Broadband expansion and the Island of Misfit Toys
By Jessica Denson
Communications Director, Connected Nation
Louisville, Ky. (December 12, 2023) – The work taking place right now to expand broadband access to underserved and unserved areas across the country reminds me of a scene from the stop-motion classic, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Specifically, the scene involving the Island of Misfit Toys.
For those who don’t know the story, Rudolph flees Christmastown with his friend after the other reindeer tease him for his red, shiny nose. During his adventures, he happens upon the Island of Misfit Toys.
The toys stranded there include an airplane that can’t fly, a cowboy that rides an ostrich, a water pistol that shoots jelly, a scooter for Jimmy, a train with square wheels, and so on. They just don’t quite fit into your typical idea of a toy.
Labelled a misfit himself, Rudolph later returns home to use his unique gift to save the day. When he shares his story about the Island of Misfit Toys, Santa Claus promises to save the stranded and unusual toys. The thing is, in the original version that aired in 1964, he never does it. Mr. Claus just makes the promise.
It’s a bit like the State Broadband Initiative launched in 2009. There were a lot of great intentions and promises made, but the effort was disjointed and underfunded, and ultimately, many communities were left stranded on islands with no connectivity (much like the Misfit Toys).
That brings us to something interesting that happened with the classic television program — viewers loved the Misfit Toys so much that they complained about them being left behind, so a scene was added in 1965. It shows Santa stopping by the island to pick up the toys and deliver them to happy children. It’s aired that way ever since and is the version I know and remember.
So, how does that correlate to what’s taking place now? Well, in a couple of ways.
First, the federal government “added a scene” to the nation’s broadband story that was originally written in 2009. In 2022, it set aside $65 billion for broadband expansion in the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIJA) — in response to complaints during the pandemic about the lack of adequate internet connectivity.
Second, many groups working in this space could be considered – or even have been labelled – misfits. For instance, Connected Nation is a nonprofit focused on closing the Digital Divide, so it is natural for many people to narrowly define what role or roles they think we play. We have not traditionally built infrastructure, so from the outside it might seem like we don’t fit into conversations of that variety.
The important point to remember is that there are many new and exciting organizations and partnerships that can add a tremendous value to today’s broadband plans; ones that you might not have ever considered on the traditional shortlist of broadband or internet players.
That brings me to my third point – being a Misfit Toy does not mean you don’t belong, even if it’s not easy to see on the surface.
Connected Nation has more than 22 years of experience in the broadband space. That’s included helping more than 650 local communities develop Technology Action Plans; providing digital skills training and telework coaching; facilitating and guiding public-private partnerships to improve access; and working with state and federal officials to create and implement solutions to digital technology gaps.
Just this year, we announced the location of our first Connected Nation Internet Exchange Point (talk about bucking expectations); trained more than 12,000 adult learners through our newly launched Teens Teach Tech program and another 2,236 people across 21 states in digital literacy skills; led the discussion on telemedicine and paved the way for better connected schools through our Connect K-12 program and our work with the Utah Education Network (UEN); been named a Best Places to Work for the 12th time; and earned national accolades for our GIS broadband mapping efforts and for the work of our communications team.
The last two decades of experience have taught us what works, what doesn’t, and what we all can do better together.
That toy train with the square wheels or the water pistol that shoots jelly might not bring a smile to your face, but they will for someone else. The same is true for broadband planning. There is no one plan that fits all areas. We need those people and groups with “square wheels” who can identify or produce new solutions to very large and longstanding problems.
Fourth, don’t leave anyone behind. The moral of the story is that all the Misfit Toys belonged in homes where children could love and enjoy them. The same goes for giving everyone – no matter where they live or where they come from – the same opportunities and resources internet connectivity offers.
To do so, we must be nimble and recognize that partnering is critical. We have a chance to create an ending to our broadband story that leaves a lot more smiles on the faces of millions of more people.
But it takes a moment of stepping back – taking stock – and realizing that it just might mean coming together on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Everyone belongs in a Connected Nation.
About the author: Jessica Denson is the Communications Director at Connected Nation. In that role, she is responsible for overall brand strategy, which includes building program recognition through digital communications, media relations, and marketing opportunities.