Wayne Johnson lives on the farm he grew up on near the tiny town of Ray,
N.D. Born in 1925, he remembers when the house was heated by hand-dug
coal, water was hand-pumped and "roads were almost non-existent"all
at a time when "city folks had these niceties for quite some time already."
Wayne later became director of the local telephone company and
spent a career bringing quality phone service to residents of rural
North Dakota. Retired now, Wayne has experienced first-hand the
difficulties in bringing modern amenities to people in rural America.
Earlier this year, Wayne took his first computer class. Having
just started using e-mail, Wayne exemplifies the interest many ruralites
have for the latest revolutionadvanced telecommunications
and the information superhighway. In a survey by the Rural Policy
Research Institute, a significant majority of respondents in 20
rural communities in six Midwest statesincluding Minnesota
and the Dakotasconcluded that "both economic development and
key quality-of-life dimensions are seen by residents as being heavily
influenced by telecommunications technology."
There is no shortage of advocates for bringing better telecom
access to rural areas. "I believe that [advanced telecommunications
capacity] is as critical an infrastructure issue as highways and
electricity," says Bill Cobb, a former US West executive in Minnesota,
and now CEO of Infinitec Communications Inc. Based in Tulsa, Infinitec
is helping small exchange carriers in North Dakota and Minnesota
find economical ways to deliver enhanced telecom services.
Cobb noted that the Internet alone "has opened up a whole new
set of possibilities for rural America," ranging from on-line shopping
to keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives. "You cannot
be in touch with the rest of the world without communications. It
is just that simple."
Minnesota state Sen. Steve Kelley represents a suburban Minneapolis
district, but has been a leading advocate for expanding telecommunications
capacity throughout the state. "Telecom is the only force I can
see that has the potential of stabilizing or reversing the long-term
trend of the depopulation of rural areas," Sen. Kelley says, adding
that use of advanced telecom "could happen faster in rural areas
because there is such a strong desire to be fully engaged with the
world (and) to overcome isolation."
Much is already happening in rural areas. Four years ago, Blackfoot
Telephone Cooperative in Missoula, Mont., began offering Internet
service to its customers. They hoped to eventually convince 10 percent
of their customers to go on-line, but already have over 15 percent
of their customers on dial-up accounts and close to 50 percent of
school clients on dedicated Internet lines.
Now the company is getting four or five calls a month for ISDN
lines and other digital lines, according to Nina Duncan, member
services representative for Blackfoot. "Some of these customers
are moving into Montana and are able to work out of their homes
via a connectionprimarily through the Internetto remote
networks. It's exciting to see."
These and other examples of the inroads of telecommunications
into rural Ninth District communities are discussed in this issue
of the fedgazette.