ARC Conference Showcases Telecommunications Services
by Fred D. Baldwin
More than 250 individuals representing a broad spectrum of Appalachian organizations engaged in economic and human resource development attended the Appalachian Regional Commission's 1996 conference "Building Blocks for Using Telecommunications and Information Technology," held April 21-24 in Binghamton, New York. Cosponsored by the state of New York, which has aggressively promoted the use of telecommunications technology in education, health services delivery, and economic development, the conference signaled ARC's commitment to telecommunications development as one of three regionwide initiatives. (The other two are leadership and civic development, and internationalization of the Appalachian economy.) It was the second ARC-sponsored conference on the subject, the first having been held in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1990.
"We want to be sure that the interstate highway system of the 21st century—the 'information highway'—does not bypass Appalachia," ARC Federal Co-Chairman Jesse L. White Jr. told participants at the conference's opening session, "and, equally important, that our people know how to use it. The key to all of this will be partnerships—all levels of government, businesses, schools, and hospitals. We're all in this together."
Alexander Treadwell, New York secretary of state, welcomed the guests with a reminder that ARC has contributed $2.2 million toward 14 telecommunications infrastructure projects in the Appalachian counties of New York. "Our partnership with the ARC," Treadwell said, "has been essential to our progress." He noted that "advanced telecommunications networks are crucial to regional development and economic growth in . . . the Appalachian Region. Connecting this region to the Information Highway can foster increased opportunities for education, job training, business development, and health-care improvements."
Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Maurice D. Hinchey and Amory Houghton Jr., offered perspectives on the role of telecommunications infrastructure in economic development. Congressman Hinchey, commenting on his experience as a member of the Joint Economic Committee, stressed the importance of public and private partnerships "if rural communities are not to be left in the lurch." He praised ARC for "responding to the needs of the times" and praised NYNEX Corporation for allocating a $50 million "diffusion fund" for reaching underserved urban and rural areas of New York State.Congressman Houghton, the only former CEO of a Fortune 500 Company to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, acknowledged the cost of infrastructure but distinguished between operating expenses and investment expenses, stating that ARC has always promoted long-term investments. "This region," he said, "can be the suburb of any city in the world—Tokyo, Berlin, or London. And telecommunications will keep small rural hospitals open. They'll change character and become community centers in direct visual contact with great teaching and research hospitals."
The Do-Or-Die Issue
In his keynote address the following morning, Federal Co-Chairman White called telecommunications development a "do-or-die issue for Appalachia," and he emphasized that leadership and human development would prove even more critical than development of physical infrastructure. He quoted a 1986 report from the Commission on the Future of the South: "As technology grows more complex, it will separate even more cruelly those who are educated for good jobs and those who are not." In addition to plenary sessions, the conference included presentations focused on specific applications or issues, how-to workshops, site visits to telecommunications projects in the Binghamton area coupled with on-line demonstrations of their features, and substantial time for networking.A series of concurrent sessions organized under five headings—education and training, telemedicine, business, government, and "special issues"—provided participants with a wide range of choices. Most sessions in the first four categories featured summaries of innovative telecommunications projects from around the Region. Those in the "special issues" category dealt with a mix of topics pertaining to technology, law, and regulation. Workshops included such topics as instruction on searching the World Wide Web for information or, for the more advanced, advice on the design of Web pages. Site visits included visits to education-, health-, and planning-related telecommunications projects in the Binghamton area.
The speaker on the conference's final evening was Bob Losure, anchorman for CNN's Headline News. Losure provided a light perspective on telecommunications development. He also offered the serious prediction that television network news would survive only by increased reliance on live coverage of fast-breaking events because most other kinds of information would be accessible on demand from on-line databases. "Much of what you now see on TV," Losure said, "will be what you'll see on your home computer."
The closing plenary session of the conference featured regulatory and competing industry perspectives on the rapid pace of change in the telecommunications world. The issues addressed included the nature of competition under recent legislation, problems of providing universal access, and sources of development capital. Speakers included James McConnaughey, senior economist at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA); Mary McDermott, vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at the United States Telephone Association; Thomas E. Adams, president of the Binghamton division of Time Warner Cable; and Stephen Kohn, director of educational initiatives for NYNEX Corporation.
Throughout the conference, both speakers and participants combined optimism with a sober recognition of the magnitude of the challenge facing Appalachia. "Technology is the easy part," read one message prominently displayed on a workshop visual. Many presenters struck similar notes. "There's not only a large segment of our population that's not on-line," warned Roger Recktenwald, executive director of the Big Sandy Area Development District in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and a presenter at two sessions on business and government, "we have a large segment that doesn't have telephone access. We've got to figure out ways to serve those folks that don't have the basic access that most of us enjoy."
