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Conference Report: Telecommunications and the Future of Appalachian Communities

by Fred D. Baldwin

Photo Gallery
photo of ARC Federal Co-Chair Anne B. Pope and Sta

"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:

  1. needs assessment;
  2. infrastructure, whether fiber or wireless;
  3. general education and training; and
  4. 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."

Concurrent Sessions

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.

Economic Development
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; 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, 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
Presenter: Kenneth R. Gibson, Pickens County E-911 Coordinator, Alabama
The Pickens County E-911 system uses geographic information system mapping, computer-aided dispatching, and a wireless data network system for mobile data terminals to provide comprehensive emergency services to the residents of Pickens County. The E-911 system, which involved the installation of equipment in the county 911 center to assist in pinpointing the locations of emergencies reported by wireless phone, also includes incident reporting and mapping for mobile data terminals in law enforcement vehicles.

Using a Database to Improve Efficiency and Access to Information
Presenter: Bill Benson, Lee County Chancery Clerk, Mississippi
The Three Rivers records management project involved the scanning of land transactions records into a searchable database. The project, which began as a means of reducing storage costs and allowing better access to records, has resulted in increased efficiency and faster access to information for court proceedings and land management transactions. In addition, it is expected to aid in economic development planning and will play a role in the implementation of a geographic information system for the county.

Offering Technical Assistance for Technology Projects
Presenter: James L. Baker, Chief, Information Technologies Group, SEDA–Council of Governments, Pennsylvania
The Hands-On Technical Assistance program offers technical assistance to local governments and others with the planning, purchasing, implementation, and support of technology projects. Run by Pennsylvania's SEDA–Council of Governments, the program's emphasis is on helping local officials implement technology projects with short timelines in ways that make the best use of available resources.

Saving Court Costs through Videoconferencing
Presenters: Kit Thornton, Deputy Director of Technology; and Fletcher Adkins, Director of Support Services, West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals
West Virginia's Courtroom of the Future program allows defendants and witnesses to appear before court magistrates through videoconferencing rather than in person, resulting in substantial savings in transportation costs. Defendants from 53 counties and witnesses from as far away as Singapore have used the system, which involved the installation of equipment at 72 locations in the state.

Business Development and E-Commerce

Helping Organizations Do Business on the Web
Presenter: Kimberly Foster, Director, Georgia Appalachian Development Center, North Georgia College and State University
The Georgia Appalachian Development Center (GADC) offers training and support for businesses, community development agencies, and tourism associations in a 16-county area of northeastern Georgia. GADC's Internet and e-commerce courses, which include instruction on how to build and post a Web site, as well as how to set up online "shopping carts" and credit card pro- cessing, have already helped more than 150 organizations in the area create a presence on the Web.

Providing High-Speed Internet Access for Rural Businesses
Presenter: Bobby Tuck, President, Tuck Engineering, Big Stone Gap, Virginia
The LENOWISCO Rural Area Network, a 14-mile all-IP network deployed by the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission, is bringing high-speed, low-cost Internet access to communities in Lee, Wise, and Scott Counties, as well as the city of Norton. The first business to benefit from the network was Tuck Engineering, an aerial photography, surveying, and digital mapping company in Big Stone Gap that needed high-speed Internet access for work efficiency. The Rural Area Network will enable the company to send online data transmissions to customers up to 1,000 times faster than it could before.

Using a Web-Based Portal to Deliver Business Assistance
Presenter: Karen Ostroskie, Entrepreneurial Network Initiative Regional Coordinator, Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance
The Team PA Entrepreneurial Network is an interactive Web-based portal that delivers targeted business services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to both new and experienced entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs submit requests for assistance online at and are assigned a "navigator," who contacts them within 48 hours to discuss their needs in detail. The navigator then uses the network's database to compile a list of appropriate business service providers who can provide advice and information to the entrepreneur. The network, whose goal is to increase the survival rate of small businesses in the region, is administered by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance and the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission.


Linking Communities with Health Professionals
Presenter: Karen S. Rheuban, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics; Medical Director, Office of Telemedicine; and Associate Dean for External Affairs and Continuing Medical Education, University of Virginia Health System
The University of Virginia Telemedicine Network is a 45-site telehealth network that connects community hospitals, rural clinics, a rural school system, and numerous state correctional facilities with health professionals at the University of Virginia Health System. Services offered include telemedicine facilitated clinical consultations, remote diagnosis, teleradiology (the transmission of diagnostic-quality radiographic images) and interactive distance learning programs. Run by the University of Virginia Office of Telemedicine, the network has supported more than 5,500 consultations and broadcast thousands of hours of health professional and patient education.

