Conference Report: Telecommunications and the Future of Appalachian Communities
by Fred D. BaldwinPhoto Gallery
"Lighting up cable" is a term engineers use when a fiber-optics telecommunications network is ready for active traffic. At the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) conference Telecommunications and the Future of Appalachian Communities, held October 15–16, 2003, in Abingdon, Virginia, more than 250 attendees came away with ideas for "lighting up" Appalachia.
The conference, which was hosted by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, featured regional leaders and technical experts describing multiple ways to use fiber optics and other high-bandwidth technologies to connect the Region's businesses, public services, and people to each other and to the world. Their unanimous conclusion: creating the necessary networks will require imagination, innovation, and leadership, as well as major financial investments.
Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner, ARC's 2003 states' co-chair, placed the conference agenda within Appalachia's historic problem of internal communications barriers and its isolation from the nation's economic mainstream. "This region is usually at the end of the line in getting broadband services," he said. "If we're left behind one more time, the Region's ability to compete and keep young people at home will disappear."
Warner suggested an extensive agenda for private enterprise, public agencies, and public-private partnerships. Based on the governor's own private-sector experience in raising venture capital for telecommunications and promoting improvements in public education and workforce training, the agenda included the need for new sources of early-stage capital for promising ideas and new initiatives in education and job training. Warner also offered a number of specific proposals to minimize the costs to taxpayers of infrastructure investment such as laying conduit for cable whenever a state road is built.
Warner's central message, however, was that neither the technology nor the programs are as important as vision. "Telecommunications is simply a tool," he concluded. "It won't win us any jobs alone. Not having it can preclude us from getting jobs because we won't even be in the running. And without the belief that we can be competitive with anyone, anywhere in the world, our ability to compete will be seriously reduced."
ARC Federal Co-Chair Anne B. Pope offered a similar vision and reminded conference participants of the Appalachian Development Highway System's role in reducing the Region's isolation. Today, she said, "Information technology will do more for the Region than anything else we can do. It's a real leveler [of barriers to commerce]. It will convince people to put and keep their businesses here."
Pope outlined four priorities for telecommunications development:
- needs assessment;
- infrastructure, whether fiber or wireless;
- general education and training; and
- developing the technical skills needed to sustain growth.
She also announced that ARC will partner with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in expanding telecommunications and high-speed Internet availability across Appalachia. ARC and the FCC will cooperate in identifying distressed areas in the Region where low-income households qualify for FCC programs to promote Internet connectivity, such as Lifeline Assistance and Link-Up America.
Edward Kennedy, president of North American operations and executive vice president at communications infrastructure builder Tellabs, was the conference keynote speaker. He opened his remarks with a sobering assessment of the difficulty of inducing private capital to invest in communications infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. "There's a rural catch-22 in Appalachia," Kennedy warned. "Because there's no demand, there's no investment. And with no investment, [there'll be] no demand."
Kennedy's suggestions for breaking this impasse fell into three main categories: human capital, infrastructure, and social change. From an economic development perspective, he outlined how telecommunications increase productivity, improve access to business intelligence, and connect sellers and buyers in a global marketplace. As a social-change agent, Kennedy said, telecommunications can increase participation in community affairs, enrich educational opportunities, and generally improve quality of life by making more choices available to ordinary people.
"Now is the time to catch the next wave," Kennedy concluded. "We're on the verge of creating a telecommunications capability that will allow children to learn, patients to heal, and businesses to grow."
Four breakout sessions offered conference attendees more detailed assessments of the potential of information technology, as well as suggestions for exploiting that potential. Panelists spoke on the following issues: economic development; e-commerce models and applications; networking in community development strategies; and resources and tools. A few highlights follow.
David M. Houle, e-commerce program manager at the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, described the value of regional telecommunications partnerships. He warned against getting locked into any vendor's proprietary system, however good. The choice of tools, he emphasized, should always be secondary to the larger goal of maintaining compatibility with networks in neighboring communities and counties. "Information technology has moved the competition from the county next door to the continent next door," Houle said.
A regional partnership helped Danville, Virginia, go far beyond the county next door—or even the continent next door—to recruit a new employer. Todd Yeatts, Danville's director of legislative and public affairs, described how Essel Propack, whose headquarters are in Mumbai, India, was persuaded to open a plant in Danville. The plant, which makes tubes for toothpaste and cosmetics, became the community's first new industry since 1994.
Yeatts said Danville's recruiting team spent six to eight hours on Internet research on the firm's business plans. "Our proposal," he said, "reflected not just what we had to offer but where we knew Essel Propack wanted to go." A key component of the successful package was access to specialized training at a local community college made possible in part through access to a broadband regional network. Yeatts added that it's sound policy to include even tiny towns within a comprehensive telecommunications network—not because of any immediate financial or technical contributions they can make to a partnership, but because their inclusion is important to their economic health, and the ability to offer residents broadband access enhances quality of life throughout an area, making the area as a whole more attractive to outside firms.
He added that public and private groups in Appalachian Virginia are acting on Governor Warner's reminder that modest incremental investments in infrastructure can save time and money later. "Every single time a gas main is dug up for replacement," Yeatts said, "a conduit for fiber goes in. Every time a road goes in, conduit is laid. It's a lot easier to put the fiber in the conduit later than to dig up a road again."
