School Bus Wi-Fi, Sears, and Smart Rural Community

   Soon after landing my first "real" job, I made a habit of visiting Sears each weekend to buy a tool. It started with a small, wood-handle hammer (which remains my favorite), and was followed over time by screwdriver sets, pliers, clamps, and other toolbox basics. Added to what I purchased on an "as needed basis" for specific jobs (tile cutters, Jorgenson clamps, etc.), it was a relatively painless way to build a working collection over time. During those years, Sears was busy, staffed, and stocked.

A few weeks ago, I visited a Sears location to return an item that I had purchased on-line. I was surprised by how vacant the store appeared; that is best word I can find to describe it. Half-filled shelves, barren aisles, and wide-open spaces illuminated with harsh fluorescent lighting only seemed to emphasize how empty the place was.

And then last week, the Wall Street Journal published a long article describing the challenges that Sears faces with manufacturers, some of whom are demanding tighter payment terms than are offered to other retailers. Some vendors are also facing resistance trying to obtain insurance on payments for their shipments to Sears. The decline of the empire, which in its prime was the Amazon of the day (and included brokerage and financial services), has been chronicled by many writers. At this late date, it is certainly easy to point at roads not taken; resistance to respond to emerging threats; or insular tendencies at the top. But, pointing hindsight fault in others is always less useful than drawing lessons from others' experiences.

The notion of change and opportunities, those taken and not taken, is always a critical concern. Many rural areas are at a critical intersection of demographic pressures (including those rooted in population, employment, and economic factors) and technology, which if used strategically can help address various challenges.

And, in that vein, another news item caught my eye about a week ago. This article was more hopeful, and described a school district's use of wi-fi-equipped school buses. To be sure, it is not the first district to use this technology. Numerous articles have described similar efforts in other counties, and I recall a rural school superintendent mentioning similar efforts at an RUS meeting five years ago.  

There are several ways to respond to external change. One is to dig in and remain firm, hoping that conditions will change and sheer strength of will and market position will enable long-term viability. Another way is to evaluate the toolbox and determine which implements are best suited to meet evolving conditions. Rural companies that are meeting physician shortages head-on by deploying telemedicine, or those that are supporting telework initiatives are in the latter category. In coming weeks, we'll profile some of those companies, which include this year's Smart Rural Community Showcase award recipients.

NTCA members can join those latter ranks through the Smart Rural Community Collaboration Challenge, a grant program that provides matching funds for the deployment of broadband-enabled solutions to support education, health care, economic development or other local needs. The deadline for applications is December 31, 2017. Last year's grant recipients are supporting elder care and a community public wi-fi. For more application guidelines, see here.

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