Providing Better Access to Care for Children in Underserved Communities
Presenters: Cheryl B. Kerr, M.D., Medical Director, Binghamton Pediatric Center, and Regional Telemedicine Director; and Lawrence P. Kerr, M.D., United Medical Associates and Plastic Surgeons of the Southern Tier, New York
United Health Services' Virtual Pediatric Center program will set up 11 telemedicine sites in medically underserved communities in upstate New York to provide better access to diagnosis and care for the region's children. The program will also promote the collaboration, training, and retention of medical professionals in these communities.

Improving Child Advocacy Outreach through Telemedicine Networks
Presenter: Deborah Burton, Senior Telemedicine Associate, Kentucky TeleCare/University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center
The Child Advocacy Outreach program expanded the number of trained medical and mental health professionals working with sexually abused children in rural Kentucky through case conferencing and continuing education programs via the Kentucky TeleCare, state mental health, and Appalachian Regional Healthcare telemedicine networks. The program is run by the Children's Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass.

Distance Learning

Providing a Clearinghouse for Educational Opportunities
Presenter: Nancy Ragias, Regional Coordinator, Ohio Learning Network
The mission of the Ohio Learning Network (OLN) is to raise educational attainment for all Ohioans by expanding access to learning opportunities, assisting colleges and universities in their capacity to use technology in education, supporting leading-edge activities, and facilitating partnerships and collaborations. In support of that mission, the OLN provides access to e-learning and to services supporting e-learners through its Web site,, which functions as a clearinghouse for information on educational opportunities and programs for both teachers and students.

Promoting Excellence in Education and Economic Development
Presenter: Kathy Bilbrey, President and CEO, ExCEED, Tennessee
Excellence in Community Education and Economic Development (ExCEED) was created in 1992 to develop a five-county fiber optic telecommunications network for the purpose of creating centers of learning in local communities. The network has evolved into an infrastructure that blends old and new technologies to deliver multiple "real-time" services to Tennessee students in six public school systems, a community college, and a university. At the ExCEED sites, students can see, hear, and converse with one another as instruction takes place. Each site has Internet access and is part of the statewide ConnecTen network.

Expanding Learning Opportunities through Videoconferencing
Presenter: Mark Roseveare, Director of Distance Learning, Spartanburg Technical College, South Carolina
The Cherokee Link program uses videoconferencing technology to bring Spartanburg Technical College classes to high school students at the Cherokee Technology Center in rural Cherokee County, South Carolina. Distance-learning classrooms built at the technology center and technical college allow students in grades 10 to 12 to take college-level courses for high school and college credit and are also available for community business and workforce training needs.

Providing an Alternative Educational Option for Students
Presenters: Craig Closser, Superintendent; and Bonnie DiNapoli, Director of Technology and Regional Services, Jefferson County Educational Service Center, Ohio
The Virtual Learning Academy was founded by the Jefferson County Educational Service Center as an e-learning option to meet the educational needs of students and to bolster school districts' student and financial bases. The academy currently provides a complete portfolio of online academic courses for grades 5 through 12 and in the fall of 2004 will expand to include grades 3 and 4. The current and projected courses include all subjects required for graduation, and the academy enables students to earn high school diplomas from their home school districts. Over a two-year period the project has reached 1,632 students across Ohio.

Providing Two-Way Video for Educational and Criminal Justice Systems
Presenter: James T. Merk, Ed.D., Director of Information Technology, J.F. Ingram State Technical College, Alabama
The Elmore County Telecommunication Project (Phase Two) serves postsecondary career and technical education needs in the county by providing broadcast-quality, full motion two-way video to the three campuses of J.F. Ingram State Technical College and to the Elmore County courthouse and jail. When complete, the project will provide connectivity with five county high schools. The project will also allow the criminal justice system in Elmore County to conduct criminal proceedings without incurring transportation costs.

Workforce Development

Teaching Digital Video Production through a Work-Based Program
Presenters: Sue Matthews, Technology Education Instructor; Kenny Summers, Senior; and Crystal Cleveland, Junior, Elbert County Comprehensive High School, Georgia
Students at Elbert County Comprehensive High School can develop a career-focused program of study including work-based as well as school-based components through the county's Digital Video Production Program, which teaches academic and technical skills related to digital video editing. The work-based component of the program is designed to apply the skills developed in the lab to a real work environment; students' work airs on the local community cable channel.

