Missouri Fast-Tracks Rural Networks

There has been much discussion in the past two years over who can and cannot afford access to the wonders of the World Wide Web, but officials in Missouri are focusing on "have-nots" of a different breed: residents of townships and counties traditionally considered too small to attract attention from commercial Internet providers.

Enter Missouri Express. In 1996 the governor and state legislature approved a one-time capital expense of $6 million to create nonprofit, noncommercial community information networks (CINs) throughout the state. So far, some 23 networks have been approved. Missouri Express staff members-who work in teams of three for each of eight regions throughout the state-help local volunteers and service providers identify the most appropriate people to work on a network project and then help that group apply for funding. "The hard part isn't the wires and boxes; it's getting the right people together and getting agreement on a common agenda and goals," said Tony Wenig, project manager for the Missouri Research and Education Network, Columbia, Mo.

The project is managed by Wenig's organization, the statewide network run by the University of Missouri that's commonly called MOREnet, in partnership with the university's extension program, the state regional planning commission and the Department of Economic Development.

By mandate, CINs must be formed in collaboration with one or more key service providers in a given area, so networks are often initiated in league with medical centers, chambers of commerce, school or library districts or city governments. The next step-a crucial one, Wenig said-is to work with the local team to develop a sustainment plan for the CIN. "This is seed money only," Wenig emphasized. "The project runs out on June 30, 1999, so [any network] would need to be self-sustaining by then."

Although most network neophytes are concerned with connectivity and the other physical aspects of setting up a network, Wenig and his workers say content and standards development are Missouri Express' most important contribution. "We try to focus on content," Wenig said. "Once we get them over the hump of getting connectivity, most of the money is spent on training and support."

Toward that end, as many as five people from each network travel to Columbia for training on Hypertext Markup Language basics, Web page management and discussions about appropriate content. Missouri Express does have an acceptable-use policy, which specifies that the networks must be noncommercial, but otherwise individual CINs must make their own content decisions. "We'll train people on how to do things, but we aren't going to dictate what's acceptable content," Wenig said. "If the collaborative effort is functioning well, they'll be able to make those decisions themselves."

Library Gaps

Greg Taunt is a coordinator for Laclede Access, a nonprofit organization that runs a 5-year-old community network for Lebanon, Mo., and surrounding Laclede County. The community network has received assistance from Missouri Express. Taunt agrees that a network's greatest value is in the information it provides. "A network can help the entire community, especially schools and classes," he said. "In a rural community, you don't have a lot of vast libraries, but the network helps close that gap."

However, a noncommercial community network also can play an important role in attracting other Internet business, Taunt points out. "We see ourselves as a springboard. Because we were here, we got a lot of the community interested in the Internet, and that got a commercial provider to come in." Now businesses as well as individuals in the county, which has a population of less than 30,000, are able to realize the benefits of online access, Taunt said.

Those kinds of public/private developments make Wenig and other Missouri Express workers happy. Although telephone costs are high, and the huge number of other costs in setting up service can be overwhelming for smaller rural networks, the state does not want to become a service provider for outlying areas.

Towns and counties that prove they have no other connectivity options of any kind can use MOREnet's resources, but the project encourages CINs to attract Internet service providers on their own or find ways to piggyback onto existing library, university or other civic network facilities. And communities accepted into the Missouri Express program are provided with either 24 modems or six public-access workstations to start with, Wenig said. "We try to steer them into what they need the most. If they have no commercial Internet provider, they'll opt for the modem pool."

Laclede Access is one organization that opted for the modems. "Part of our relationship with Missouri Express was to increase our modem pool and make our equipment better," Taunt explained. "We had reached a point where we were busy all the time, and [Missouri Express] actually gave us modems as part of the grant."

For all their good intentions, Missouri and other states need to be careful not to stamp out legitimate entrepreneurial Internet businesses by doing the job for them, says Bruce Egan, executive vice president of Indetec International, a Del Mar, Calif., telecommunications and media consultancy. "The government needs to be more careful not to step on the toes of [businesses that] would have sprung up on their own," he warned. "You don't want to wind up creating a public bypass network."

Egan advocates relaxing regulations so that telecommunications companies are freer to serve rural communities with specialized services and then attend to any have-not regions that failed to attract commercial options. "The solution is to deregulate to find out if markets can take care of part of the problem [and] then help the truly disenfranchised if they truly have need," Egan said.

Wenig and Taunt are convinced of Missouri Express' benefits to the communities it serves and to the local and state government. "We don't do a lot of proselytizing; we're responding to communities' needs," Wenig said. "They have to do the hard work."

Local and state governments get something back when they encourage community networks, Wenig said. In addition to serving as a tool for local economic development, CINs allow members of the community to be lifelong learners, resulting in a more informed and educated populace. CINs also serve as efficient vehicles over which local and state government and other service providers can make public everything from fire-prevention information to the minutes of a county commissioner's meeting.

Best of all, community networks provide a way to erase the line between the city and the country folk and between the haves and the have-nots. "It doesn't matter how much money you make," Taunt said. "With public access, you don't have to have a job that has six figures to get what you need."

-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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