TMCnews Featured Article

September 16, 2009

Broadband Stimulus Goal: 'What the Heck Are We Doing Here,' in 140 Characters or Less

By Craig Settles, Founder and President,

In my high tech marketing/PR heyday, I swore by a book titled “How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less” by Milo Frank.
In just over 120 pages you get a blueprint for crafting and delivering a persuasive 90-word (30-second) statement that tells people what you want and why. Both the broadband stimulus program and the FCC’s (News - Alert) drive to create a national broadband strategy would benefit mightily if all the participants in broadband efforts read this book.
This isn’t a creative writing or business presentation lesson. I’m addressing the Achilles heel of so many who are involved with broadband efforts: grant applicants, federal agencies, private sector companies. Who knows what they’re doing, what they want to achieve, how they’re going to achieve it, why they’re approach is different or better and why should (pick one - constituents, stakeholders, funding agencies, review panels) care?
Have you started reading the descriptions of the projects submitted to NTIA/RUS? It’s pretty standard fair. If you pulled 10 statements at random, could you find one 90-word blurb that answers all of the previous questions so a rural resident or a bank president can quickly understand why the application deserves a grant? You may wonder why this matters. The answer to these questions determines whether, and to what degree, your broadband project will succeed.
The inability for project teams to distill the “who, why how” questions into a 30-second message may be because people don’t know what they’re doing. Not meaning they’re incompetent, they just don’t have all the information needed to develop a good plan. I spent an hour on the phone yesterday with someone who was in the trenches with several applicants. She summed things up this way.
People don’t really know or understand what “broadband” means, as a term, a mission, a technology. Most applications still don’t know what some of the NOFA rules were trying to achieve, or what the agencies behind them want from applicants. She feels a lot of the project teams and their stakeholders don’t understand the benefits of broadband, so they plan (hope) to sort that out later if they receive a grant.   
To flip this discussion around to cast it in a positive light, it requires much more critical thinking, planning, problem solving and idea generating to create 90 words that make a strong case for broadband than to create a 90-page grant application. Not necessarily more work, mind you, but a more intense cerebral exercise, usually by many people. 
As Round 1 applications prep for the second stage of the approval process, assuming they survive the first cut, and others gear up for the Round 2 funding process, we need a lot more of this critical thinking on all sides of the process. Mr. Milo’s book presents several steps to creating your 30-second message, but one in particular is critical to making your case for a broadband implementation, whether or not you’re applying for grant money.
“Know what you want”
By default, if you suffered through the NOFA Death March of ’09, you want to build a network, create a computer center or convince a lot of people to the use broadband. So instead of stating the obvious, the real hook in a summary or executive statement is “why.” What are you going to do with broadband, what do you want to accomplish, how will people’s lives be better?
If you don’t know or can’t articulate that burning “why,” chances are your project faces an uphill battle to get funded, or to be successful if it is. Will you have a better time soliciting money, recruiting stakeholders, marketing broadband services, defining broadband speeds, etc. if you propose “to deploy a shovel-ready, sustainable, licensed microwave Middle Mile to WiMAX wireless broadband Last Mile (News - Alert) network to provide broadband services in a service area comprised of [counties]?”Or will you do better if you propose to bring broadband “to over 47,000 homes, 7,000 businesses and 200 anchor institutions in 9 underserved Indiana rural communities [and] create an expected 270 plus new jobs?”
This issue of knowing what you want extends to all aspects of broadband. An incredible amount of work is going into developing a national broadband strategy, but quick, in 30 seconds, what’s the practical outcome of having a strategy? Will the world end if we don’t have one? 
Headlines recently asked, way too late in my book, why do we need $100 million to do mapping? What is it that the government, underserved communities, private sector companies want to accomplish that requires maps? The exercise of distilling this down to 90 words might show that maps are irrelevant, or data can come from more sources than incumbents, and cheaper ones. Vendors and service providers are no more immune to this challenge. For them, it boils down to knowing what they want to sell or what prospects want to buy. You can’t build a broadband network without some sort of private sector involvement, but life pretty much sucks when neither party can understand or resolve what they or the other party wants.
By circumstance and politics, we’re in a super time-compressed mode of planning and funding broadband projects that are incredibly complex as well as expensive. In this environment, moving from complexity to simplicity is rarely quick and often difficult, but the payback is huge.
In a recent column I suggested NTIA/RUS find a couple of Twitter fields to revise the NOFA rules because anyone who spends half their life communicating in 140-character messages will probably write a nice set of comprehensive and comprehensible rules. This should be the norm for many in broadband. The exercise of using one or two tweets (Twitter message) to answer the question, “What are we doing here?” is a good for everyone involved.

Craig Settles helps organizations use broadband technologies to improve government and stakeholders' operating efficiency, as well as local economic development.

Edited by Michael Dinan