E-boon in the boondocks

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Here's a commercial running on TV that always leaves me with a melancholy laugh.

The scene is a two-lane road in the middle of the desert. Two guys get out of a car. The bright young guy says to the older suit-and-tie type something like, "Here's your new business headquarters." He explains that the land is dirt cheap compared with trying to build near the city.

The suit-and-tie is shocked: "We're in the middle of nowhere!"

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"Not in the middle of nowhere," the bright young guy explains. "How'd you get here? Road, phone, Internet." As recognition sets in, the two men giggle and dance around, dollar signs spinning before their eyes.

Of course, it's not that simple. No one is locating their high-tech start-up in the middle of nowhere, and those of us who live in these struggling rural areas shouldn't expect them to come knocking anytime soon. Our high-tech industry will be homegrown, but it will need a little help to get going.

It is true that in rural areas, the land is a lot cheaper than in the sprawling suburbs of Seattle or the quickly gentrifying neighborhoods of San Francisco. Access to outdoor recreation is closer, housing is cheaper, traffic jams are unheard of.

Yet in rural counties not fortunate enough to be situated on the highway or near Seattle, unemployment is in the double digits. Washington State has the largest income gap between rural and urban counties in the nation. I live in this other Washington - the one you don't see on TV, or read about in Wired magazine.

My county once had good income from farming, logging, and fishing. These occupations are now derided in this state as "old economy" or "extractive industries." Most folks blame towns like ours for "failing to adapt" to the New Economy. In short, the rural communities have only themselves to blame.

This is nonsense.

For a decade, coastal timber and fishing communities have tried to lure new companies with tax breaks and active recruiting. They've been unable to attract high-tech or manufacturing jobs because of geographic isolation and the lack of trained workers, highways, and data infrastructure.

Workers - young and college educated - are in the city. In the high-tech world, where job transitions are high, it's nice to have a half-dozen potential employers nearby. There is also an innovative synergy that comes from being in a competitive environment.

Highways, quick access to airports and shipping centers might not be as important in the e-commerce world, but the data infrastructure - high-quality, high-speed phone, cable, and fiber-optic lines - is vital.

Companies that provide these services look at the map and don't see enough reason to improve our infrastructure or to bring these services to such "small markets." Their stock price is better served by offering more new services in cities.

Yet, I do think there is a high-tech future for these rural areas. We just can't expect outside businesses to bring it to us.

Instead, we'll see more telecommuters move in. Small Internet businesses will start up when local kids return home to settle down and raise children of their own. We'll see local businesses find ways to market and sell their products on the Web. It will be diverse and small, but that's good.

Yet none of this can happen unless the high-speed data infrastructure is in place.

To provide high-speed Internet access, private companies want tax breaks, or subsidies, to serve rural areas. Others - like the communications company US West - want freedom from state regulations on service quality at a time when complaints about the quality of service are running high.

Instead, a new twist on a 70-year-old model may hold the most promise for bringing this infrastructure to "the middle of nowhere."

It took the Rural Electrification Project to bring electric power to rural Washington in the 1930s. It was in the national interest to bring needed technology to areas that private companies were unwilling or unable to serve.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) - a public entity created to distribute the power provided by Columbia River dams during the days of rural electrification - now has a plan to provide many of those same rural communities with high-speed data infrastructure.

BPA needs a new fiber-optic network to monitor its power service, and it hopes to lease out the excess capacity on those lines to provide rural areas of Washington with high-speed Internet access. In doing so, the leases may actually pay for the fiber-optic lines, keeping power rates low for its other customers.

Rural counties in Washington (including mine) have backed BPA, saying it's the only program on the horizon that promises to bridge the so-called "digital divide" between the urban and rural Northwest.

In fact, my Internet service provider was born in those days of rural electrification. My connection to the world is provided by our local public utility district. Where commercial enterprise fears to tread, innovative efforts will allow the New Economy to grow from local rootstock.

*Ed Hunt is editor of Tidepool.org news service, and he telecommutes from his home in Grays River, Wash.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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