Networking on the Telecommunications Highway
Informal networking is an important part of any conference, and sidebar conversations seemed especially freewheeling at the ARC 1996 conference on telecommunications and information technology. During coffee breaks and after hours, many participants struggled to find metaphors to sum up their reactions.
"The Infobahn is less like a highway than a railroad," one technical consultant commented. "At first they had different gauges of track and had problems when two lines met. It took years to get standardization."
"The ARC is trying to do what the Rural Electrification Administration started in the 1930s," a cable company executive said. "Once rural America didn't have electricity. Now almost everyone does. The challenge is to get high-quality telecommunications capabilities into every home in the nation."
"We need to stop talking about highways and any centrally planned constructs," a project manager assisted. "The right metaphor is the 'information ecosystem.' People need to understand that telecommunications projects are evolving in much the same way as a living organism evolves within a physical ecosystem. We can influence the process at various points, but we can't really plan or manage all of it".
Still another participant took her metaphor for both the conference and the fast-moving telecommunications scene from a tourist attraction unique to the conference's host city. (Binghamton boasts the nation's largest collection of merry-go-rounds, originally manufactured in a nearby county.)
"It's kind of like having a carousel around," she said, "and having to decide just when to jump on."
Harry Roesch, the ARC staff member primarily responsible for planning the conference, summed up his own perspective without resort to metaphor.
"A lot of people have made a lot of connections. They're seeing things they can take back with them. That's what it's supposed to be all about."
Telecommunications Project Sampler
Topics at presentation sessions and workshops at the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) 1996 conference on telecommunications and information technology ran, if not quite from A to Z, at least from Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) switches to Web pages. But in every session, variations on one note sounded a familiar refrain: the importance of "people" issues in applying high-tech tools.
For example, listen to Andrew Cohill, director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV), describe the real world of one of the most comprehensive community-based telecommunications networks in the nation.
"People think we've all sprouted antennas on our heads," Cohill says. "That hasn't happened. In Blacksburg, attendance at physical meetings goes up when they are advertised on the Net."
For a statewide perspective, R. Kevin Grigsby, director of research and development at the Medical College of Georgia Telemedicine Center in Augusta, describes the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System (GSAMS). It's already the world's largest and most comprehensive distance-learning and health-care network, but Grigsby sees telecommunications technology as making even state boundaries less and less relevant to delivering medical services.
"The Appalachian Regional Commission," he says, "has an opportunity to do something in telemedicine that no one else has done. That's to develop projects that cross state lines."
A third speaker is Brenda Workman, information services manager for the South Carolina Appalachian Council of Governments (ACOG) in Greenville. She's talking about an impressive regional database called the Economic Development Information System (EDIS), developed by ACOG. EDIS contains information on the Appalachian portion of the state and is accessible at a World Wide Web address (http://www.acog.greenville.sc.us).
"At least 80 percent of what governments do is somehow tied to a map. If you can acquire a good database and a map, you can do a lot for a region."
These three experts represent a small sample of the diversity of perspectives offered conference participants. The projects they described were unique, but their conclusions echoed themes suggested by other presenters in other sessions.
For example, in discussing the history of the BEV, Cohill spoke about the importance of resolving differences about goals and providing for long-term economic self-sufficiency. The BEV was developed and is operated by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and now serves an area of 36,000 residents, half of whom have an Internet address at home or work. Two-thirds of local businesses advertise within the network, and approximately 2,000 businesses and individuals have their own "home pages" (address sites) on the Web. This local business participation is critical, Cohill says: "You spend most of your money within 25 miles of home. It's not different on the network."
One of the BEV's goals was to provide access to everyone in the service area; families without home computers can check their e-mail at a local library. Cohill regards free access to the Internet and Internet services at public libraries as a critical function of libraries in the future and a key way of addressing the problem of information have-nots. The BEV's emphasis has been on "life-changing" services like education and business development, not potentially profitable consumer products like movies on demand.
Cohill acknowledges that the university did not develop a revenue stream to support the BEV's long-term economic self-sufficiency, an issue "that's coming back to haunt us." The university is now one of three Internet service providers (ISPs) in Blacksburg; the addition of two new for-profit providers offers the community more options, but there's also concern that their entry may make it more difficult for the university to raise revenue.
"Every problem we've had in Blacksburg," says Cohill, "has been an educational problem, not a technology problem.
Although Cohill cheerfully admits that using a computer to make a phone call is "an unnatural act" for many people, he says that the BEV shows that almost everyone in a community will participate in telecommunications if allowed to experiment. "Things didn't click," he says, "until we brought people into a computer lab and let them do things for themselves. Let them do that, and they'll leave changed."