Technology-Based Training in Rural North Carolina
Presenter: Patrick N. Woodie, Executive Director, New River Community Partners; Executive Director, Blue Ridge Business Development Center; and Alleghany County Commissioner, North Carolina
North Carolina's e-NC Business and Technology Telecenters are multi-purpose technology, business, training, and public-access centers whose mission is to strengthen and grow the economy and create new income, educational, and civic opportunities for businesses and communities in rural North Carolina. Training services at the centers include a diverse range of programs delivered in collaboration with local schools, colleges, and universities, and tailored to the client's needs.

Web-Based Solutions for Workforce Development in the Wood Industry
Presenter: Mike Gallogly, Technology Coordinator, West Virginia Wood Technology Center
The West Virginia Wood Technology Center has created a "classroom of the future" to provide workforce training and distance learning for West Virginia's wood products industry. The center's distance learning delivery systems include videoconferencing and a Web-enabled DVD training solution that combines interactive content with employee performance tracking.

Helping Rural Communities Compete in the Knowledge Economy
Presenter: William F. Sams, Chairman of the Board of Governors, Information Technology Alliance of Appalachian Ohio
To succeed in the knowledge economy, communities need to develop new approaches to creating value, developing skills, and marketing talents beyond their regions. The Information Technology Alliance of Appalachian Ohio is a regional IT development organization that is using telecommunications technologies to develop a skilled workforce and attract high-value work to communities in its 22-county service area.

E-Tourism and Arts and Crafts

Promoting Arts and Crafts Tourism Online
Presenters: Connie McColley, Director; and Pam Corey, Program Co-Coordinator, Central Appalachian Arts and Crafts Cooperative, West Virginia
The Central Appalachian Arts and Crafts Cooperative is in the final stages of creating an online guide to craft shops and art galleries throughout West Virginia. The site will include maps locating arts- and crafts-related businesses in each of eight regions of the state, along with addresses and contact information for each of the businesses. The guide will be fully operational by the end of 2003 and can be found at

Creating an Online Directory of Arts and Crafts Resources
Presenter: Donna Sue Groves, Southern Ohio Field Coordinator, Appalachian Arts Program, Ohio Arts Council
The Ohio Arts Council's Appalachian Arts Program serves artists, arts organizations, and the citizens of Ohio's 29 Appalachian counties, as well as urban Appalachians living in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton. The program's new directory of Appalachian arts and crafts resources, an online searchable database that contains contact infor- mation for artists and art organizations in the Appalachian Ohio region, will serve as a comprehensive resource for those who are looking for artists to perform, sell, demonstrate, or exhibit at festivals and other community venues.

Marketing Travel and Tourism Opportunities Online
Presenter: Linda Basye, Board Member, Ohio's Appalachian Country
Ohio's Appalachian Country, whose members include visitors' bureaus, economic development agencies, county commissioners, and tourism-related entities, is a partner in developing a tourism component for the economic development Web portal The tourism site, whose goal is to promote travel and tourism opportunities in the 29 counties of Appalachian Ohio, will serve as a central resource for tourism information. The site will offer information on events, tours, attractions, artists, and tourism-related businesses in the region.

Community Networks

Providing Access and Education through a Community Network
Presenter: Suzanne Foust, Executive Director, Keystone Community Network, Pennsylvania
The Keystone Community Network (KCnet) is a nonprofit corporation created in 1995 to provide Internet-related services to residents of rural Clinton County, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas. KCnet's services to 5,000 residents include Internet access, both dial-up and broadband; domain hosting; custom Web site design; and computer repair. A major thrust of the KCnet program is education, including free and low-cost computer and Internet training.

Meeting the Telecommunications Infrastructure Challenge
Presenter: Jeffrey Blank, Senior Network Engineer, Allconet, Maryland
Allegany County, Maryland's Allconet is a unique four-government partnership created in 1996 to meet the challenge of bringing telecommunications infrastructure to the county's schools, government agencies, and residents. Allconet today provides reliable access to a wide range of telecommunication technologies; its accomplishments include building a countywide wireless intranet, providing network services to state agencies, and providing service to the county's nonprofit community. The four Allconet partners are the Allegany County Library System, the Allegany County Board of Education, the county commissioners, and the City of Cumberland.

Creating a Cyber Community
Presenter: Candace Vancko, Ph.D., President, State University of New York–Delhi
The Delhi Cyber Community program will use a wireless canopy system to provide Internet access to schools, local government offices, a community library, a senior citizen's center, the Catskill e-Center, and the SUNY Delhi campus in rural Delaware County, New York. The project's goals include stimulating economic development by attracting high-tech businesses and bringing connectivity to local government.