High Speed to the Hinterlands
Q & A With Brian Mefford
By Garry Boulard
In the quest to eventually saturate America with total broadband coverage, Brian Mefford has emerged as a prominent advocate of public and private partnerships.
As the president and CEO of ConnectKentucky and now Connected Nation, Mefford—working with state officials in Kentucky—spearheaded an effort to make broadband available to some of the most remote corners of the Blue Grass State. In the process, Kentucky has seen the percentage of its broadband households jump over a three-year period from 60 percent to more than 95 percent. In raw numbers, that means an addition of more than 600,000 Kentucky households with high-speed Internet connections since 2004.
Mefford believes that what has worked well in Kentucky can be duplicated elsewhere—with the help of state leaders.
Q: You have talked about the model that has been used in Kentucky to increase broadband coverage and how that model can be adopted in other states. Can you explain what the model is?
A: The model is one that emphasizes public and private partnerships, bringing to bear the resources of the private sector with the knowledge, motivation and understanding of the public sector. And that’s the beauty of it. It essentially aligns the goals of both of these sectors in a way that ends up being good for everyone.
Q: Isn’t the challenges that broadband advocates face both a matter of unserved as well as underserved areas? In other words, just because a certain area may have broadband, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to be widely used.
A: Yes, that was one of the things we identified early on. Most people want to talk about the availability of the technology, the ability of people to subscribe to broadband. But we have just as much of a challenge, if not greater, with people actually using it. So early on, in Kentucky, we said we were going to focus our efforts on both the supply and demand side, which allowed us to engage in a kind of broader mix.
Q: You did this with state leaders?
A: Yes, from the start we tried to engage everyone we could think of who might be a part of this kind of a process, from the state legislature to state agencies, local community leaders and those companies from the private sector who have a vested interest in the growth of technology. And keep in mind this no longer just means companies that are just purely technology-oriented. Today virtually any company that is looking to grow in any state is going to be interested in something like this. They need a workforce that is technologically savvy, and they need access to the ever-growing technological infrastructure itself. So those were the goals we set and we said we were not going to do it from a top-down approach. We wanted it to be a grassroots kind of model that would engage not only policymakers, lawmakers and private companies, but the citizens themselves.
Q: How did you go about this?
A: In each of our counties we put together what we call an e-community leadership team, which included a local representative of our initiative and both local leaders and citizens. We would then ask them to self-assess and tell us what they would use such technology for, what do they already have and what did they need? We would then ask them how they could better use technology, not just what is available today, but what is coming down the pike in the future. How could your community benefit from having broadband available everywhere? How could you benefit with more people using computers in the home and more people subscribing to broadband? We additionally asked what would be the impact on their schools and health care.
Q: You were also at the same time talking to the private sector. What were those conversations about?
A: The telecommunications companies told us that they were all for extending their networks everywhere, but as a business there were places where they had already built the infrastructure and only 2 percent of the community was actually subscribing. These were places where the companies were obviously losing money. So they were initially less interested in talking about extending service and much more interested in talking about how to improve the take and use rates in areas they were already invested in.
Q: How did knowing that help your effort?
A: It made us focus on demand creation, and in so doing, we ended up with a 100 percent increase in the household adoption of broadband in Kentucky. That rate leads the country and it is entirely due to taking a local approach to the problem.
Q: Obviously expanding the infrastructure for broadband is an expensive thing. Does that mean that the smaller telecommunications companies may not want to get involved with it?
A: No. The size of the company does not affect their interest in investing in new markets. We have worked with every size of company in Kentucky, including wireless IT service providers with only three employees, up to the largest companies making multi-million dollar investments.
Q: How can lawmakers become involved in this challenge?
A: Across the country, well-intentioned lawmakers are becoming involved. But it is possible that they could get involved in legislation that might actually end up being a hindrance to investment.
In our model we identify state goals up front and one of those goals is trying to ensure that we have an environment that is friendly and conducive to an ongoing investment in telecommunications.
In other words, you may be able to regulate a solution for today, but you have to be careful and understand that as quickly as things are changing in telecommunications, that solution could end up being a hindrance in the future.
Q: Is this why it was important for both the public and private sector in Kentucky to come together? So that they would more clearly know what each other needs?
A: Absolutely. You have to have buy-in from the private sector, because, again, the technology is always changing. But the public sector affects demand in the health care and education areas, where information is vital. And that demand is what is going to keep the private sector involved.
Again, it’s a partnership. And it is the only way those last remaining pockets of the country that don’t have broadband are going to have any reasonable chance of getting it.