HARD-PRESSED rural regions are exploring ways of diversifying their economic base. For some, new technologies are compensating for one major disadvantage: distance from traditional manufacturing and commercial centers.
West Virginia is harnessing a new fiber-optics grid across parts of the state that puts high-speed data transmission and other capabilities within reach of a local work force.
"This brings the jobs here, where the workers are," says Roberta Fowlkes, a vice president of C&P Telephone. Ordinarily, residents would have to commute to Washington, D.C., or to neighboring Virginia, to perform similar work. They are employed by companies based out of state, but they avoid a daily 75 to 100 mile trek.
A fiber-optic network permits technology-dependent firms in areas not otherwise feasible as business sites to utilize voice, data, and image transmission.
Senators Conrad Burns (R) of Montana and Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee, and representatives Rick Boucher (D) of Virginia and Mike Oxley (R) of Ohio, are supporting legislation that would encourage phone companies to build a nationwide fiber-optic "highway."
The legislation would remove regulations that prohibit phone companies from providing television services. Lucrative TV services would provide the financial incentive for phone companies to build the fiber-optic networks.
Keypunch and data entry jobs handled today in rural sections are rote functions. In a new wave made possible by fiber optics, even managerial jobs will be handled from afar. Pictures, video, voice, or text can be transmitted as pulses of light at the rate of a billion bits of data per second.
"Catalysts for new technologies already available would certainly let coworkers share ideas rapidly," says Milton Grodsky, director of the Center for the Study of Management and Organizations at University of Maryland University College.
"Telecommunications is not a panacea," says Aliceann Wohlbruck, executive director of the National Association of Development Organizations, "but it can change the equation in years ahead." Other innovations help rural areas
Sam Morgan, executive director of the Congressional Rural Caucus, says that small towns are identifying a multitude of specific business opportunities. He cites one new extension service project that offers continuous updates on price information for a variety of products. "This advanced technology speeds up commercial decisions, which in itself saves jobs," he notes.
In the rural Midwest, the advent of digital phone systems this year by companies such as Ameri-tech, overcomes other drawbacks.
"Digital's greater capacity and reception will induce businesses to reconsider communities off the loop," according to Linda Garcia, who directed a study on rural telecommunications for the Office of Technology Assessment in Washington, D. C.
Other rural areas are using different innovations. At Wichita State University, a technology transfer program for small-sized manufacturers installed a system for electronic transmission of computer-aided design information, vital in shaving costs, improving quality, and preventing the migration of those jobs offshore.
Yet even with new technology, better integration of existing rural aid programs is sought. "We're finally trying to take a comprehensive outlook," says Norman Reed, deputy director for a presidential commission examining these issues. "People from housing, highways, social services, education, and the rest are starting to talk to each other."
Rep. A. Michael Espey (D) of Mississippi is a rural activist who advocates funds for microenterprises unable to obtain capital. Rep. Glenn English (D) of Oklahoma says that a database at the newly formed Rural Development Administration is a boon to cash-strapped economic agencies. "With a PC, you can find case studies on almost any idea, see if it can work, how, and why."