Logo for Eleutian.com: based in Wyoming, training Koreans to speak English with online instruction
Image: eleutian.com

As a technology professional in rural Montana, I had thought rural broadband was all about technology. And it’s true that the infrastructure needed to support most rural communities is subpar at best. So with that thought in mind, I sat down with Frank Odasz of Lone Eagle Consulting to discuss rural broadband and e-commerce.

Odasz’s company, based in Dillon, Montana, offers a culturally diverse set of Internet training guides and online courses in e-business. Lone Eagle Consulting specializes in what Odasz calls “instructional entrepreneurship.” Resources available on the Lone Eagle website are vast and deep, with information on development, education, and technology in rural communities. Talking with this expert on rural technology education issues has changed the way I think about rural life.

For over ten years, advocates and government officials have been pushing to increase the availability of rural broadband Internet service. The Pew Foundation has estimated that, as of 2007, 47% of urban/suburban Americans had broadband Internet access at home, and 71% have some kind access to the Internet. In rural areas, the broadband percentage drops to 31%, and only 60% of all rural residents have any Internet access at all.

Frank Odasz
Frank Odasz, at Feb. 2006 ICT Summit in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo: Phillip Djwa

But Odasz stresses that the main issue with rural broadband is not lack of availability ““ it’s lack of adoption. Rural communities are failing to take advantage of the online-business opportunities that are available to them now.

Here’s one fairly typical case. “The Fort Peck Enterprise Community on the reservation up in Wolf Point “¦ got $50,000 for a community e-commerce incubator project,” Odasz said. He spent three weeks at Wolf Point holding “Train the Trainer” workshops last fall 2007. Sounds great, right? Frank continued, “Trouble is, no tribal leaders showed up, no teachers from the school, and no faculty from the college, so the ideal outcomes were hampered by the unwillingness of the leadership to hear what’s possible.”

Does it matter if rural leaders resist opportunities for change in this area?

We don’t like change in our rural communities! But change is happening, with the rising oil costs, inflation, and recession. We can’t keep everything the same, but I think that we can use broadband to keep the best things about rural life.

Consider youth outmigration. “Our greatest export is our youth,” says Odasz. “They leave because there is nothing here for them.” If we are to sustain our rural lifestyle, we need to embrace changes that will make it possible to continue living in rural areas. I believe that rural e-commerce, telecommuting, and online education have big potential, not just to benefit our communities economically but also to give our youth a means to remain in the rural setting they are accustomed to while developing career potential not otherwise possible in a rural area.

“I find this troubling,” said Odasz, “that the adult leaders “¦ are standing between the youth and their very real opportunities for a sustainable future.”

Can we make a difference in our rural communities with technology? The answer is a resounding “YES!” One instance Frank gave was www.lickitysplitchocolate.com. This website was started by Native American youth in San Juan County, Utah, where the poverty rate is over 40%. The business, though legally owned by adults, is managed and staffed by youth, the CEO being fifteen years of age. Lickety Split Chocolate shipped some 44,000 orders last month. This is what rural communities need ““ a chance for youth to be involved, to learn business skills and make money for themselves. And technology provided the medium for their business to succeed.

Frank also cited the case of www.eleutian.com. Eleutian employs the citizens of about a dozen Wyoming towns, in addition to other cities. These rural residents teach English to Korean citizens over the Internet. The technology investment was significant, but the returns are much more significant. These are only two of the success stories compiled on the Lone Eagle website. With online businesses like these, Odasz says, people “can retain their cherished rural lifestyle by enjoying the freedom of self-employment.” He also gives free online training on how best to use the resource of the Internet to bolster income in rural areas.

More than ever, it is possible to sustain our rural lifestyle by using technology to conduct business. The question is, are we willing to accept that change and educate ourselves and our youth in this new arena? In our rural mindset, change is often viewed as a negative thing. We like things just the way they are. But things are changing, whether we want them to or not. And we have this immense resource called the Internet that can keep our rural communities viable. The question is, will we be willing to take a risk and use it?

Benjamin Power lives in Dillon, Montana, and is a full-time husband and dad, full-time computer technician, and full-time student. The full text of his interview with Frank Odasz is posted on Benjamin’s blog.

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