The information dirt road

  Instead of booms and busts brought on by fluctuating demand for everything from gold to coal, rural areas believed that the information age would bring economic stability as educated information workers moved to small communities. No longer would small towns be turned into ghost towns when the ore gave out or commodity prices plunged.

So rural areas supported deregulation of telecommunications as a way to break up monopolies and bring in new technology. Former Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota suggested that the century-long depopulation of rural areas would at last be reversed by the information age.

Rural areas got what they wanted when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. But here's what a rural proponent of that law is saying only a year later:

"Rural areas are more threatened today ... because the specific regulations needed to implement the legislation have so badly missed the mark, leaving the needs of rural America sidelined while huge corporations vie for position in the metropolitan profit centers."

That assessment is in The Information Dirt Road, a report by Club 20, an organization which represents local governments and businesses in the rural western third of Colorado.

It lays some blame on Congress for creating a timetable in the 1996 act that introduced competition before a fund was set up to guarantee universal service. But Club 20 aims most of its fire at the Federal Communications Commission for ignoring the need to subsidize rural areas with profits made in urban centers, and at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, for not moving to balance urban and rural interests within the state.

The 25-page report says that besides encouraging the merger of already large corporations into behemoths, the new rules encourage firms entering a new area to lease lines from an existing company at very low rates rather than build new facilities. The cheap lease rates, Club 20's Greg Walcher says, mean that firms won't introduce new services into rural areas because they won't be able to recover their investments. And that, Walcher says, could mean that rural areas will see their telecommunications decline rather than improve over the next decade.

The Information Dirt Road fears that telecommunications will evolve the same way air service evolved: A few big companies will come to dominate the industry, providing cheap flights between metropolitan areas, but saddling rural areas with expensive, sporadic, monopolistic service. As an example, it says that western Colorado has commercial air service to 10 airports, yet no flights connect any of those airports to each other.

The report is available without charge from Club 20, Box 550, Grand Junction, CO 81501-0550; 970/242-3264; e-mail: [email protected]

*Ed Marston
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