Imperial, Nebraska. Population: 1,900. March 28, 2001
Last summer the G8 group of industrialized nations met in Okinawa and issued a paper announcing the formation of a digital opportunity task force. The dot force, as it has come to be called, is made up of governments, businesses, non-profits, some international organizations like the World Bank and United Nations, and representatives from some developing countries such as Egypt, Bolivia, and China. The goal is to come up with an action plan to help address the inequities in connectivity, training, access to networked computers, new media, and the Internet. These inequities are usually expressed imprecisely as a "North-South" problem or on a country by country basis, or on a urban-rural axis. On closer inspection we find the categories to be imprecise and with many exceptions. The inequities exist everywhere: between countries, within countries, down to the most basic level: the family. There are parts of Silicon Valley that do not have connectivity choices as good as those in some capitals in developing countries. There has always been a need here in the United States for better connectivity in what I call developing counties. These are primarily rural which is a word with many definitions. In short, these are places that are distant from large towns and have low population density. Generally, they have fewer options for services including telecommunications. Through the support of foundations, government programs, and assistance from local businesses and non-profits, many local entrepreneurs have overcome some of the barrriers and have instituted very creative projects. While the conditions for success in an American rural county are different than in many countries, these projects can serve as models to rural initiatives in other states and other continents. I have taken solutions from projects in Ecuador, Paraguay, and South Africa, and have seen how useful they could be here in the United States. This is definitely not one way, even if the news media and many position papers frame it as a developing country problem with a solution from an industrialized country.
The dot force has been using face-to-face meetings, mailing lists, and solicitation of papers from many different parties including non-profits, telecommunication and computer firms, and interested individuals who work in this area and are willing to share their own experiences. South Americans are submitting ideas, Indians are touting some of their new technologies, and multinational firms are urging the adoption of their own products as part of the answer. Some of those who express disfavor with the focus on networks and computers point to the need to solve more basic problems revolving around issues of land, health, race, education, and overall poverty.
By the summer of 2001 a report will be issued by the dot force at a meeting of the G8 in Genoa. There will be recommendations for further action that may be backed by a rough consensus among the parties or perhaps even a centralized clearinghouse of activity and funds that may usher in a new wave of projects around the world. This whole issue gained prominance as the Internet bubble was expanding in 1999 and early 2000, and with the downturn in most technology stocks, the willingness on the part of the leading companies to commit resources to this at the same time they are laying off workers may influence the tone and substance of the report. Not only are companies and governments affected, so too are foundations whose annual giving is tied to the value of their assets, much of which is in stock. They, too, may cut back on plans made during times of high growth and boundless optimism. The need is still there.
I had originally planned to write a detailed report on the inner machinations of this dot force because I know some of the people from Japan, United Kingdom, the U.S., France, and Canada, and the World Bank. There has not been very much coverage in the news, in journals, or online. However, there are some good Web sites for those of you with inclination to read mail archives and drafts of committee white papers.
The article was going to be a flyover at 1000 meters above the forest of dot force activity, but after a recent experience at ground level I decided to focus on one special project that could provide a piece of the solution in other countries
I'm writing this in Imperial, Nebraska, a part of the country known as the Heartland, a very evocative word that vaguely describes a region (Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska and some of the surrounding states) and also includes ideals of solid values, pioneer spirit, a certain stability that is lacking on either coast of our country. After the Indian wars of the 19th century and the spread of the railroad, many of these towns were settled in the 19th century as part of a business strategy for the railroads to sell land and eventually provide passengers and commodities to move over the rails. Historian Robert Manley has lectured on the influence of the railroad and the mixed blessing of the technological waves that have swept over this state. The railroad now carries only freight, and the Interstate highways and airlines carry the passengers. Even though most people in these states are not farmers, the heartland is certainly certainly associated with farming. Farmers here grow corn, popcorn, wheat, oats, hay, and there are feedlots where large numbers of cattle are fattened for the market. Due to the success of farming in the past and the availability of irigation water, this area is relatively prosperous.
Nebraska landscape, the Heartland.
I have been visiting small towns around the United States to collect stories of a technology grant program sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. MIRA (Managing Information with Rural America) began in 1997 and finished in 2000. Twelve clusters of truly grass roots groups took part, including one in southwest Nebraska that linked up young people with adults for several different projects where there was an innovative use of information technology. Steve Smith, an entrepreneur in Imperial, Nebraska, read about the Kellogg program in an Omaha, Nebraska, newspaper and applied on behalf of EIII, Inc., a community support group, that was run by him and his wife Jennifer.
