As cities like Albuquerque have turned a laser focus on broadening economic development and nurturing entrepreneurs and technology startups, the discussion invariably turns to one key word: broadband.
Still off the radar of big fiber optics projects that have brought gigabit Internet service to homes and businesses in many larger states and cities, the lack of advanced, affordable broadband in Albuquerque and rural communities across New Mexico has created a chicken-or-egg type situation for the state, which needs to lure new business to bring the tax base and broader economic development to help fund the very projects that are needed to attract them.
Enter US Ignite, a non-profit that has selected Albuquerque to join its network of “Smart Gigabit Communities”, a project that connects universities and the public and private entities that do have fiber optic networks together with other cities in the program to create what the group describes as a “living lab of testbeds for smart gigabit applications.”
The focus, Executive Director William Wallace says, is on using gigabit networks to develop advanced applications for distance learning, telemedicine, public safety, education and healthcare.
For example, one of the apps developed through the program paired students in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with the University of Southern California to develop an extremely high-quality video conferencing app that not only allows the students in Tennessee to hear discussions by world class biologists, but also be able to both see microorganisms on slides and manipulate microscopes in Los Angeles from their Tennessee classroom.
And while the program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, does not focus on expanding broadband access, Wallace says encouraging communities to put in more deep fiber networks is one of its end goals.
The city of Albuquerque, in a news release from Mayor Richard Berry’s office, calls the partnership a “complementary piece to the cornerstone technology programs” already in place, including the city’s new innovation district and plans to lay fiber optic cable along Route 66.
But to truly be successful and maximize the program’s potential for economic and broadband development, experts say, start-ups and the entrepreneurial communities also need to be involved.
One grass-roots effort is being led by the New Mexico Technology Council, which has a broadband working group of local business leaders like Ricardo Aguilar, who has a company called Seamlus, which provides secure cloud computing and network storage services for small local businesses.
The group’s focus, Aguilar said, is on removing barriers to broadband development. Efforts include discussions with local governments and providers like Comcast and Centurylink, which currently have monopolies on local Internet service, and trying to lure projects like Google Fiber to the area. He said the group also wants to help startups work through the US Ignite program to get funding and assistance testing, and develop applications for projects such as next-generation high-speed wireless networks.
“Our charter is simple: to be the catalyst,” he said. “To connect the startups, the incubators … and support policies that improve broadband.”
Wallace points to Chattanooga, Tennessee, as one of the country’s success stories in broadband and economic development.
The city is one of US Ignite’s 16 “Smart Gigabit” communities because of its advanced broadband connections. In Albuquerque, for example, advanced fiber connections are mostly limited to public institutions. Chattanooga’s fiber connects 175,000 individuals and businesses as well.
“Since they put in the fiber network, they have added 4,000 jobs and 92 startups,” Wallace said.
A report on Chattanooga’s program from the Kauffman Foundation notes that while the gig has acted as a catalyst for entrepreneurship, that was not its original goal.
“The idea was we’re going to get (the Gig) and we’re going to get all these huge businesses, and then, when that didn’t happen, entrepreneurship was the backup plan,” the report quotes an unnamed interviewee as saying. “I say that not to degrade entrepreneurship, but to be realistic … that sometimes your backup plan is your best plan. You just didn’t know it.”
Wallace said Albuquerque is set to become the 17th city to join the elite group of gigabit cities like Chattanooga: “A number of important assets make Albuquerque uniquely situated to take advantage of this pivotal time in new-generation networks: access to the city’s many downtown digital assets; density of research and education networks; thriving entrepreneurial business culture; and strong core capabilities in the areas of healthcare, education and film/media production.”
Silicon66 covers technology news and the entrepreneurial communities in the “Silicon66” region, including Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico and Arizona.