Rural Broadband: The New Silk Road

I’ll admit it: broadband is probably not a fascinating topic for most people. I’m willing to bet the only time people think about broadband is when they have a poor internet connection, and then they likely curse it. For me though, it’s been a front-of-mind topic for years. I started working with the Small Business Development Center earlier this year, but my background has been with small businesses long before joining the team.

COMM Jackson CA Wayne Hsieh 2014 04My first job was at the Cookery, a long-forgotten delicatessen on Truckee’s Commercial Row, where I was the soda jerk. I soon moved down the street to Earthsongs, a staple in town. The store was bathed in warm colors and earthy smells. It was full of jewelry and gifts, incense and oils, and had a raunchy, adults only card selection. I remember trying to peek at these when I was a little kid in tow with my mom downtown. There was a spice basement, where we weighed out coffees, teas, herbs, and spices into little brown bags. Long before the internet, people would call in their orders and we would have them bagged and ready to pick up or shipped to far-away places.

Over the years, I worked for a number of small businesses in downtown Truckee. I spent five years working for the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association (TDMA), running a large summer event called Truckee Thursdays. TDMA is a non-profit organization comprised of many small businesses in Truckee. Truckee Thursdays is the organization’s largest annual fundraiser. It was a perfect match with my love for local commerce; each week working with over a hundred vendors – all managing their own small businesses and bringing their products to the crowds. Broadband has been instrumental in reinventing business hours for merchants, especially away from a traditional brick and mortar presence with access to credit card apps. What was once a cash-only transaction with a customer can now be a credit card transaction easily on the street — so long as there is access to broadband.

I also volunteered in a local museum for many years. My love for studying history often leaves me thinking in historic terms; always considering modern times in comparison to ancient times. I recently studied Early World History, leaving me fascinated with stories of early trading. Picturing merchants walking long stretches through settlements, selling or trading their wares and goods for something they don’t have access to or can’t grow in their native regions. The earliest forms of small businesses. These colorful visions of early merchants swirl in my head as I conduct my own trading online. Broadband is the modern version of the old Silk Road. I have a handful of favorite merchants across the seas: an undergarment seamstress in Tasmania; a vintage button collector in London; and a mineral merchant in India. I found all of these business owners on Instagram and have had successful transactions, leaving me a very happy customer. Merchants are no longer walking the old trade routes, but business transactions are still the same as they were in the earliest years of commerce history: there is someone out there who has something you want or need.

As the world opens up for commerce in every corner, broadband as an economic driver is imperative. Websites, point-of-sale systems, inventory control, and resumes all require connectivity. Small businesses in rural areas are tasked with the need to keep up with digital commerce, yet are burdened with the disadvantage of not having access to dependable connectivity.

Sierra Business Council is managing the Gold Country Broadband Consortium, one of 14 regional consortia in California funded by the California Advanced Services Fund. We are working to identify and support strategic broadband investments and collaborate with stakeholders to enable the building of infrastructure and broadband networks necessary to create dependable and affordable internet connections in our rural communities. You can help by taking a speed test, that will us fill in the gaps in the California Broadband Coverage Map, and gives you a platform to let us know your broadband concerns. Together, we can make the New Silk Road available to all of California’s rural communities and small businesses.

Jackson image courtesy Wayne Hsieh