyond that we’ve got, again, some economic development tools at ruralinnovation.us that I was just mentioning, about what components do you need to grow a digital economy ecosystem in your community. We also have mapping tools at ruralopportunitymap.us which are meant for local leaders to identify peer communities and study what they’ve done to be successful, and what funding sources they’ve gotten and so that we can have some cross pollination and learning across communities.