Will Your 2014 Broadband Strategy Embrace Multi-Dweling Units? (pt 2)

Monday I described a strategy Santa Monica used a few years ago to build greater value for local multi-dweling unit (MDU) property owners to offer tenants, increase city tax revenue and generate new sales for the city-owned and operated network. Today I look at a second element of the city’s MDU strategy.

Sometimes smaller is better

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While Santa Monica was wooing property owners, they looked in-house and realized that the City owned totally vacant properties around town. They also discovered that at least a dozen angel investors live and work in the city providing seed money to entrepreneurs with great ideas that wanted to advance to the prototype stage.

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There weren’t any business incubators, which typically is where a lot of angels park the entrepreneurs they invest in, but there were these empty properties. So the City approached a couple of angel investors with a concept best described as mini-incubators.

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The City proposed wiring fiber into some of the smaller buildings around town, plus adding WiFi networks to the fiber network so there is wireless coverage both indoors and outdoors in the areas around these buildings. The highspeed infrastructure enables three or four entrepreneurs to take root in each property.

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“Not only did the angels like our concept,” states Wolf, “but also two companies dedicated to creating incubators brought their expertise here.” Throughout the city these mini-incubators are turning out a small but steady stream of startups. As they add one or two people, some startups may move to bigger spaces within their buildings and then on to bigger facilities within this informal network of “fiber facilities.” The city’s free WiFi around town contributes to entrepreneurs’ free-spirit nature, allowing them to work by the beach, from the park, or in a café.

As we ease into the new year and the economy is still slow to accelerate, cities and towns pursuing community broadband likely have a fair number of vacant properties that are idea potential incubators, hackerspaces and startup villages. Angel investors, startups, tech communities, MDU owners and others should come together, stir up the creative juices turn these properties into potent economic engines within their respective neighborhoods.

Questions worth asking

Whether you follow Santa Monica’s lead on using broadband to leverage traditional MDUs, or use broadband to stand the concept of incubators on its head to create neighborhood centers for multiple startups, you have to ask the right questions to determine your best strategy.

Let’s start with the most basic of questions – do you have some MDU properties in your town or county that aren’t generating as much tax revenues as they could because those buildings are not at full occupancy? Has anyone from your broadband team talked to those owners about attacking the vacancy issue with some super fast broadband fiber or wireless running throughout their properties? A long chat with several local commercial real estate agents should turn up some valuable information.

Even if the your local government or public utility isn’t owning the network, are there local elected officials or government staff open to the idea of providing incentives for property owners to pull broadband into their buildings?

And let’s not leave out residential MDUs. These may be a little trickier to coordinate and close, but there’s money to be made here. There are also digital divides to be crossed in MDUs for low-income individuals and families. Have you considered developing grant proposals to get state or federal agencies that focus on housing and commercial development to fund broadband buildouts in MDUs?

When it comes to the subject of general vacant properties, are you missing opportunities to turn eyesores into free-form start-up havens? You don’t need a lot: empty space, fast wired or wireless broadband and someone willing to underwrite utilities, paint and used furniture. Unemployed or underemployed individuals and entrepreneurs of every stripe can easily be enticed to do a lot of the cosmetic work to make these properties pleasant workspaces, tech labs and cauldrons of bubbling innovation that turn into startups that eventually turn into economic development engines.

Want more details on how to develop and execute an MDU broadband strategy that works for you? Listen to this interview on my radio talk show, Gigabit Nation.

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