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Appalachian Scene: Rod Soltis: Making Connections

by Fred D. Baldwin

"At the start of class," says Geoffrey Strauss, a business education teacher at Union-Endicott High School, in Endicott, New York, "the kids talk to each other. They make friends and make dates. At basketball games, they may sit together instead of on opposing bleachers."

That all sounds ordinary enough, but the classrooms where these students are taking a college-level accounting class are located as much as 30 miles apart. The students, however, can see and talk easily to their teacher and to each other, thanks to a telecommunications network developed by the Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which itself is part of a large, interconnected series of networks operating in Appalachian New York.

Over the past few years, students in New York's Appalachian counties have taken Russian, advanced Spanish, music theory, and C++ (a computer programming language)—all courses that their own schools either cannot offer at all or cannot attract enough students to fill. The network has also given students in regular classes access to the Internet for such activities as interviewing a librarian in Ireland and a NASA scientist in Houston. After hours, some of these classrooms have provided (on a pilot basis) the opportunity for a team of doctors in Binghamton to diagnose a rural infant's physical condition, and for social workers, also in Binghamton, to conduct face-to-face interviews with rural residents.

These connections reach across two kinds of lines: geographical and institutional. It takes a unifying vision and patient work to make that happen. That the networks in Appalachian New York are both far-reaching and closely knit is attributable to initiatives begun a decade ago by the Southern Tier East Regional Planning Development Board, a local development district (LDD) based in Binghamton. And those close to the networks attribute much of their growth specifically to the vision and patient work of the LDD's former deputy director, Rod Soltis. Ironically, Soltis retired from that job last year while still in his early fifties because of problems with his physical vision. But his efforts to connect people continue.

"By definition, building a network involves a lot of people," says Harry Roesch, telecommunications advisor for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), "but Rod's role was central. His vision was a big reason that New York State is a leader in telecommunications applications for distance learning as well as for many other purposes."

The New York networks now connect organizations in all 14 of the state's Appalachian counties to each other and to state and federal counterparts outside the region. Full-motion and compressed video signals travel over phone lines equipped with high-speed switches and linked to a fiber-optics backbone or an integrated services digital network (ISDN) line. Participants include schools, local governments, social service and economic development agencies, hospitals, libraries, museums . . . the list seems to get longer every month. The private partnerships include telephone companies and cable TV operators. Soltis himself puts it like this: "First we build networks. Then we connect the networks to each other."

A native of the Binghamton area, Soltis may have inherited his knack for seeing problems as a whole from his father, who worked for IBM as a quality control analyst. "He wasn't an engineer," Soltis says, "But you put any kind of complex machine in front of my father, and he could take it apart and put it back together and tell you why it wasn't working."

In 1967 Soltis graduated with a degree in political science from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton (then Harpur College), where he later completed a master's degree in the same field. He was well on his way toward a doctorate at Suny's Graduate School of Public Affairs and a career in academia when a professor at a policy analysis shop at SUNY Binghamton suggested that he should "come over and do some real planning."

That did it for academia. Soltis started "doing nitty-gritty stuff, from zoning to whether somebody should be building a firehouse." Some of his work involved one of Southern Tier East's predecessor agencies, for which he worked on coordinating radio operations among law enforcement agencies on different bandwidths. "They'd have two cars near each other and have to climb out and yell," he recalls. The main challenge, however, was not technical but institutional—selling the advantages of cooperation and interconnection. Soltis did that so well that he was soon asked to do the same thing statewide as an employee of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

An Irresistible Challenge

That was what he was doing in August 1978 when Bob Augenstern, executive director of Southern Tier East, offered him a job—as the LDD's principal planning officer—and a challenge Soltis couldn't resist: a chance to "do something different every day of the week." Four years later Soltis became the agency's deputy director. During most of the past decade, his largest single challenge has been developing telecommunications networks in Appalachian New York.

