Developing information technology in a small town takes drives and vision
(Daybreak, by Christina West, b. Owosso, Michigan, now a resident of Alfred, NY)

Photo: Julie Ardery

Scenario # 1

The mayor of Littletown looks out her office window. The sun is shining but she is gloomy. Main Street has a trench where a contractor is laying telecommunications fiber. Why is the mayor gloomy? Despite her repeated pleadings, the company will not install switching equipment so that her village can access the fiber. Littletown is too small to serve, she has been told firmly.

Scenario # 2

It’s evening at a small-town football stadium. Leaves glow in the crisp air as the sun sets. Everyone is there for the big game. The immaculate field has a new track around it, the best in the region. The stadium lights are brand new. Community donations financed this facility. Meanwhile, some teachers, students, and parents complain that the school’s information technology (IT) capabilities cannot possibly prepare students for today’s workplace.

Of the innovations in the last decades of the twentieth century, word processing and the World Wide Web are changing my life in ways I’m still trying to grasp. When it comes to research and writing, it just doesn’t get any better. I have drunk deeply from the e-cup of knowledge and it is heady stuff.

“Praise Google and pass the information” are the fervent prayers of Web users. That is, unless you live in one of the many rural areas with low-grade (or no) internet service. There, the prayer is for someone to toss you a line, any line ““ even two tin cans with a string ““ to get connected.

Our two rural scenes highlight problems of this new age. In #1, a village wants high-quality service but cannot get it. It can’t locate an exit or entrance ramp to the information highway.

In Scenario #2, townspeople spent a lot on athletics instead of technology education, which ““ whether folks know it or not or like it or not ““ is mandatory for students today. People might argue that voluntary contributors funded the stadium upgrades, and classroom computers aren’t their concern. But a small town’s funds are limited. In the name of athletic glory, donors are choosing not to fund the technology necessary for their children’s (and the town’s) future . In many rural districts a major school tax increase is off the table. Properties have likely not been reassessed for 10 or 20 or over 30 years, and the school board has voted only miniscule tax increases in recent memory.

Where’s the vision?

In Scene # 1, the telecommunications company doesn’t see itself as a public utility chartered by the state and federal governments to provide high-quality communications services to all citizens. Shareholders are the firm’s main concern, not rural and small-town consumers who face geographic discrimination.

Granted the firms’ right to a reasonable profit, companies still have an obligation to serve all customers fairly. Advocates of telecommunications deregulation promised us improved technology and services. They did not say “for some.” So, we have a supply side problem. Short-sighted leadership and the obligation for commonwealth collide.

Scenario #2 reveals a lack of community vision. Unfortunately, local leaders have ignored or failed to grasp IT’s impacts and importance to the community’s survival. The town may already be weathering youth out-migration, fewer farmers, and the loss of factory jobs in the fluid global economy. The economy has probably declined, along with the quality of schools and other services. Times are tough. But opportunities are there. It is a matter of understanding, creating, and seizing opportunities instead of doing things the way they have always been done.

So, we have a problem on the demand side, too. Insular leadership and the status quo collide with forces for change. Local rural leaders need to push for broadband capacity and the hottest classroom technology available to build demand. Unfortunately, many communities resist change, even as it swamps them. This is bad news. The message is clear: Adapt or wither.

computer quilt

System Overload Version 1.6: Psychedelic
Photo: cvlquilts

Historic similarities between today’s struggles over building communications networks and conflicts of the past, over building railroads, highways, telephone systems, and electric power grids are fascinating. Today’s development is burdened with the same problems: economies of scale, unfair markets, unequal ownership of capital and resources, unequal political power, resistance to change, and failure to recognize opportunities.

National systems built to move people, power, goods, and information fostered inequalities based on social class, race, geography, and other factors. On the other hand, they helped meet important needs. They usually involved public-private partnerships, with widespread education about the need for change.

Just as communities died when bypassed by railroads or highways, so it will be with the information highway. Savvy rural communities will get connected on their own, with help from government or, if they are lucky, from a telecommunications firm that is willing to build business off the beaten path.

Communities that consciously choose survival are resourceful and stubborn. They plan and build a vision for IT. They overcome their fears about limited resources and seeming powerlessness to demand telecommunications policy and information highway services to support their needs. Survival is more than petitioning government, although government regulation and incentives can guide markets toward addressing inequities. Rural communities need to be entrepreneurial and, if necessary, do for themselves what companies and government agencies will not do.

Governments can build partnerships and subsidize failed markets where no one wants to compete. But government cannot replace corporate responsibility. Telecommunications companies serve the public good by helping information to flow freely, an absolute necessity. So much for the supply side.

On the demand side, government and telecommunications companies can spur consumer learning and community demand by providing demonstrations, equipment, and technical assistance, educating citizens and community leaders about IT. It is in their own best interest to do this, as electric cooperatives have shown by helping their members conserve energy.

Schools also are central to this process whether or not they have community support. IT education requires setting priorities to do the best for students and improve their prospects for the futures.

IT is a future that is already here, creating problems and offering opportunities. Rural communities with a thirst to build a future would do well to do everything in their power to get the best access to the information highway possible. The cup of knowledge is a tonic for survival in the information age.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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