Leading Community Innovation: Organizing Successful Rural Telecommunications Self-Development Projects

Article excerpt

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

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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. …