Recently, I returned from the Intelligent Community Forum's "Building the Broadband Economy" conference in New York City where I was a featured speaker. This conference explored how broadband communications, education and innovation contribute to economic growth and bridging the digital divide worldwide. It was organized by the same group that recognized Ashland as one of the global Smart 21 communities. It was an amazing and inspiring conference where leaders from around the world shared how they are using broadband technology to revolutionize their communities, regions, and even entire countries.




One of the other speakers at the conference was the city secretary (City Manager) of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Tallinn has an amazing story of recovery from a collapsed post-soviet industrial economy. With almost no resources, they put in place a vision, called "Tiger Leap," to provide high-speed-Internet to all of their schools. This vision ignited their entire economy and they are now ranked No. 25 for international competitiveness by the World Economic Forum.




I was privileged to have dinner with the Gangnam District of Seoul, Korea's director of computerization and Information Division. Gangnam was an agricultural district in the 1970s with a gross domestic product per person on par with the poorer nations of Africa. Today, through the wise deployment and use of broadband technology, it represents 25 percent of Seoul's entire economy. Additionally, it has had a significant positive impact on education, e-government, and digital democracy.




One of the most surprising interactions I had was with His Excellency, the Consul General of Afghanistan. I was stunned to hear and see evidence of the almost miraculous improvement in communications and education throughout his country. With the fall of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, there were only 12,000 phone lines in the country. Today, there are more than 2 million phone lines in the country and high-speed-Internet is available in all provinces. This is having a tremendously positive impact on education in particular because of the Afghani's dependence on the Internet for reference material for the schools. I was so surprised because this was such good news and we so seldom hear good news coming out of Afghanistan.




There were other communities represented at the conference, including Waterloo; Ontario; Canada; Dundee, Scotland; Taipei, Taiwan; the Commonwealth of Dominica; and Portugal.




Closer to home: the mayor and director of Economic Development from Bettendorf, Iowa, were gracious enough to spend some time with me discussing how their community has been transformed from an agricultural manufacturing hub to a city with a vibrant and diversified economy through the use of broadband technology.




I am sure that you are asking the same question that I did many times: "Why in the world was the director of Information Technology for the city of Ashland asked to speak at such a conference?" That is a great question that was answered for me by the executive director of the Intelligent Community Forum. He said that smaller communities around the world had a hard time relating to the big-city success stories. They need to hear from an Ashland, a city who was bold enough to build one of the first municipal broadband systems in the U.S.; and a city that refused to give up even when things got really tough.




The truth of his comments became apparent immediately after my presentation. I had people from small- to medium-sized communities tell me that they really needed to hear Ashland's story. They were all impressed that such a small community could be so visionary and could drive such positive change through technology. Some even commented on how refreshing it was to hear a presentation that clearly detailed mistakes made along the way so that others could avoid the same pitfalls if they chose to deploy broadband in their community.




What were my lessons learned? I found that while we have accomplished a great deal through the Ashland Fiber Network, we should not be content. Many communities in the U.S. and around the world are doing tremendous things with technology to enable their communities, inform their citizens, build their economies, and promote transparent government. I learned that we can and should do more with the resources we have. Because of how cities like Waterloo, Tallinn, Taipei, Bettendorf, and so many others have used broadband technology in incredible ways to change their present and futures, I can, in my mind's eye, see an Ashland that is even better than it is today.




is the director of Information Technology for the city of Ashland.