About three years ago I was asked by a community college to "dig deep" and find ways to drive the demand for broadband in rural Southside County Virginia. The assignment was an urgent one. Over the past twenty years, low-cost global labor markets drew thousands of local factory jobs overseas. These jobs left by hundreds at a time, and their exodus devastated stable rural economies that had existed for more than a century.
Thirty years ago, the region missed acquiring an Interstate highway. Their next hope for an economic recovery was dependent on connecting to the world's largest "Super Highway." The problem was, and to some extent still is, that much of the core population didn't see the value of a big road that few could drive on: the Internet.
The problem demanded that we find a way to make the Internet personally useful to normal people on a daily basis. We use the term "normal" to mean everyone in the community: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmas, grandpas, your boss, your neighbor, your mailman, his minister, and his wife's hairdresser. Ultimately, we needed to produce something that adequately answered the community's relevant question, "What's on the Internet for me?" Or, more to the point, "What, on the Internet, is worth $45 a month?"
Our response was a program we named "Growing Digital." We chose "Growing" because everyone in rural America knew what "Growing" meant and "Digital" because that was the kind of technology that we wanted to grow. For the first year I literally walked around handing out seed packets re-labeled with ones and zeros to show people that we were trying to "grow" new kinds of "digital plants" in the area.
This new "digital garden" was designed around five common rural traits:
1. Insufficient population density and service demand to justify broadband Internet
2. Insufficient existing wire-line infrastructure
3. Most individuals watch lots of television
4. Most parents do everything they can to make their kids computer-literate
5. Most kids enjoy using cameras and the Internet
To plow up the ground we chose mostly middle school students as tractors, along with some elementary and more recently a little high school expertise. They're energetic, annually regenerated, and love working and playing on the Internet.
We hooked up a dozen or so, six at a time, to eight special computers bridled to six cameras and four microphones. Then, we encouraged their growth with some after-school and summer IT training programs to create what is now known as the Growing Digital Network (GDN) . The students learned by doing. More than 90% of all training is hands-on. We assign brand-new crew members to an old crew member and put them to work on day one. (You don't get a crew member T-shirt until you've completed an entire webcast in a single crew position like camera, audio, or encoding.)
Most students already know the basics of running a video camera; many can operate a computer. What they don't usually know is what the possibilities are. That's where real learning opportunities arise. Students look at their work, better yet, their peers look at their work and say, "Hey, why was the video so dark?" or "Why is there a 40-second delay in the live video from the Internet video?" These questions are too difficult to answer in the middle of a live webcast, so we cover the "academics" in after-school training.
GDN produces about four live Internet webcasts each month. What's a webcast? It's a lot like a TV program except that you see it on the Internet. The bad news is that the picture can be much worse than TV, with sound quality that varies between that of AM and FM radio. The good news is that, regardless of the picture quality, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people watch the GDN network each week.
Trevor and Jarrod with the roof cam at the ALWS.
In many respects, getting people to watch the Growing Digital Network has been counter-intuitive. Some of our most widely promoted events have been the least watched and events that received virtually no pre-event publicity have been the most watched. The personal cell phone has turned out to be our best friend. People attending the actual events see our banners, discover that we're webcasting and call back home to tell family and friends, "Turn on GDN!" This mechanism is incredibly efficient. Once folks have seen what the Growing Digital Network does they keep coming back. To make it easy for them, all webcasts are always originated from the same web link so they can bookmark it once and easily find their way back. We send pre-event emails to coaches, principals, superintendents, and a growing list of people who have asked us to tell them anytime GDN is webcasting ANYTHING. So word of mouth is our most successful media outlet and it doesn't matter whether it's mouth to ear, mouth to phone, or fingers to keyboard.
So, what are twelve or so middle school kids putting on the Internet? The range of content has varied widely. First and foremost, GDN connects its audience with people and things they care about.
- Thousands who could not travel to the 2002 American Legion World Series in Virginia watched all 15 games live on GDN. A military mom stationed in Belgium saw every game her son played in that series.
- A father in Switzerland saw his daughter star in her high school play in Virginia. Hundreds of parents watched their kids compete in the state LEGO Robotics competition on GDN.
- Family members from across the nation could watch their son sing the winning tune in a talent show
- Upstate college football players watched footage of previous victories to prepare for their next game. .A soldier in Japan watched his alma mater defeat the next county over in their football rivalry. Gretna High School, the school holding the most consecutive losses record, won the Virginia AA football championship ; more than 250 people watched the game from the Internet on a cold and icy winter day.
- My mother-in-law couldn't drive to Durham on slick roads, so she watched the world's greatest ruby-throated hummingbird expert talk about migration patterns.
- Our city is planning its 2004 air show and they're directing prospective pilots to visit GDN to see last year's event.
- Each month hundreds of people watch a bluegrass festival held in July 2003.
- This year a different Rotary International Club is hosting their annual convention so they're watching GDN to help plan for it.
2002 American Legion World Series: "Most viewers around a single computer" GDN contest winner.
In just over thirteen months, "normal" people have watched almost 4000 hours of streaming video on the Growing Digital Network. Most GDN live webcasts average 100 viewing hours each with more than 60,000 streams served. GDN has been viewed on at least 10,000 different computers. Conservatively, we estimate more than 20,000 people have seen a GDN webcast. One contest netted us a digital picture of more than 40 people watching a live GDN webcast on a single computer.
GDN has been lauded and recognized by Virginia's Center for Innovation and the state Community College system for its award winning technology outreach program. We don't believe any single non-profit organization in the country is driving more demand for broadband than the Growing Digital Network. In fact, we offer the "GDN challenge" to all comers: Show us any entity creating more rural broadband demand than GDN and we'll send them 12 GDN crew member t-shirts.
We believe the key to driving rural broadband demand is homemade regional video. It's homemade because the local kids produce it and the local people support it. If we are to see masses of rural Americans grow hungry for broadband Internet, we have to stock it with content that satisfies their existing appetites. The top of that menu begins with family, friends, and football. We serve two counties and a city with a combined population of under 250,000. Virtually anyone from our region, looking at the content of our home page, can find something they want to watch. On the other end of the statistic, we're using a total of 12-15 kids to produce enough Internet content variety to satisfy that level of regional media appetite. Most school districts already have the best broadband connections in rural areas and most of the equipment needed for webcasting. What's more noticeable is that school networks are barely used after 3:30 PM. That's about when we start setting up for Growing Digital Network webcasts.
The reality is that dial-up adequately serves the web browsing, emailing, and researching needs of most people. Even if 50-75% of rural residents had high levels of interest in web browsing, emailing, and researching, in most cases, it would not generate enough sustained demand to produce a new infrastructure return on investment (ROI); it's simply a function of sparse population density. The truth is uncomplicated: only video can generate enough demand to justify broadband in rural America.
In summary, rural Americans don't need to understand infrastructures or web browsers or what broadband is. They need to see what it does. In GDN's case, broadband takes family and friends to events they can't drive to see. And when it's over, GDN takes them back to re-live the game, the play, or the show all over again—three hours, three days or three months from now. It gives them a good reason to pass up small, blurry, dial-up video for an Internet TV program that's better than a John Wayne movie—one that stars their favorite kid, fastest car, or even a hummingbird expert. Grandparents will always be bumping into friends and strangers in the mall and pulling out photos of their grandkids. But with the Growing Digital Network around, they just might be pulling you over to the closest broadband connection. My advice is, try and get away after you see the photographs. If they get you to a computer, you'll have to watch the whole game!