Five years ago, Watford City in western North Dakota was rooting
around for some bootstraps by which to pull itself up.
Forget about today's high energy prices. Just those few short
years ago, the energy sector was in the tank and this energy-producing
region of the state was feeling it. Combined with a reeling farm
economy in the area, the city was "really declining" and dotted
with boarded-up buildings, according to Gene Veeder, executive director
of the McKenzie County Job Development Authority.
A city of 1,700 and seat of McKenzie County, Watford City is easily
the biggest town in a sprawling county with a total population of
just 6,000. The closest "big city" is Bismarck, more than
two hours away. Like countless other small towns throughout North
Dakota and the Midwest, it looked to be on the wrong side of the
About this time, however, the city found its bootstraps in the
form of telecommunications. "The idea was bridging the distance
with telecom. ... That was our challenge," Veeder said. He
and local school district officials embarked on an initiative "trying
to get just [Internet] dial-up access" to town. An inquiry
to the local phone company, US West, got him nowhere. "US West
was not delivering what we needed."
Soon enough, the county and electric cooperative got involved,
and before long the effort brought an expensive, high-speed T-1
line to the high school. A wireless component was later added to
the system to give the elementary school and government offices
high-speed Internet access.
Seeing both an opportunity and a community need, McKenzie Electric
Cooperative and Consolidated Telecom out of Dickinson, N.D., partnered
to start up a telecom provider in Watford City. The new entity,
McKenzie Consolidated Telecom, then overbuilt the existing telephone
network to compete directly with the local phone companywhich
was now Citizens Communications after the company purchased the
local exchange from US West.
In May of this year, Watford City completed its transformation
from telecom backwater to the leading edge when McKenzie started
offering high-speed digital subscriber lines (DSL), and currently
has 50 subscribers, according to a company official. The move has
nudged Citizens to roll out DSL as well, Veeder said, and by Christmas
the small city will have two DSL providers. "We're pretty far
ahead of most North Dakota communities."
To many, Watford City is a perfect example of the potential that
telecommunicationsparticularly high-speed Internet access,
otherwise referred to as broadbandholds for small, isolated
cities. "The benefits have been countless," Veeder said.
"It hasn't solved all of our problems. But we've taken that larger
[distance] obstacle away."
One example is a small software company in town that provides support
for state government systems in Bismarck. "That would not be
possible without broadband," Veeder said. The city has also recruited
a mapping firm and a telemarketing firm based on the city's telecom
capacity. "I can go to a company and tell them, 'You don't
have to give up [transmission] speed to come here.'"
Almost every rural community frets about being left off the telecommunications
bandwagon, and would like to replicate Watford City's experience.
Because high-speed Internet access is considered critical to economic
growth in cities large and small, policymakers are concerned about
the so-called digital divide, and many assume the gap is widest
in small markets and rural areas. At a July conference on rural
economic development, a representative of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's
administration said there was an "urgent need to close the
digital divide in Minnesota." But the existence of a digital
divide might not be as obvious as some believe. Evidence suggests
that deployment of broadband even in rural areas has been fairly
rapid and, in many cases, access is better than in urban areas.
What's more, policymakers' insistence that "something be done"
to help bridge the divide in rural areas overlooks a substantial
web of assistance already in place to grease the telecommunications
wheels in smaller communities.