Population in most of these towns is declining. The results of the most recent census are just being released, and this area saw a decline of 10 to 15% at a time when other parts of the country were growing rapidly. Older people are moving back to some of these small towns, and many young people are leaving. In the towns I visited most of the high school seniors were going away to college and did not see a future in their home towns unless they married a farmer or could telecommute. However, a town or county needs good telecommunications if it is going to attract telecommuters or businesses that rely on fast links with home offices and other clients. As in most places the larger telephone companies do not find it profitable to provide rural areas with the advanced services offered in urban areas. Here in the United States there is a Universal Service Fund to subsidize small rural telcos and coops that provide services to towns such as Imperial and outlying areas. This is a government policy that says city users should pay a little more and have that money used to lower costs of rural areas. Some groups lobby for the continuation of this and others use scare tactics to bring about the end of this fund "Did you know you are paying for Harrison Ford's telephone?", implying that the subsidies that benefit a rural area are being exploited by wealthy Hollywood stars who have ranches in the West.
Another program is the Rural Utilties Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This used to be called the Rural Electrificaton Agency and it helped bring electricity to rural farms in the 1950's. More recently it has provided some low interest loans and grants for telecommunications projects. In 1996, Smith had started a home business to provide dialup Internet access to neighbors and others in the small town. He also worked on the MIRA project, and he realized the social benefits for a faster communications network for his ISP subscribers. He drew up a plan called RARE, Rural Area's Right to Equal Access, and submitted it to the RUS in 1999.
The heart of the plan was the use of radios and special antennas to connect townspeople and farmers living outside of Imperial with the high speed line running to home office. The T1 connection runs at 1.56 million bits per second over copper and fiber optic land lines. Using unlicensed public radio spectrum in the 2.4 GHz range, the commercial radios and antennas can link up the remote sites to Smith's office at a nominal 11 megabits per second. In reality the speeds were closer to 4 megabits per second or several times faster than the link to the external Internet. Many large companies offering DSL, satellite, and cable modem services over the past few years have promised too much. When users saturated the network or were unable to lower their expectations (much of the time in reaction to the marketing propaganda of the companies), there was, shall we say, great disappointment. This resulted in angry user groups, class action suits, and migration to other firms promising more speed, stablity or responsiveness. The customers in Imperial were not very demanding (yet). Most of them had been using dialup modems that peaked at 50 kilobits per second. One high school girl, not a Chase 3000 customer, from a farm in the general area said she could only connect at 1,200 bits per second because of the quality of her phone system.
Jennifer Smith is the writer and publisher in the family. The newsletter for Chase 3000 that introduced the high speed network to existing subscribers included somewhat conservative estimates about the speeds that subscribers would enjoy. The newsletter served to explain the benefits of wireless, explain the subsidized pricing, and outline some of the educational opportunities available to those with high speed connections. Wireless connections are not magic, and in some cases they have been oversold by advocates in both industrialized countries and developing countries. However, they can offer a low cost alternative to other options, assuming that government regulations will permit the use of such networks. In some countries the old phone company, fearing competition, influences the government regulators or legislators to prohibit or impede the adoption of such services. In other places, where regulations are on the books but are not enforced, the entrepreneur can offer any kind of service. Users should exercise caution when assessing the nature of the risk in subscribing to a new service. The reputation of the company and its ability to have timely support for the wireless equipment is much more of a challenge in rural Zambia or Paraguay than it is in Nebraska. Steve Smith attributes part of his success to the fact that everyone knew him, and he had a good track record running the dialup ISP which he claims is one of the smallest in the nation.
The grant was for $350,000 and was matched by Chase 3000 and the Smith's non-profit, EIII. It would provide 400 high-speed connections and funds for 225 new computers for those who had old equipment or had never owned a computer. Users were asked to pay approximately 25% of the cost of the gear, and 25 low income homes received $1,600 in equipment for $120. Part of the money will be used for a community technology center set up in the Imperial Senior Center which will have ten computers, a scanner, digital projector, and popular software. The center plans to charge $2 per hour but with the first ten minutes free. However, Smith wants to complete all the wireless installations before setting up the technology center.
