Va. communities recognized for broadband, technology deployments

The Intelligent Communities Forum (ICF), a global think tank that studies how broadband access affects economic and social development, launched its annual awards cycle Friday evening by announcing the ICF Smart21 Communities of 2010. Among the twenty-one cities worldwide, a handful of U.S. communities were chosen for their use of broadband and information technology in navigating the global recession.

2010’s list includes cities large and small, from thirteen countries, in five continents. The average population of the Smart21 is 490,000, but as ICF Co-Founder Louis Zacharilla said during last Friday’s unveiling, “You don’t have to be big to be successful. Size doesn’t matter in the Broadband Economy.”

Mr. Zacharilla called this year’s winners “quiet superstars” consistently striving to leverage broadband and information technology to improve the lives of their citizens and pushing to make their communities more competitive. The Smart21 are “poster children, exhibiting the very best practices in the world,” Mr Zacharilla continued. Among the top twenty-one “quiet superstars,” five cities were named in the United States – three of which come from one state.

Last year, Bristol Va. and its 17,000 citizens surprised many in the international community by making the IFC’s Smart21 and Top Seven lists by driving broadband deployment in rural Appalachia. After nearly ten years of political back and forth, the Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU) successfully launched OptiNet, which offered fiber-to-the-user (FTTU) when other carriers refused or charged higher-than-market rates. A study conducted in 2008 found that OptiNet customers saved nearly $10 million over incumbent competitors’ rates since the start of the service three years earlier. Additionally, the broadband deployment is credited with enticing information technology government contractors Northrop Grumman and CGI to the region – bringing with them hundreds of high-income jobs.

Bristol has again made ICF’s Smart21 list, but now it’s joined by two other Virginia communities – Danville and Arlington County. Similar to Bristol, Danville, Va. saw its leading industries of textiles and tobacco fade with the 20th Century and decided to launch an open-access fiber network, which now stretches 125 miles in length. Operated by private sector providers, nDanville currently connects all government and educational facilities, plus 150 businesses. The city is currently working to offer the service to homes already served by Danville’s government-owned electric company and build expand the regions growing entrepreneurial base.

Arlington County, Va. is a first-time Smart21 winner, but they boast a strong commitment to collaboration in government and business. The smallest self-governing county in the U.S. is showing how long-term thinking and constant improvements to technology infrastructure can help communities weather economic downturns. Past investments in maintaining public transit and strong education have been complimented by private and public-sector roll-out of broadband, e-government, distance education and programs that point students to careers in science, technology and entrepreneurship.

The remaining U.S. cities included in ICF’s Smart21 were Dakota County, Minnesota and Dublin, Ohio.