In the mid-1990s, many U.S. rural communities began engaging in telecommunications self development projects in an attempt to stabilize declining economies and support long-term community viability. This study uses a comparative case-study design to assess the effectiveness of the community-action processes that five communities used to create telecommunications self-development projects. The study identifies six organizational and community processes that made it more likely for a telecommunications self-development project to succeed. Among the key findings are that a strong public-private partnership in the project's development and a decentralized project model enhanced project success. Unexpectedly, the local university's leadership of the project was related to decreased success. These factors provide valuable lessons for other types of community development projects.
Key-words: telecommunications development, community development, leadership, rural communities
Since the mid-1990s, gaining access to advanced telecommunications network technologies has been a primary focus of rural community development efforts in the United States. In the global information economy, network access is considered a necessary condition for the success of other economic development efforts. Access is especially important for rural communities because communication technologies have the ability to reduce physical distance as a barrier to communication, collaboration, and commerce. Consequently, policy makers have touted new communication technologies as powerful tools for improving the social and economic sustainability of rural communities in the United States (Hales, Gieseke, & Vargas-Chanes, 2000; Malecki, 2003).
Unfortunately, the geographic remoteness of rural communities and their low population density can make it uneconomical for commercial providers to offer access to leading-edge telecommunications services in many rural locations (Parker, Hudson, Dillman, Strover, & Williams, 1995; Fox & Porca, 2000). Indeed, after nearly two decades of emphasis on the importance of telecommunications development to rural communities (Federal State Joint Board, 1996; National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1988; U.S. Congress, 1991), access to broadband remains an elusive goal for many rural communities in the United States (Fluharty, 2007).
Given the importance of telecommunications services to rural development, communities need help organizing successful projects to provide access to network services in the absence of sufficient market demand to attract private providers. Our study addresses this fundamental issue by using a comparative case study of telecommunications self-development projects in five rural communities. The findings serve as a reminder that some
features of successful community development are both timeless and essential, regardless of the kind of specific development being promoted or initiated.
Previous Research on Rural Community Telecommunications Self-Development
Telecommunications development necessarily occurs at the intersection of three forces--technology, government policy, and markets--but the interplay of these agents is rarely seamless (Melody, 1985; Grimes, 2000; Malecki, 2003). Consequently, network development is often asymmetric, with some potential users, such as rural communities, left off the network (Mansell, 1993; Melody, 1985). In an era in which information increasingly drives the global economy (Melody, 1987; Malecki, 2003), many rural community leaders opt not to wait for the economics ofnetwork development to make rural service profitable but, rather, they invest proactively in their own local telecommunications development. Such investment is crucial to the long-term economic sustainability of rural life in the twenty-first century (Hales et al., 2000).
Scholars who study other types of self-development projects in rural areas argue that organizational and community factors all play key roles in determining the success of such efforts. Flora, Green, Gale, Schmidt, and Flora (1992) find that the success of self-development projects is linked to five kinds of factors: (1) organizational structure; (2) financing, particularly access to private capital; (3) appropriateness of the project to the community and the ability of the community to support it with resources; and (4) linkages with the outside. (5) A fifth factor identified in later research was involvement in the project by the local newspaper (Flora, Sharp, Flora, & Newlon, 1997; Flora, 1998).
Subsequently, Flora and Flora (1993) extended their work to argue that "entrepreneurial social infrastructure" (ESI) is a necessary ingredient for rural community development. They identified ESI as consisting of three elements: symbolic diversity, including openness of community boundaries and the ability of the community to engage in constructive controversy; resource mobilization, including local private capital; and the quality of social networks, including internal and external community linkages.
This argument builds on Granovetter's (1973) earlier findings that communities dominated by strong ties between members of the same group tend towards parochialism, which hinders development, while communities with a preponderance of weak ties or links between group members and those external to the group--develop a transitory environment with too little intra-group cohesion. He concludes that successful community development hinges on the ability of community members to balance, mobilize, and use both "strong" and "weak" ties within the community towards a common goal.
Flora and Flora (1993) conclude that self-development efforts return only modest economic results, although they often produce other positive externalities. They predicted, however, that communities trying to use ESI for development purposes would encounter resistance both internally and externally.
Other scholars who have examined the influence of community-level factors argue that success depends in part on readiness (Donnermeyer, Plested, Edwards, Oetting, & Littlethunder, 1997; McLean, et al., 2001). Readiness includes efforts by project leaders to account for a community's previous experience in the project area. It also includes the way political factors--such as local vested interests and individual and organizational "turfism"--influence support from local elites and stakeholders, who, in turn, influence local public opinion. Kulig and Waldner (1999) note that many projects fail because technical experts from outside the community may select an idea, but fail to assess the project's perceived relevance to community members. Likewise, professionals within the community who initiate projects may fail to account for the gap between their priorities and those of the community, hence reducing support by local leaders, community organizations, and the public (Donnermeyer et al., 1997; McLean et al., 2001).
Although most rural community self-development projects in the 1980s and early 1990s focused on industrial development, by the late 1990s, communities were launching similar initiatives to develop telecommunications infrastructure and services. Those projects reflected research showing that telecommunications development in rural areas (1) enhances economic development (Bahl et al., 1991; Cronin et al., 1995; Dholakia & Harlam, 1994; Hudson & Parker, 1990; Grimes, 2000; Leistritz, 1993; Malecki, 2003; Wilson, 1992; Youtie, 2000), (2) improves the quality of rural life (Leistritz, 1993, Malecki, 2003; Parker et al., 1995), and (3) increases access to emergency, security, government services, education and health care (Federal State Joint Board, 1996; Hudson, 1984; Parker et al., 1995; U.S. Congress, 1991; Valentine & Holloway, 2001). Today, these efforts continue as rural communities strive to attain access to broadband connectivity, which has become necessary for the effective use of network technologies (Fluharty, 2007).
Although telecommunications initiatives are known to enhance rural development, many communities need help organizing successful projects that provide access to network services in the absence of sufficient market demand to attract private providers. This lack of access applies to many other types of community development. Without preparatory actions that build demand for a product or service, a large share of locally-based initiatives fail to garner widespread support and sustain themselves over time (Donnermeyer et al., 1997; Lyson & Tolbert, 2003). Research on telecommunications self-development projects in U.S. communities indicates that a visionary local leader is necessary (Bahl et al., 1991; Davidson & Dibble, 1991; Korsching, Hipple, & Abbott, 2000; Sawhney, 1992), as are the presence of physical, human, and financial capital resources in the community (Korsching et al., 2000). Other studies find that the success of projects depends in part on where public-access sites are placed in the community (Strover, Chapman, & Waters, 2003).
Finally, in terms of outcomes, studies show that development of communications infrastructure and services often has negative, as well as positive, consequences for rural communities, but economic development benefits rarely emerge as expected (Korsching et al., 2000; Strover et al., 2003; U.S. Congress, 1991; Youtie, 2000). Communities do reap other types of benefits from such projects, however. For example, research shows that exposure to network technologies provided by such projects can encourage adoption by …