Businesses were not permitted to obtain the discounted equpment, but they can pay full price and then the standard monthly fee of $25 for the high speed connection. Smith was careful to explain that material downloaded from the Chase 3000 server would transfer very quickly, but for files and Web pages from the Internet, he did not promise more than 128 kbps. In reality, people are getting much faster access, and as in large towns the time between 4 PM and 8 PM are the most congested. In rural Nebraska that's a relative term. Smith had observed a modest amount of Napster activity, but after their losses in court to the recording industry and the subsequent restrictions imposed on the company, Smith has seen a 30% decline in such traffic over the past few weeks in March 2001. He hopes that interest will grow in online learning and that his subscribers will realize they have the tools to take part in remote, self-paced classes.
High atop the coop grain elevator in the center of Imperial I could see the antenna. There were also relays atop the courthouse and water tower. In exchange for the antenna location Smith gave the coop, water company, and city free service. He also set up similar systems in Grant, Champion, and Wauneta, Nebraska, and in Holyoke, Colorado. The antennas need to be connected by line of sight. In the high plains you can have 30 miles (50 km) line of sight, but some of these towns were further, and relay locations were scouted out as they expanded their network. Smith's assistant is nineteen year old Aaron Greene, also their next door neighbor. When Greene was in high school he approached Steve and asked to dig a trench between their houses so that he could have access to Smith's T1 line. Later, he began doing odd jobs for Chase 3000, and now he works full time.
Antennas must be aligned carefully and when there are two or more on one antenna mast they must have a certain amount of separation. At a relay point between Holyoke and Imperial they were experiencing packet loss, and this slowed down the throughput for subscribers in Holyoke. Smith asked me, "Are you afraid of heights?" I said no, and he invited me to accompany him on the installation of some new equipment at grain storage bins on the border between Colorado and Nebraska. We drove for half an hour past abandoned farms, working farms, and feed lots and finally pulled off the two lane blacktop at a line of grain elevators. I estimated they were 150 feet (50 meters) high. We pulled up to the office, walked across a truck scale to a tiny elevator the size of a coffin. Grains of corn that had fallen off the trucks lay scattered on the pavement. Steve grabbed some amplifiers, cable, and other hardware and we crammed ourselves into the metal box and ascended above the plains in about a minute.
What a view! The air was cold and breezy, but the sun was out and I could see Kansas as well as Nebraska and Colorado. We moved along a metal catwalk that stretched across the top of each bin. Conveyor belts sheathed in metal ran parallel to the walkway. Another met the main one at a junction where Greene was adjusting part of the new antenna mount. I took a few photos and then helped them tie down the coax cable that ran from one antenna to another 50 yards away. The wind and weather can be very severe on the High Plains, but today was perfect for this kind of repair work. I imagined the problems of restoring service during a snow storm or even in a windy Spring rain. How this network holds up as time passes, and the equpment ages will determine just how profitable a venture can be for a small entrepreneur like Smith. I had other appointments with MIRA participants in nearby towns, and as I drove off I could still see them high over the plains, securing the new antenna to a mast.
Restoring connectivity near the Nebraska-Colorado border
The Smiths are good examples of the kinds of entrepreneurs needed in rural America. They know the area, are well versed in both business skills and social issues, and most importantly, they are trusted to keep their word. This is why they have an edge over large telephone and telecommunications companies which have very mixed reputations in many rural areas.
The Smiths are not alone in offering wireless Internet services, but they have one of the programs that has penetrated in the community to a greater degree than almost any other. There is a mailing list with very heavy traffic for people involved in wireless ISP service, and the members use it as a collaborative problem-solving and product evaluation exchange for this very new field of community wireless systems. Readers interested in a general introduction to the topic can download the Texas State Library guide written in 1999.
Wireless ISP mailing list archives:
Digital Opportunity Task Force:
Managing Information in Rural America:
Wireless Community Networks, a guide from the Texas State Library and Archives:
About the Author
Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He is currently a GLOCOM fellow; the Center for Global Communications is a self-funding, non-profit research institute affiliated with the International University of Japan. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.
Paper received 20 April 2001; accepted 23 April 2001.
Copyright ©2001, First Monday
Letter from Nebraska: Wiring the World by Steve Cisler
First Monday, volume 6, number 5 (May 2001),