Broadband and wi-fi internet are revolutionising cities and regions. Even rural communities around the globe are finding that they do not have to be left in the dust, if they adopt and adapt this technology.

The problem for rural communities is that networks that distribute this technology to metropolitan areas are not being developed across many landscapes. Some small towns refuse to be held back, however.

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Stratford, Ontario – population 32,000 – is one such town. Known largely for its annual Shakespeare festival, recently the community invested heavily in ubiquitous broadband connectivity provided by underground fibre-optic cabling and a wireless mesh network. The smart grid goes 70 kilometres around Stratford. “It has two transformer stations that feed the city, which back each other through a series of computer-aided circuits,” says Stratford mayor Dan Mathieson.

Digital enhancements

Besides bringing a host of improvements to Stratford, Mr Mathieson points out that connectivity was instrumental in attracting phone firm Motorola to try out its outdoor network in Stratford’s cold winter climate. “Cisco also came to lay a robust network,” he says.

Stratford also enticed the University of Waterloo, a world-class technology university, to open its digital media campus in the town. The Royal Bank of Canada selected Stratford from a list of 200 communities for its national data centre. “[Prior to improving our broadband infrastructure], we were not even on its radar,” says Mr Mathieson.

Add to the list six Japanese first-tier auto suppliers for Toyota and Honda. “Digital sealed the deal to their locating here,” says Mr Mathieson. “Some of those facilities have since doubled in size.”

Similarly, Parkland County in Alberta recognises the internet as an essential utility and a gateway to the global economy. “From ranchers who market cattle internationally via internet auctions and bee farmers who ship sea containers filled with honey to Japan, to national advanced manufacturing and logistics companies and a new international data centre, internet is essential,” says Al McCully, project manager for Smart Parkland.

Smart Parkland, which was created by Parkland County, provides a vision and plan to ensure all businesses and residents in the community of some 30,000 people have access to reliable, reasonably priced, high-speed broadband.

“Sixteen utility-grade towers are now operating, with seven more to be added in 2014,” says Mr McCully. By co-locating multiple service providers on each tower, the network will be operationally self-sustaining in three to five years. Mr McCully adds that broadband is partially responsible for a major international data centre choosing to locate in Parkland County’s Acheson Industrial Area.

Size not an issue

Mitchell, South Dakota – population 15,000 – has been offering world-class broadband and a land-based fibre network since 2005. Unique here is that services are available on a competitive basis from four providers along with fourth-generation wireless communications technology. 

“Mitchell has a network that no city its size by right should have,” says Robert Bell, co-founder of the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum. “In fact, 38 of the 50 states within the US have some form of regulation that makes it impossible, if not illegal, to accomplish what Mitchell did.”

Mitchell has benefited. Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Development Corp points to AKG North America, a German subsidiary corporation that relocated to Mitchell in 2004. That transaction, he says, was directly facilitated by local broadband via international communications to corporate management in Germany.

Walla Walla, a rural community in the southeast quadrant of Washington State with a population of some 45,000, is also seeking to become a digital community by pushing broadband internet. “Its goal is to attract video film animation firms from Los Angeles and San Francisco,” says Mr Bell. “It feels if it can get one started, it can build a cluster.”

Essential infrastructure

The government of Australia is currently rolling out a fibre and wireless broadband network across the country. The suburb of Prospect in the city of Adelaide has a population of 20,000 and is one of the first communities to be connected.

“We will be the first metropolitan council area in South Australia to have all premises connected to the national broadband network,” says Justin Commons, Prospect’s director of business and economic development. “Broadband and internet are essential infrastructure to deliver services globally.”

Mr Commons emphasises that the roll-out is important because the town houses many “embedded creatives” – people with higher education and work skills/knowledge, who are currently employed in South Australia’s key industries.

“As these industries slow, there is a need to find alternative employment and engagement of these people,” he says. “One such alternative is to encourage entrepreneurs to start up small home-based businesses to sell their intellectual property online globally.”

Speed of the essence

Whanganui, New Zealand, has a vision to be a leader in the digital world. Until recently, its urban and rural businesses were unable to perform at peak effectiveness due to a lack of fast, affordable broadband.

“Local boat builder Q-West, for example, would develop digital presentations to win international tenders to build boats and then be forced to post the presentation on a CD, as the internet capacity and speed were not sufficient to e-mail the file or to upload to a file sharing site,” says Whanganui mayor Annette Main. “Farmers were unable to access internet banking as the session would time out and log them off. They were required to post cheques, relied on fax machines and went to make a cup of tea while an e-mail downloaded over their ancient dial-up connections.”

But now installation of a fibre-optic network is due for completion by 2015, with 60% of the network build complete, 10,000 premises passed and customers already beginning to connect. “We were one of the first communities in New Zealand to deploy an open-access, fibre-optic network,” says Ms Main.

Yet another example, Castelo de Vide, a small historical village in Portugal’s interior only a few kilometres from the Spanish border, has found that the internet has decreased distances just as the Romans did when they built bridges to bring together communities. “It is now possible for us to develop business clusters in this region and have economic relations worldwide,” says Daniel Carreiras da Silva, vice-mayor of the village.

The village has also found another benefit of connectivity: reversing the brain drain of youth leaving. Castelo de Vide had lost nearly half its population, but now is viable again because of a digital revival.

“After all, a small place is only a state of mind,” says Mr Bell of the Intelligent Community Forum. “By implementing today’s broadband and wi-fi technology, even rural communities can seem like the biggest place on the planet.”