That development accelerated in the early 1990s, when ARC and state policy makers recognized the importance of telecommunications infrastructure to economic development. Southern Tier East and its neighboring LDD, Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board, joined forces in 1992 to develop a strategic plan for telecommunications. Soltis oversaw the plan's development. In 1994 Soltis was called upon again, to coordinate and oversee the development of a telecommunications plan for the state's third Appalachian LDD, Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board. His involvement ensured a uniform telecommunications planning effort for all of Appalachian New York.

Two key concepts emerged from the plans: extensive local-area links across agency lines, and the capacity to connect easily to groups with similar interests in remote locations. Stated abstractly, that sounds like an almost obvious pair of goals. Dan Myers, a telecommunications consultant who worked closely with Soltis, explains why making it happen is difficult: "There are a lot of turf issues. Everybody has specific applications that no single technology can deliver."

The result can be something like building a railroad when everyone wants to lay different kinds of track. Even when different users need almost identical technology, they may want different billing arrangements. For example, a hospital may need two-way video for important but infrequent conferences among specialists; it will want to pay for usage by the minute. A school may need the same technology for classes offered all day long and perhaps during evenings; it will want a flat rate for unlimited service. But if the two institutions can't work out a way to gain the economies of pooled demand, neither may be able to afford anything.

Everyone agrees that Soltis was remarkably successful in bringing people to planning tables and getting them to focus on common, long-term needs. They joke about how much he likes to talk, but they add that he also knows how to listen. As a result of those meetings, the networks in Appalachian New York developed faster than those in most other locations. Roesch says that New York may be as much as five years ahead of most similar efforts in Appalachia.

Opening Doors

Rodger Oesterle, director of instructional technology for the Otsego–Northern Catskills BOCES, recalls going to Soltis for help in getting a grant and being told that he needed to collaborate with groups from other sectors. Once Oesterle did that, Soltis fought successfully for the funds.

"He provided the oversight that allowed a lot of groups to work together," Oesterle says. "He wasn't so much a gatekeeper as a door-opener." Charles W. Gabriel, a telecommunications consultant and a former marketing administrator for NYNEX (now Bell Atlantic), worked often with Soltis and describes him as "a very congenial, open-minded professional who would listen, bring back information to Southern Tier East, and use it for the advantage of economic development in the area."

"Rod is very much a people person," Augenstern adds. "We used to say that we were thinking of giving him a headset because he always had a phone in his hands. It was through Rod that we were able to work with Bell Atlantic, AT&T, GTE, and other telecoms. At his retirement we had a little bit of a roast—and gave him that headset."

Soltis took early retirement only because physicians told him that his eyesight would worsen if he stayed in a job that involved, among other stresses, much staring at computer screens. He's hardly idle, however. He limits his online time and tries to avoid night driving, but still continues to help people make connections. He currently serves on a Southern Tier committee on health, education, and human services; is a board member (and immediate past president) of the Addiction Center of Broome County; and is president of the board of the New York State Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, a nonprofit body formed to support individuals charged with protecting the rights and safety of at-risk children. Soltis is already trying to plug these nonprofit organizations into broader networks. He mentions that he's approached Bell Atlantic on behalf of the special advocates association and then adds jokingly, "I seem to be perpetually associated with people who have no money."

His one purely personal project seems to be work on a Victorian house, built sometime in the 1880s, where he's lived for 11 years. Also personal, but already a bit more than that, is a small retail crafts outlet called Whimsical Creations. Its walls and shelves are filled with artwork and crafts produced locally—watercolors, quilts, knickknacks, and thingamajigs.

The prices are so low that you realize Soltis's profit margin must be next to nothing. It turns out that Soltis knows all the craftspeople whose work he displays. He mentions their marketing problems and adds that there are many talented artists and artisans in Broome County and adjacent counties but relatively few outlets for their work.

"It bothers me that there's not more of a network out there," he says. "I think that needs to be looked at from a broader perspective." Then, almost as if to himself, he asks, "Why not?"

He continues talking, and the creation of still another network—a marketing cooperative perhaps?—begins to sound like the most rational thing in the world to do, as ordinary as giving kids a chance to talk together before class. It also begins to sound like another challenge Soltis won't be able to resist.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.