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Nothing like competition and cash prizes to get businesses people fired up. In rural Vermont, contests for the best new business applications on the web -- plus training and mentoring -- are improving scores of local companies.

Daily Yonder Three rural counties in Northeast Vermont have been spurred to acquire faster broadband and then use it more effectively.Daily Yonder Three rural counties in Northeast Vermont have been spurred to acquire faster broadband and then use it more effectively.As communities put final touches on their 2012 economic development plans, they should consider incorporating an approach that’s increasingly popular in the broadband world: contests offering cash prizes for creating effective broadband apps. These competitions are happening in metropolitan areas, but there’s no reason rural communities can’t get aboard the trend, too.

Chattanooga recently announced a contest offering $100,000 to the person or group that comes up with the most creative application to run on their gigabit network. Infrastructure vendor Alcatel-Lucent
put up the money as the contest’s sponsor.

Communities reap broadband’s benefits from the applications that run on the network as well as from a high-speed network itself. But how do you entice people to create applications if they can’t afford to develop a new product? Offer a healthy incentive, of course.

Apparently this is catching on. Chattanooga soon added additional contests and incentives
to its initial offer that now promises up to $250,000 in prize money. (Listen to Gigabit Nation interview for the details.) The two Kansas Cities responded with a contest of their own, the “Gigabit Challenge,” that offers a similar amount.

These contests may seem like extremely expensive and time-consuming activities for increasing broadband adoption. However, they can both be affordable and generate a payback soon if they’re executed properly.

Local businesses, come on down!

The Northeast Kingdom (NEK) of Vermont consists of the three most northeastern counties in the state (Caledonia, Essex and Orleans). Fifty towns dot this region with an average of 1,800 residents per town. These are three of the state’s poorest counties with chronic unemployment that is higher than the state average.

Some parts of the Kingdom get 10 – 14 Mbps broadband speed, but there is no coverage in many areas. A few remaining areas receive 256K on a wireless network with weak backhaul capability, and others have satellite Internet access that doesn’t work in the winter.

Laura and Al Duey are a couple who took an active interest in getting NEK residents better broadband, but discovered another problem. “My husband and I had been doing broadband projects for the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) for several years,” Laura states. “Mostly we encouraged and supported local rural broadband committees’ efforts to bring broadband to their communities.  We were fairly successful, but the service providers reported that in spite of the committees’ enthusiasm, broadband take rates were unprofitably low.”     

VCRD started a program called the e-NEK Project to concentrate efforts in three towns to connect businesses to the Web, and to create a test bed of activities, processes and applications that deliver broadband benefits to those businesses. VCRD would then define best practices that other communities throughout the region could use.

In 2010 the Dueys developed a plan to run a contest for small business owners, but region-wide, in which entrepreneurs would create plans for using the Internet effectively. The contest was successful because the owners took full responsibility for developing their plans, contestants received significant training and mentoring, and most of the plans were implemented within an e-NEK-specified timeframe. READ MORE

By Craig Settles

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