Crossing Distance Barriers
In a far more structured setting, the GSAMS health-care network is demonstrating that high-quality interactive telecommunications can lower distance barriers even in areas as sensitive as physician-patient conferences. GSAMS is the product of a public-private partnership between the state of Georgia and several telecommunications companies. It will eventually link teaching hospitals in Atlanta and Augusta with approximately 300 distance learning sites and 49 telemedicine centers. (Forty centers are now operational, and nine more centers are scheduled to be added by the end of 1996.)
The telemedicine centers are equipped with high-resolution, two-way video so that all parties can see each other and talk easily. These interactive video lines are supplemented by two other lines, one for sending alphanumeric data (like patient records) and the other for sending signals from a wide range of medical diagnostic instrumentation. For example, consulting physicians in Atlanta can hear exactly the same heartbeat that an examining doctor or nurse physically present at the remote center hears through a stethoscope. They can examine a skin rash under magnification or point out potentially significant aspects of an on-screen view of a tissue slide.
Grigsby notes that GSAMS fills a real need in Georgia, where 11 counties have no resident doctors and many rural counties lack important kinds of specialists, such as pediatricians. He adds that non-technical issues can be most difficult—working through reimbursement and licensure problems, for example. He thinks that ARC, by taking a regional perspective, can help break down arbitrary institutional barriers to service.
"Patients don't care about medical licensure," he says. "They care about high-quality care that's affordable."
By contrast, mapping existing political and economic boundaries is very much the business of EDIS, designed to meet the needs of local governments, utility providers, and businesses across a six-county region in upstate South Carolina.
"We are striving to be the central map and information repository for the region," says Workman.
Log onto EDIS at the Appalachian Web site, and you'll be able to see an amazing array of maps, charts, and graphs displaying physical and demographic information. Workman says that the area's successful effort to attract America's first BMW plant underscored the importance of having fast access to information for industrial prospects. The economic and demographic databases are also a godsend for proposal and report writers, and computer-based analyses accessible on-line are more likely to be adaptable for subsequent use than those existing solely between the covers of bound folders.
The EDIS system was very much a product of public and private cooperation. To make on-line access affordable, ACOG partnered with libraries and other nonprofit groups to form a coalition called AppNet, which bargains with competing Internet providers for the lowest possible price. In its first year (1995-1996), EDIS received $120,000 in ARC funds, matched by an equal amount raised locally, most of it from Duke Power, Piedmont Natural Gas, BellSouth, and the Western Carolina Regional Sewer Authority. These utilities, Workman explains, have a strong interest in the region's economic growth and in the resulting expansion of their own customer base.
"When we partnered together," Workman says, "we found we had more strengths and were able to lower our costs."
Conference Host Site Rich in On-Line Options
The local hosts for the ARC 1996 conference on telecommunications and information technology put on a good show—several of them, in fact. At intervals throughout the conference, participants could sit in on a distance learning project: teachers lecturing and fielding student questions in three classrooms linked by cable television.
"You think it was hard deciding which place to go," says Bob Augenstern, executive director of the Southern Tier East Regional Planning Development Board in Binghamton, New York. "You should have been there when we decided which sites to put on the list".
There were lots of choices. In 1992 Southern Tier East, with funds from ARC and other support from the New York Department of State, joined with the neighboring Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board to create an 11-county telecommunications planning region. A second ARC grant later supported the addition of the three-county Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board.
"Our pattern has been to start with a strong community base and then grow out," explains Rodney Soltis, the Southern Tier East deputy director and a presenter at the conference. "We begin with multisector interactive networks and expand to more sites, making connections as we go."
For example, in Schoharie County a learning network began with four schools and one vocational site. It expanded by linking to county government, rural libraries, a two-year college, and the Internet—as well as offering cable programming to private homes. Neighboring counties Otsego and Delaware developed a ten-site distance learning center.
A Consortium Is Born
These two networks are now part of a new entity called the Leatherstocking Consortium. The consortium is in the process of connecting with the Bassett Healthcare Telecommunications Network, which includes three hospitals and 19 outreach clinics. The consortium is also exploring the use of mobile teleconferencing units to assist local government and businesses with training programs.
ARC funds for these projects total nearly $750,000. Other key participants include the New York department of State, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and several local telephone service providers. Thanks to the work already done, the Appalachian Southern Tier counties will be well positioned to take the fullest possible advantage of these resources.
For example, Soltis mentions still another network, this one called Luminet. It's grown from a three-site pilot in Tioga County to 20 sites in both Broome and Tioga Counties. It links 15 school districts, a medical center, two institutions of higher education, WSKG public television station, and the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton. ARC has invested approximately $380,000 in this network.
"The Luminet board is looking to add ten more sites from government, health, and business in the near future," Soltis says. "And there'll be a fiber linkage with the Leatherstocking Consortium sites. That's it in a nutshell. First we build networks. Then we connect the networks to each other."
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.