Get Smart: Smart Rural Community Turns 5

By Joshua Seidemann

In September 2017, NTCA recognized 13 rural broadband providers with the Smart Rural CommunitySM Showcase award. Below we offer a retrospective of a half decade of Smart Rural Community that explores the history of the initiative, elements of its programming and achievements its award recipients have enjoyed.

About six years ago, NTCA staff met with an international tech firm that was beginning to articulate a vision for smart cities. Intelligent architecture for public utility grids, smart homes and autonomous vehicles were among several ideas that emerged, all aiming toward a goal of creating efficient and technically advanced communities. These ideas were presented as having relevance mostly for big cities, where relief from transportation or other infrastructure strains warrant pursuit.

We then thought, "What about a Smart Rural Community?" What can be done to create rural areas in which broadband is leveraged to invigorate economic activity, improve public services, open doorways for education and increase access to better health care?

Defining 'Smart'

In late 2011, NTCA hosted a broadband adoption summit in Washington, D.C. Following the presentation of an NTCA research paper, a roundtable populated by policymakers, public interest groups and federal agencies discussed the thorniest challenges of increasing adoption, including technical and financial obstacles, and shared stories of instances in which broadband usage had changed users’ lives. Although this was a period in which regulatory structures that had governed a great deal of rural communications activity were being modified, there was little debate at that summit regarding the need for or usefulness of broadband. So, while the conversation took place beneath the specter of impending and uncertain change, participants were clear that regardless of regulatory or political climates, the need to pursue a smart path for rural America was clear.

Several months later, NTCA hosted another roundtable that featured officials from federal agencies as diverse as the Veterans Administration, Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the FCC. This program featured a presentation that illuminated the possibilities enabled by broadband-enabled technologies in rural areas, and featured case studies of NTCA members who were employing broadband in innovative ways in their communities.

These events were the foundation of the NTCA Smart Rural Community initiative. NTCA convened a Smart Rural Community Advisory Council (SRCAC) composed of experts from rural telecom as well as representatives from nontelecom organizations with rural constituencies. Charged with exploring options to increase deployment of broadband-enabled solutions in rural America, the SRCAC considered what it would take to build a smart rural America. But, as the conversations drilled deeper, the group realized that NTCA members had already built smart in their communities, and the focus turned toward recognizing NTCA members that exemplify the ideals of Smart Rural Community.