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February 08, 2008

The FCC Rural Health Care Initiative: Chaords, Fractals, and the Future of Community Broadband Networks

The idea is simple enough.

Simple and powerful.

Take a small part of the Universal Service Fee that we all pay on our monthly phone bills and direct it to support healthcare access in rural and underdeveloped regions across the United States.

Sixty days ago the FCC approved its first round of $417m to competitively bid the construction of 69 regional broadband telehealth networks in 42 states and three U.S. territories touching some 6000 facilities under the Rural Health Care Pilot Program (RHCPP). Thanks to the good work of OneCommunity and the Northeast Ohio Regional Health Information Organization (NEO RHIO)22 counties in Northeast Ohio connecting connect 19 rural hospitals and numerous clinics spanning 22 counties to over 30 existing hospitals connected to the OneCommunity network. The grant for $11m to be matched by regional investments places NEOhio in the mix to extend broadband services to rural communities to support healthcare needs.

When I first gleaned insights into this emerging initiative, representing the first demonstrable 'planned' national broadband strategy this past spring, I waited to see what kind of mindshare it might produce across the country. The result has been, thus far, deafening silence. In searching the blogsphere, the web, and the conference circuit, thought leadership and bold thinking remains muted at best.

As I have posted before on this blog, I am neither naive enough or philosophically predisposed to believing that a federal mandate for a national broadband architecture with concomitant legislation and implementation requirements is happening anytime soon. Likewise, the clear and demonstrable market failure to attend to these under-served populations will, in large measure, be attended to through contracting of services to the very same vendors who are not building the infrastructure but will receive most of disbursement of funds, even if they are subs rather than prime movers in the initiative. That being said, I do believe that the FCC Rural Health Care pilot stands as a potential catalyst for a very different kind of arc of activity in positioning us for a Broadband 2.0 for America effort.

Here are the contours of my thinking informed by more than a decade long set of conversations, solutions-architecture, and lived experience in building out platforms for innovation to address community priorities leveraging technology to address organizational, institutional and community priorities. For those engaged in some of those conversations at various retreats and project planning efforts over the past decade I hope I manage to do justice to some of the DNA of our work. Feel free, as always, to correct the record.

Community-based broadband efforts, in contrast to the command and control efforts originating in various city halls or utility commissions, has a lot in common with what Dee Hock called chaordic organizations.

Chaords are self-organizing, self-governing, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organisms, organizations, communities or systems, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously blends characteristics of both chaos and order.

From my own vantage point, the Net itself is the undergirding chaordic system of our era. Organizations that are able to embrace and thrive in the ambiguity that defines the relative state of stasis between chaos and order are more likely to have the right set of attributes that enable them to sustain their own and the broader eco-system's needs and goals. Leadership (what I've previously coined as open source leadership here and here )that likewise embraces the power of de-centering the power of decision making will also have certain advantages in a chaordic system.

Community broadband initiatives that emerge (through different forms of open-source leadership) as coalitions of diverse interests, organizational needs and capacities dedicated to leveraging technology to address community priorities can become chaordic organizations. As in most situations, the deliberate arc of activity to support organizational development to nurture these efforts are as difficult to sustain as they are likely to have positive outcomes. The result although not always comforting news is the imperative to embrace the dictum that innovation is hard work. Community broadband initiatives are a new category in the marketplace and they are necessarily more complex at this stage in our evolution. They can also be messy, disruptive, and frustrating as organizations-in-the-making.

How might this set of notions regarding community broadband networks as chaordic organizations be replicated (or in the language of the chaordic literature -- be fracticalized)or made to be relevant to the FCC Rural Health Care Pilot initiative and Broadband 2.0 in the United States?

Hardened bureaucratic planning has typically dictated that resources associated with a grant or award be dedicated for the exclusive and unique purpose of delivering that service. This is also the case in the world of broadband. The liner association of singular source against singular use is no longer conditioned by technology. Indeed, there is an abundance of technical reference architectures deployed in multiple settings across multiple use cases and jurisdictions that renders credible the proposition that a single set of fiber pairs (or similarly small set of fiber pairs) can support dozens of separate, secured, and robust dedicated or shared networks through multi-plexing technologies. We are working with a community in another state where the County has been informed by a federal office that funds to place conduit and hundreds of pairs of fibers can not only not be used for any other purpose other than the stated bureaucratic goal but the County can not even place a second conduit in the available conduit. The result is that more than 95% of the existing capacity and 100% of future capacity is unused and unusable. For the County to realize its service goals it must overbuild the infrastructure at enormous public expense (although, as is obvious, its a different public office collecting and disbursing the funds which... makes all the difference!).

If designed to accommodate and support Broadband 2.0, the FCC Rural Health Care Pilot could become the enabling infrastructure and first application service offering in what could become a viable connected community strategy for under-served communities and populations. Connecting healthcare facilities to urban providers and specialist is laudable, important, and compelling. Leveraging that infastructure to connect those same under-served communities to education, science, skills development, art, and state and federal government services represents the unleashing of a Broadband 2.0 strategy.

The idea is simple enough.

Simple and powerful.

Give communities in need a sense of hope and opportunity to vision their futures. Enable their schools, museums, libraries, government services and such to be connected to each other and to the global village. Enable our inner cities and rural communities to help chart and navigate their community's future towards good public health, education, jobs and skills development for the 21st century, and opportunities to participate, as active members and global citizens. The technology is ready to support this approach. The content is available and continuing to grow in relevance and value to realize this cross boundary portfolio approach. The initial seed funding is in the pipeline through the FCC Rural Health Care Pilot.

Wanted ... local rural community leadership interested in a 21st century version of old fashion barn raising. Community Broadband Networks draw on many of the same core values and are foundational investments to preserve, sustain, and promote a vibrant roadmap deep into the 21st century landscape.

A loosely federated network of self-organizing, self-governing, adaptive rural connected communities who develop capacity to live and thrive harmoniously in the interstices between chaos and order are not only elements of a chaordic system. The net result of that emerging system will be key patches of a national broadband quilt itself.

We've learned a couple things along the journey of supporting the build out of OneCommunity.

The idea is simple enough.

Simple and powerful.

Lev Gonick
Cleveland, Ohio
February 8, 2008

Posted by lsg8 at February 8, 2008 09:27 AM and tagged

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