Ronald A. Wirtz - Contributing Writer
Published April 1, 1999 | April 1999 issue
Anyone who thinks that the Internet-led frenzy of advanced telecommunications is passing by small cities and towns in rural America should think again: Two Ninth District communities are evidence to the contrary.
Marshall, a city of about 18,000 in southwest Minnesota, arguably has as much high-speed capacity as any city in the northern Great Plains. One state over, Mayville, N.D., is showing that very small cities also have a role in an information economy.
"Marshall strongly felt that telecommunications was vital for the economic growth of the community," says John DeCramer, vice president of engineering for BH Electronics in Marshall. "We needed to be part of the 'superhighway' and be on the main drag and not a side street."
The city is now being wired for high-speed access by Bresnan Communication (a subsidiary of AT&T). But it did not come without a struggle. "We did not have a sugar daddy that was going to fund the whole system," DeCramer says.
Instead, leaders from the city, business community, school district, county and university banded together to form the PrairieNet Consortium in 1996. Along with forming a broad public-private partnership, the goal of the organization was to aggressively deal with "how we could become more competitive in making sure that we had the latest technology," according to Chuck Myrbach, director of research and institutional grants at Southwest State University in Marshall.
A total of 14 organizations pay dues to PrairieNet, which acts as a community think tank for technology needs and investment for the community. It has no paid staff, but the discussion of its members who represent virtually every sector of the community have "captured the ears and eyes of our telecommunication providers," says Steve O'Connor, director of instruction for Marshall Public Schools.
A little imaginative leveraging hasn't hurt either. Originally, Bresnan told Marshall officials that it was too small of an area to get high-speed telecommunications service, according to DeCramer. The municipal utility then offered to provide telecom services through a fiber loop it had installed around the city for one of the city's large employers.
Marshall's home charter gave it the authority to grant a charter amendment so the municipal utility could provide data communication along with water and power. Within about a month, DeCramer says, Bresnan announced that they planned on installing the first Bresnan link system in Minnesota "and Marshal was the test site."
Shortly thereafter Dakota Telecommunications Group (DTG) came to town looking to install its own infrastructure to provide cable TV, data and dial tone services to Marshall customers. The city granted DTG a cable franchise, a move that Bresnan is now fighting in the courts.
Most businesses and residences in the city either have or will soon receive access to high-speed lines. Southwest State University received cable modem technology in every one of its resident hall rooms all at no cost to the university and has state-of-the-art technology throughout the campus. The community recently passed a referendum for additional computer labs in local schools, and for technology that allows parents to access their child's grades, attendance and other school-related information.
This city in eastern North Dakota represents much of the promise that advanced telecommunications holds for all rural small towns.
"For a community of less than 3,000 people [Mayville and nearby Portland combined], we have more access to technology and potential for growth than most rural communities," says Jay Henrickson, president of the Mayville-Portland Economic Development Corp., and director of cooperative education at Mayville State University.
Internet access is widely available through T1 links. Local health care facilities are practicing telemedicine, and K-12 schools are participating in a regional consortium of schools to offer additional coursework through interactive video conferencing.
The Mayville business sector is also seeing high-tech growth, boasting a business that builds and services computers and networks, and an Internet solutions company heavily involved with e-commerce on a regional and national basis. These companies are tapping into students trained at nearby Mayville State University, which was the fourth university in the nation to issue laptop computers to all students.
Because of its forward-moving initiatives, Mayville has been chosen as a pilot site for the Centers of Excellence in Rural America (CERA), which is helping small towns enhance their telecommunications capacity. Mayville officials hope to develop a technology center that would house high-tech business, provide training and offer a range of high-tech business solutions, Henrickson says.
"Locally, there is a lot of interest in and support of technology as a means to build our economy," Henrickson says.
Once again, a well-timed partnership, though less formal than Marshall's, was key to getting everything started. According to Henrickson, Mayville State was finalizing its plan to become a notebook campus at about the time that ComMark (the Internet solutions company) was getting started. All the while, an ad hoc technology group was spearheading a successful drive to provide the entire community with dial-up Internet access.
But it takes more than good timing to make progress toward better technology in rural areas. Along with persistence, "It takes money to put the tools in place," Henrickson says. "Capital is still our biggest barrier to creating the high-tech jobs we want in our community."
High-tech infrastructure might be available, Henrickson says, "but the cost of accessing it is very prohibitive because of the low number of potential users." He adds that venture capital rarely looks beyond urban borders, and economic development and financial institutions have trouble understanding how to finance intellectual property "because it lacks something tangible to collateralize."
But small communities have proven time and again that they are resilient. Both Mayville and Marshall have gotten their foot firmly in the door to the new economy through proactive community planning and focused partnerships. In doing so, both cities have telecom service that is the envy of many.
"Some may think of us as techno-freaks or nerds," says John DeCramer of Marshall. "But if so, thanks for the compliment."