E-Commerce Models and Applications
Ricardo Studart, president of Synesis International, a Greenville, South Carolina, systems integration company, said that innovations like XML ("extensible markup language . . . a kind of Velcro for different computer systems") give local businesses many options. For example, small firms can invisibly outsource some back-office functions (like filling orders) to giants like Amazon.com; at the same time, they can maintain their small-town storefront image with their customers. Most of Studart's presentation focused on less obvious opportunities for small firms to link into the supply chains of large manufacturers.
Other speakers offered suggestions on improving business connectivity on a shoestring budget. William C. Winter, chairman of the Virginia Electronic Commerce Technology Center, described the development of "electronic business villages," which are informal associations of businesses and organizations using e-commerce techniques and technologies to promote economic progress within their service areas. Firms participating in one of the older e-business villages report 1,000 new jobs and over $20 million in cost savings.
Mike Hernon, president of the Hemingway Group, a Washington, D.C., IT consulting firm, reminded his audience that 90 percent of e-commerce transactions are business-to-business (B2B), not business-to-consumer. "Whether you're a large, medium, or small enterprise," Hernon warned, "or even a mom-and-pop operation, your competitors are already using e-commerce. You either have to rise to the challenge or you go out of business." He offered examples of how firms in rural areas with inadequate broadband service could compensate—either through establishing links with open systems like Amazon.com, by leasing Web server capacity from an urban provider, or by partnering with others who share interests (e.g., in promoting tourism).
Networking in Community Development Strategies
Sean Boles, senior development specialist for the city of LaGrange, Georgia, walked attendees through a complex series of agreements by which the city and a private firm reached a win-win arrangement. After buying the physical assets of a high-bandwidth cable network, the city covered debt service and other costs by leasing channels back to the business enterprise from which the network had been purchased, which in turn profited from selling entertainment and news. Benefits to the city include online access to governmental and educational resources and free email for every LaGrange resident.
In 2000, the World Teleport Association, an international business trade organization, designated LaGrange (population 27,000) as the "Intelligent City of the Year," ahead of several far larger American and foreign finalists. "We beat out Rio and London," Boles said. "Pretty tall cotton for a little city in Georgia."
Other panelists were equally upbeat. Matthew D. Bennett, policy director for the Alliance for Public Technology, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., captured the tone of the community development session and the conference as a whole. "What is the 'killer app' [for a broadband network]?" Bennett asked rhetorically. "I don't think there is one 'killer app.' If I'm a physician or a patient, it may be telemedicine. If I'm a teacher, it may be something in education. You can use a network for anything you want."
Resources and Tools
While other panelists were describing how to cope with resource limitations, Hilda Legg, administrator of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), was urging conference attendees not to accept inadequate broadband facilities for any longer than necessary. "Keep your access standards high," she said. "Why should we lower the bar? Why should we 'settle'?"
Legg described a wide range of RUS loans and grants for telecommunications. For example, in fiscal year 2003, RUS provided over $660 million for telecommunications infrastructure loans, and it expects to provide a similar amount in 2004. A broadband access program (loans and loan guarantees) for construction or modernization of telecommunications facilities grew to $1.4 billion in 2003, and RUS expects something over $330 million in additional funds for 2004. Finally, Community Connect, a competitive grant program, is earmarked for the nation's most rural and economically challenged communities to provide free public access to "critical" infrastructure (for example, schools, libraries, and other public services). So far, Legg says, Appalachian states have received over $9 million in such grants—about 30 percent of the national total.
Each speaker cited vision, planning, and creativity as being more important than money. John Higgins, representing the Center for Information Technology Enterprise (CITE) in Bowling Green, Kentucky, described several local governments' use of real-time, open "reverse auctions" instead of sealed bids as a strategy for lowering procurement costs. "It really starts with a compelling strategy," Higgins said. "We [at CITE] say, 'Think big. Start small. Scale fast.' "
The afternoon featured presentations on 25 "best practices"—examples of successful projects undertaken by communities in the areas of e-government, telemedicine, business development and e-commerce, distance learning, workforce development, e-tourism and arts and crafts, and community networks. (See Concurrent Sessions: Best Practices below)
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Concurrent Sessions: Best Practices
Using Technology to Speed Emergency Response Times
Using a Database to Improve Efficiency and Access to Information
Offering Technical Assistance for Technology Projects
Saving Court Costs through Videoconferencing
Business Development and E-Commerce
Helping Organizations Do Business on the Web
Providing High-Speed Internet Access for Rural Businesses
Using a Web-Based Portal to Deliver Business Assistance
Linking Communities with Health Professionals
Providing Better Access to Care for Children in Underserved Communities
Improving Child Advocacy Outreach through Telemedicine Networks
Providing a Clearinghouse for Educational Opportunities
Promoting Excellence in Education and Economic Development
Expanding Learning Opportunities through Videoconferencing
Providing an Alternative Educational Option for Students
Providing Two-Way Video for Educational and Criminal Justice Systems
Teaching Digital Video Production through a Work-Based Program
Technology-Based Training in Rural North Carolina
Web-Based Solutions for Workforce Development in the Wood Industry
Helping Rural Communities Compete in the Knowledge Economy
E-Tourism and Arts and Crafts
Promoting Arts and Crafts Tourism Online
Creating an Online Directory of Arts and Crafts Resources
Marketing Travel and Tourism Opportunities Online
Providing Access and Education through a Community Network
Meeting the Telecommunications Infrastructure Challenge
Creating a Cyber Community