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Small communities caught in slow Web High-speed Internet connections make the difference as rural areas strive to overcome remoteness, revive economies in information age

The Town of Grove in northeastern Allegany County has the Swain Ski Center, a population of 530 and a town hall that once was a one-room schoolhouse.

But Grove doesn't have cable TV, cell phone service or broadband Internet, forcing Supervisor Mike Johnsen and others to rely on slow dial-up connections or spotty but expensive satellite coverage.

Over in Alfred Station, also in Allegany County, Bicycle Man Pete Stull has broadband -- and a Web site that draws customers from the other side of the globe to his shop to buy recumbent bicycles.

"The Web meant that we can reach out past our local market and grow our business in our specialty, so we can stock a really deep selection of bikes and draw people from a ridiculous distance," said Stull, surrounded by bikes parked on the floor and hanging from the ceiling.

Johnsen and Stull both live in small, rural towns. But one has a reliable, high-speed Internet connection, and the other doesn't.

They are part of a growing digital divide between those with access to
cutting-edge technology and those without, a gap that cuts along demographic, economic and geographic lines.

Experts say rural communities will struggle to grow and adapt economically if they don't have trusty, cheap access to high-speed Internet.

"The old paradigm for economic development was sewer and water. And telephone. And electricity," said Bill Daly, administrative director and chief executive officer of the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency. "Now, in the last 20 years, the additional feature is broadband access."

Community officials and residents maintain that, with the technology infrastructure, small and rural towns have a place in the digital age.

"When you have access to the Internet, it doesn't matter where you're located, as we've seen from overseas," said Curtis W. Crandall, chairman of the Allegany County Legislature. "You can compete just as well here in Allegany County as you could any place in the world."

>Disparities in service

People who live in rural communities -- Allegany County has just a few thousand more people than West Seneca -- are less likely to have high-speed Internet access.

About 38 percent of rural residents have broadband access at home, compared with 60 percent of suburban residents and 57 percent of city residents, according to a survey taken this year by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

A dial-up link over a standard phone line operates at a top speed of 56 kilobits per second, far more slowly than current broadband connections offering speeds of 50 megabits per second or more.

In the Southern Tier, larger communities and college towns generally have good coverage.

But the most rural corners of the region often don't have reliable high-speed Internet access from Time Warner Cable, Verizon or other carriers.

Broadband, a key tool for staying informed about the world, is transforming business, health care and education, Johnsen and others said.

Northeastern Allegany County is losing many family farms, once the backbone of the local economy, as farmers retire or pass away, Johnsen said.

He says he hopes high-tech companies will replace those farms, but that will be possible only with broadband and other infrastructure.

"That's why this is critical for us. This is not a case of simply surfing the Internet. This is a major issue for rural communities," Johnsen said.

In the modern economy, employees often don't have to work in the same office, city or country as their co-workers.

Small towns can position themselves as an ideal home for telecommuters, with the promise of good schools, cheap land, a slow pace of life and other benefits of rural life, said Gary O. Roberts, Alfred University's head of information technology services, who used the term "rural sourcing."

Peter von Stackelberg, who telecommutes to a Washington, D.C., company from his home in Alfred, calls wireless broadband his "lifeline to the world."

He is a "futurist" for Social Technologies, a company that seeks to predict trends.

On a Web conference call several months ago, von Stackelberg said he asked an information technology question of someone in the Dallas area, who got the answer from India.

"I was literally around the planet in terms of who I was working with. And to do that 10 years ago would have been science fiction. And in some parts of Allegany County and the Southern Tier, it still is science fiction. But it doesn't need to be," von Stackelberg said.

Stull, Alfred Station's Bicycle Man, had a small, loyal customer base before getting help setting up a Web site in 1995.

Stull's site, www.bicycleman.com, now gets visitors from all over the world. One day, a customer from Ohio came in the shop. The next customer came from Chicago.

"The next customer stepped up to the door, opened the door and stepped in and said, 'G'day, mate,' " Stull said. "And he'd just got here from Australia."

That customer from Down Under has bought five of Stull's bicycles over the years, and his shop's business is up sevenfold from the pre-Internet days.

High-speed Internet isn't a utility, exactly, like electricity, water and telephone service.

But, just as government once supported the expansion of telephone service and rural mail delivery to every corner of the country, advocates say it now must provide subsidies or tax breaks for broadband.

>Cost limits growth

Private carriers aren't doing it on their own because they doubt they would recoup their investment in sparsely populated areas, officials said.

This country, as a whole, is falling behind other nations in high-speed Internet, and critics fault the lack of a national broadband policy.

Since 2001, the United States has slipped to 15th out of 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in broadband adoption.

The top countries -- Japan, South Korea and Sweden -- made broadband a top national priority, offered financial incentives, encouraged competition among carriers and promoted digital literacy and access to home computers, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reported.

In rural areas, the "last mile" to a customer -- often the costliest and most difficult part of a connection -- can use a range of technologies: fiber optic lines, standard copper wires and wireless or cellular networks.

"There's plenty of options in how to do rural delivery," said Steve Macho, assistant professor of technology at Buffalo State College.

Locally, a group of officials is working with the Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board to expand broadband coverage. The board soon will begin drawing a map of wired broadband coverage in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, said Richard Zink, its assistant director.

The board has received a $613,000 state grant intended to bring broadband to northeastern Allegany County, though the current economic crisis threatens those funds.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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