Governments, from federal to local, are leading a complex effort with utilities and private and non-profit organizations to build extensive broadband communications infrastructure and to develop “intelligent communities.” Leaders of intelligent communities view bandwidth as essential as clean water and dependable electricity. They make public policy decisions and launch initiatives to ensure that businesses and residents have adequate and reliable access to advanced information and communications services to gain a competitive edge in the world economy.

The intelligent community is not a concept or a dream — it is a fact. It also is a huge market. Statistics reveal that from $500 billion to $2 trillion are being invested to upgrade the global broadband infrastructure. That is comparable to the investment made when the railroad network began to cross the U.S. and allowed once-remote communities to participate in the nation's growing economy. Just as communities linked to railroads, American cities now need to select and install the right technology infrastructure to sustain their viability five to 20 years from today.

Reliable broadband access is only the beginning of establishing an intelligent community. Communities also must create a “culture of intelligence” that leverages the fiber optic cables or satellite dishes. A culture of intelligence is defined by five criteria:

  1. A broadband infrastructure (including fiber optic networks, cable and satellite access that connect businesses and residents).

  2. A knowledge workforce (one where workers are engaged in high-paying, value-added jobs that are hard to relocate and for which continuous education is required).

  3. A system for supporting innovation. The system can range from companies and institutions that provide venture capital or innovative financing, to a cluster of academic research facilities that feed the private sector in the community.

  4. Digital democracy. That is a governmental policy with the will and the ability to give all residents access to the Internet and training programs for using the new technologies.

  5. A dedication and an ability to market the strengths of the community to the outside world.

Spokane, Wash., is one city that has succeeded in transforming itself from an “old economy” community — which consisted of jobs created through mining, timber extraction and trade generated by rail transportation — into an intelligent community. With the support of the local government, the private sector installed a broadband infrastructure that included fiber, XDSL and cable modem service. Among other things, the city invested in an initiative that provided a gigabit Ethernet connection to classrooms in more than 50 schools and colleges, as well as one that offered Internet access, training and social service resources to the economically disadvantaged.

Efforts like those in Spokane have transformed cities into intelligent communities that are strongly competing in today's more innovative economy. Their efforts are having an effect on economic growth, business attraction, the quality of the local workforce, government services and social cohesion, and they will continue to do so for years to come.

The author is director of development for New York-based Intelligent Community Forum.