Monday, September 04, 2000

Town slowly warms to Internet

By Anick Jesdanun
The Associated Press

        GLASGOW, Ky. — Because of a few visionaries, this small town in Kentucky's countryside had a half-decade head start on almost every other rural community in America.

        Back in 1994, Glasgow had hard-wired, high-speed Internet access — 50 times the dial-up speed most of us have even now. It was cutting-edge online power. It could make things like videoconferencing commonplace. It could encourage workers to telecommute or let students take classes from home.

        And it could be a sign of savvy, drawing digital indus try to a town that touted itself on welcome signs as “”

        But little of that happened.

        Farming — tobacco, dairy and cattle — remains central to the local economy, along with manufacturing. Glasgow, pop. 14,062, produces auto parts galore, among other products. There has been no high-tech economic boom.

        And that troubles the visionaries.

        “It's like we've got John Elway as quarterback of the high school football team, but he's sitting on the bench,” Web designer Brian Dale said.

        It's not that Glasgow residents don't take advantage of the Internet. They use the high-speed links to do what others everywhere do: e-mail, shopping, surfing the Web.

        Are they wired to the past, as local Net aficionados complain? Or does change simply come at a more gradual pace in a rural area, like slow-curing tobacco and slow-munching cows?

        “Glasgow is a small community, and we may not move as fast as some places,” said Bill Dearman of the local Chamber of Commerce.

        Said Andy Carvin, who runs an e-mail discussion group from Washington, D.C., on equalizing access: “Just because you put technology in place doesn't mean people have the skills to use it suc cessfully. If you lack skills and content, access doesn't add up to much.”

        Billy Ray, who runs Glasgow's Internet service, issues a warning to the dozens of towns looking to follow its lead.

        “Some of them think ... just by dragging a reel of fiber-optic cable to town, the high-tech companies will come,” he said. “This is only an element of a well-planned, well-operated community. It's not going to heal all your ills.”

        Mr. Ray was one of the visionaries about a decade ago.

        The Glasgow Electric Plant Board he runs first explored wiring for controlling electric meters, a concept that proved too advanced for that time.

        In the late 1980s, the board decided to wire the town anyway, for cable TV, and figured a bit later it could also move Internet traffic without spending much more. Internet researchers from MCI had approached Mr. Ray when they learned of the town's cable TV wiring.

        So in 1994, Glasgow became one of only a few towns in the country where cable customers received high-speed online access along with 54 TV channels, all for about $40 a month.

        In the late '90s, when “much wealthier neighborhoods and more lucrative municipalities started hearing about high-speed, we'd already had it for years,” Mr. Ray said proudly.

        Municipal officials are still leading the way locally in using tomorrow's technology.

        The city uses high-speed wiring to control a dozen sets of traffic lights along U.S. 31E. Its agencies share computerized maps online to coordinate utility repairs and plot school bus routes. And soon, the town may fulfill its original vision of monitoring 7,000 electric meters and automatically shutting off water heaters during peak de mand. Tests began this summer.

        While most rural communities still live with slower Internet connections — and some only recently got log-on access without placing a long-distance call — a few small towns are beginning to follow Glasgow's example.

        In Harlan, Iowa, pop. 5,128, and Barbourville, Ky., pop. 3,973, local utilities have put in high-speed links. Norfolk, Neb., pop. 23,476, is soliciting customers and finding money to prod private companies to lay wiring. Fort Morgan, Colo., pop. 10,049, arranged state grants to buy new equipment and subsidize high-speed service for five years.

        Why? “Technology is the future whether you're talking about farming and ranching or manufacturing,” said Cathy Shull, executive director of the Fort Morgan Area Chamber of Commerce.

        Nancy Stark of the National Center for Small Communities in Washington, D.C., warns that if rural towns don't act, they risk falling further behind increasingly wired metro areas.

        Wiring, however, is just a first step, as Glasgow has learned.

        Two-thirds of businesses and a quarter of households pay for fast connections. Most hooked up in the last year or two, when the Internet was already a household word elsewhere.

        In a town where “party line” telephones are a recent memory for some, the idea of instant communication with New York or Berlin “is still a good stretch,” said Benny Lile, technology director for Barren County Schools.

        A handful of businesses have caught on to the opportunity of using the technology to reach more customers — around the world and across the street.

        The Record Rack can quickly order the CD that walk-in customer Ann Stewart wants to give her husband — and through its Web site, it has taken online orders from as far away as Honduras.

        John Walbert of Walbert Trucking goes online to find customers across the country who ship auto parts and other goods. Larger shippers wouldn't even bother dealing with him if he weren't wired, he said.

        Commonwealth Broadcasting, based in Glasgow, now moves advertising spots via the Internet to its 30 radio stations. High-speed access prompted owner Steve Newberry to expand to six more communities nearby. “It's a powerful tool,” he said.

        Last spring, pharmacist Robert Oliver began refilling orders over the Net for a $1.95 delivery fee.

        Attorney H. Jefferson Herbert Jr. would love to replace court hearings with Internet video conferencing, but colleagues in other towns have limited access or little experience with the technology.

        Some locals greet the high-tech opportunities with skepticism.

        Doctors still share X-rays online in a limited way. Citing security, they still favor keeping patients' records on paper.

        Real estate agent Willa Taylor prefers property listings on paper. “It can fit at your desk, and it doesn't take so much time,” said Ms. Taylor, who has sold property for 48 years.

        Her colleague Todd Thornton lauds the online version as cheaper and faster. But he couldn't get colleagues to drop the monthly booklets, which cost the town's agents $5,000 a year.

        At the Mary Wood Weldon Memorial Library, many patrons at first avoided the six free high-speed terminals. But librarian Jim Hyatt found ways of hooking them, turning skeptics into advocates one by one.

        He drew one woman in by showing her quilting patterns on the Net. He persuaded others by downloading tax forms last April.

        Very soon, he said, they ask, “What else can that thing do?”


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