Let’s Talk: Why Broadband is Critical Infrastructure for Entrepreneurship-Led Economic Development

Access to affordable high-speed broadband is increasingly a top priority for economic and community development leaders. According to national research from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Technology Engagement Center, a whopping 93% of today’s small business owners use at least one type of technology platform to help them with their business. It’s compelling evidence to suggest that if you’re not considering affordable high-speed internet access as part of your entrepreneurship development approach, now is the time to start.

Broadband-empowered technologies modernize business development and accelerate growth and innovation for firms of all sizes. It allows businesses to connect with customers and suppliers all over the world and makes it easier for owners to track inventory, manage finances, deploy distributed workforces, and measure performance – like how broadband access revolutionized life on California’s Central Coast. Previously, over 100,000 residents of the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys were unable to connect to adequate internet services, but now 95,000 underserved individuals have budget-friendly connections at their fingertips. This dramatic change is affecting companies in the region taking advantage of commercial-grade infrastructure and service levels competitive with tech hubs like Silicon Valley.

However, not everyone experiences the benefits of high-speed broadband and the associated technologies that it enables. The digital divide is the gap between those with access to tools like computers, the internet, and smartphones, and those who don’t have access. It can also be difficult for people to become digitally literate. This divide often falls unfairly along socio-economic lines. Roughly a quarter of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year say they don’t own a smartphone, and nearly 40% of adults with lower incomes do not have home broadband services or a computer. Other specific demographics affected include lower-income individuals, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ+ communities, people who live in rural areas, older Americans, and minorities. Latinos make up 14% of the overall workforce, while 35% of those workers have no digital skills, and just 67% of tribal lands in the continental U.S. have access to broadband internet.  All this is to say we have a lot of work to do.

Just like with other areas in economic development (housing, workforce, etc), inclusivity must be part of any solutions to expand broadband, particularly as the digital divide among those most vulnerable remains a challenge with disproportionate impacts. In the IEDC Playbook for Equitable Economic Development, suggested strategies include digital literacy education among small business owners, as well as doing assessments of technology access and connectivity for different demographic groups to understand challenges to formulating impactful solutions.

Given the importance of broadband to entrepreneurship, it’s not surprising that many SourceLink affiliates have narrowed their focus on helping owners adopt, use, and leverage broadband and associated technologies. “Broadband is critical for our Missouri firms,” shared Michael Carmona, Senior Director for KCSourceLink and MOSourceLink. “It’s a core part of the infrastructure businesses need to gain competitive advantages with online markets; find, manage and grow their workforce; and equip employees to conduct remote work and collaborate.”

Missouri is a terrific case-study of how a network was created to support broadband adoption and expansion. The Missouri Broadband Resource Rail has blossomed into a highly coordinated effort to support the build-out of reliable, high-speed internet infrastructure and up-to-date broadband information across the state. 

The platform features online resources like the Digitally Connected Communities Guide to support local governments with expanding high-speed internet and cutting-edge broadband access and utilization maps that use real-time validated data from Missourians. The Resource Navigator catalog of broadband assets, central calendar of training and learning events, and an impressive resource library all educate visitors about critical broadband issues and enable action to seek funding and resources to make change.  

Broadband development is no longer an untested thesis. There are many examples where the positive impacts of focusing on this topic can be seen, including the one-traffic-light town with some of the fastest internet in the U.S. and this article on why broadband should be considered essential infrastructure

It’s time. Investing in solutions that expand quality broadband infrastructure is a crucial step for communities seeking to thrive in the modern world. The benefit of providing free or low-cost resources to improve accessibility will level the playing field of entrepreneur-led economic development plans, creating a more inclusive space for us all.

The question then becomes, what can leaders do to better move the needle forward when it comes to broadband?  Just like with all other areas of economic development, it takes a multi-pronged and collaborative approach.  Through experience with the University of Missouri Broadband Initiative, we’ve seen major success following these broad guiding principles:

  1. Empower with Resources – Develop shared information and resources with stakeholders working on broadband issues. This includes understanding and building common language, sharing and aggregating key events, and making best practices and case studies available at all stakeholder levels.
  2. Connect Stakeholders – Tailored interlinking of research, private sector firms, and public/private sector funding opportunities to support targeted advancements that cater to the broadband needs/challenges of each community.
  3. Collaborate on Solutions – Help facilitate and generate community discussions around broadband, build coalitions that gather monthly to discuss updates, and share opportunities to champion and get advice/support from peers.
  4. Lead and Inspire – Create infrastructure to keep projects on track, champion and share great work, find new and emerging stakeholders, and loop them into the community of interest.

In today’s digital world, having access to high-speed internet is a must for businesses and entrepreneurs alike. The future of broadband infrastructure will be integral in powering basic economic development and well as with entrepreneurship support initiatives. With proper support from government initiatives as well as private sector partnerships, advances in broadband infrastructure should help foster an entrepreneurial environment that sparks creativity and encourages economic growth. By promoting connection and collaboration among businesses, this necessary infrastructure could pave the way for increased opportunity and prosperity.

As a key partner on the Missouri Broadband Resource Rail and with the University of Missouri Broadband Initiative, our SourceLink team is eager to connect with others who are working on or wish to get involved with broadband economic development projects. Please contact us to share what you have going on, and to explore how we might support your efforts.