EDITOR’S NOTE: The second Highland Gigabit Challenge, a high-speed information and tech-focused competition, kicks off later this year in Highland. The Illinois Business Journal is among the Challenge sponsors.
IBJ: Last year’s inaugural Gigabit Challenge focused on a business plan competition. How many entrants were there?
Peck: We received more than 20 submissions with some coming from as coming from as far away as India and Africa thanks to coverage by some global tech blogs.
IBJ: The whole premise of the competition is to attract to Highland businesses able to take advantage of the city’s locally owned, affordable, gigabit-level internet service. It seems like you’re unique in that regard.
Peck: Exactly right. Highland is the only Gigabit City in the state of Illinois and the St. Louis metro area. It’s amazing that in 2008, Highland’s leaders had the foresight to know this level of service was something that was going to be important to retain and attract businesses and importantly, jobs. As a local provider, Highland is able to provide an exceptional level of customer service. Our leaders looked at what was going to be cutting edge and what was going to serve the needs of the future. The Highland Gigabit Challenge aims to continue this spirit of being on the cutting edge, which has led us down a different path for this year’s Challenge. Our focus this year will be developing talent to best utilize the exceptional service we offer.
IBJ: How is that service going so far?
Peck: Very well. The ‘take rate’, or the amount of customers subscribed in a given area, is 40 percent in most areas and growing.
IBJ: On to the competition, can you describe it?
Peck: This year’s competition will complement our efforts on developing workforce development programs for computer programmers/coders and other IT related positions. Programs like Launchcode (www.launchcode.org) have changed the perception that one must have a college degree in order to get an IT job. Companies like Yahoo and Google are now using employee recruitment techniques like hackathons in order to find qualified talent. As the traditional pathways to success shift, we must consider alternative ways to develop our own workforce to meet the job demands of the expanding the tech sector.
To stay pace with these changes, the Highland Gigabit Challenge will be taking a new approach this year. We will direct the challenge to those with an interest in coding and programming. This version of the challenge will begin with introductory coding classes starting this fall, and culminate in a Hackathon. The winners of this iteration of the Highland Gigabit Challenge will be awarded a cash prize, as well as the opportunity to gain and showcase tech skills. We plan to announce the 2015 Challenge details in August.
We see this as a great opportunity to prepare workers for the careers that are in great demand in the 21st century economy.
IBJ: What does the city get in return?
Peck: A highly skilled workforce that will help our community compete in the future. This contest helps to demonstrate our community’s gigabit capabilities, our progressive thinking in workforce development, and our receptiveness to high-tech businesses. We want Highland to be recognized as a valued resource for skilled programmers and IT professionals who are ready to contribute to their employer’s bottom line and our region’s economy.
IBJ: What’s driving all the interest in this subject?
Peck: It is about building a more viable community. Having the capability to collect, storage, analyze, and utilize digital information is very important in almost every industry sector, including manufacturing, construction, healthcare, media, and logistics. For cities like Highland to compete in the global economy, we need the infrastructure – both physical and human – to allow our private sector employers, public institutions, and health-care providers to survive and thrive. It is critical that we address these social, business and economic needs for our community now in order to best position Highland for the future.
IBJ: A lot of this is the potential of it all, but what’s been the actual gain for Highland?
Peck: The city’s investment in gigabit infrastructure has helped retain businesses, including a database company dependent on our reliable high speed internet. The city has received significant attention through its investment and holding the 2014 Challenge. Recently an individual purchased a home and moved his family to the community after seeing a billboard on Highway 70 that said, ‘Highland, Your Gigabit City.’ He’s a mobile app developer and he decided that Highland would be a perfect for his business and family. In addition, the three winners of the 2014 Gigabit Challenge have operations here. Highland’s advanced technology is helping to create jobs and make our city an even better place to live.
IBJ: Do you see Highland Gigabit Challenge being an annual competition, or will it run its course and come to an end?
Peck: For as long as it makes sense for our community and Challenge sponsors, we’ll continue the competition. Highland is a very progressive community and it is important for us to stay on the cutting edge of economic and workforce development.