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The Digital Divide
The Springfield News Springfield Oregon Newspaper Release February 18th, 2005

Posted: Feb 18, 2005 - 10:24:34 PST
The digital divide: High-speed Internet access can be hard to come by in rural areas
By Ben Raymond Lode
The Springfield News
Steve Wood Pixel Steve Wood of Christmas Treasures maintains an on-line catalogue for the business near Blue River. Without a broadband Internet connection, the business would likely have been forced to move because of the volume of on-line business they conduct. JOHN GUSSENHOVEN The Springfield News

People in urban communities increasingly take it for granted.

But for those who live in rural areas, a high-speed Internet connection can be as hard to get a hold of as a parking spot at an outlet mall the day after Thanksgiving.

According to Lane County's Community and Economic Development Program, the "digital divide" between rural and urban communities is a critical issue in today's society.

That's simply because effective telecommunication technology provides for not only increased economic development opportunities, but also increased educational opportunities, improved health care and greater access to local government.

Just ask Steve Wood, who maintains the Web site for Christmas Treasures, a store that specializes in traditional ornaments and items for giving and collecting.

The business does a large portion of its business online, especially during the tourist off-season.

"Without broadband, there's just no way we could do what we do. Without broadband there's just no way we could be here," said Wood.

"Here" is along the idyllic McKenzie Highway, just past Blue River on the scenic route towards Bend.

Wood, whose parents, Patrick and Nancy, have owned and operated the store since 1993, said not having access to high-speed Internet "would have hindered growth."

"With broadband, whatever your (online) job is, you can do it faster," he said.

The importance of having a fast Internet connection was so pressing that at one time, the family business was considering putting in a T-1 line -- an expensive solution usually only used by large companies who need access to a fast internet service 24 hours a day.

But that was before Quest installed equipment that gives most people who live within a three-mile radius of a DSL central in Blue River access to broadband.

Between dial-up and broadband, Wood said, Christmas Treasures used a satellite connection -- a fast but not cheap alternative to broadband -- to maximize productivity.

Ken Engelman, publisher of McKenzie River Reflections -- the weekly newspaper covering the McKenzie River area -- is one of those who need a fast internet service but can't get access to broadband.

He lives a mile or so up Highway 242, the scenic highway through McKenzie Pass to Sisters.

Engelman, who downloads large advertisements from customers and uploads large amounts of data when he's putting the newspaper together, said only having dial-up meant it took him 45 minutes to download an advertisement.

With a satellite Internet connection (satellites run at roughly $600 for the equipment and $60 to $70 for the monthly service), downloading will go 20 times faster and uploading five times faster, he said.

Engelman said with a satellite connection, he also won't have to worry about being "bumped off " the Internet, which happens regularly when people with a dial-up connection download large blocs of data.

Although he's had a satellite Internet connection only for a short time, Engelman said he has already experienced the fruits of his investment.

And he believes others in need of high speed Internet in rural areas who can't get broadband access would feel the same way.

"I am certain that once someone is exposed to this, they wouldn't want to change back either."

Lauran Davidson and Ada June Tolliver also live along the McKenzie.

Both of them work from home and are dependent on efficient Internet access to do their work.

But circumstances beyond their reach are making it hard for them to do so.

Davidson, who currently does consulting work for Lane Transit District, said there is no broadband access where he lives.

For some, paying $600 for a satelite and $60 to $70 in monthly rates would be considered expensive. But for Davidson, money isn't the problem.

"I'd pay $90 bucks in a heartbeat (for satellite internet access)," he said.

But a couple of fir trees on a neighbor's property would block satellite signals from reaching a dish on Davidson's house -- which serves to illustrate that it isn't always just the lack of broadband access that prevents people from getting high-speed Internet.

Peter Thurston, Lane County's community economic development coordinator, is very familiar with the Internet access issue for people in rural communities.

According to Thurston, rural communities must overcome three challenges when looking at solutions to get high-speed Internet access.

"The challenge is getting the information in a form that people can digest and understand what it means while it is changing under them," he said.

Thurston also said communities must find out what they believe is their role in finding solutions to get Internet access.

In other words, should the community pool its own money? Should they expect cable or phone companies to pony up for all costs, or should private companies and communities share the costs?

Thirdly, Thurston said, rural communities must find out what different initiatives would cost, and where to find the funding for them.

And in this day and age, when the Internet is playing a bigger role in most people's lives, such information can't be compiled fast enough.

"Communities that have been there for decades, such as logging communities -- their character has changed. If they are going to be able to change revenue (flow while) maintaining their way of existence, they need to be able to provide what's expected of people who come to visit," Thurston said.

There are many ways to connect

Definition of different types of internet connections and systems, according to Webopedia, an online computer technology dictionary:

 

  • Dial-up: A connection via a modem and a public telephone network. Dial-up access is really just like a phone connection, except that the parties at the two ends are computer devices rather than people. Because dial-up access uses normal telephone lines, the quality of the connection is not always good and data rates are limited. In the past, the maximum data rate with dial-up access was 56 Kbps (56,000 bits per second), but new technologies such as ISDN are providing faster rates. An alternative way to connect two computers is through a leased line, which is a permanent connection between two devices. Leased lines provide faster throughput and better quality connections, but they are also more expensive.

     
  • Broadband: A method in which a single wire can carry several channels at once. Cable TV, for example, uses broadband transmission. In contrast, baseband transmission allows only one signal at a time. Most communications between computers, including the majority of local-area networks, use baseband communications.

     
  • T-1: A dedicated phone connection supporting data rates of over 1.5 megabits per second. A T-1 (the T stands for "Trunk") line actually consists of 24 individual channels, each of which supports 64 kilobits per second. Each 64Kbit/second channel can be configured to carry voice or data traffic. Most telephone companies allow you to buy just some of these individual channels, known as fractional T-1 access. T-1 lines are a popular leased line option for businesses connecting to the Internet and for Internet service providers connecting to the Internet "backbone." The Internet backbone itself consists of even faster T-3 connections. T-1 lines are sometimes referred to as DS1 lines.

     
  • Broadband over powerline:

    BPL feeds low-power radio signals over power lines. A BPL modem plugs into a regular electrical outlet, receives the radio signals from power lines and converts them into a digital Internet connection (This solutions is some years away, due to federal regulatory issues).

     
  • LAN: "Local area network," a computer network that spans a relatively small area. Most LANs are confined to a single building or group of buildings. However, one LAN can be connected to other LANs over any distance via telephone lines and radio waves. A system of LANs connected in this way is called a wide-area network (WAN). Most LANs connect workstations and personal computers. There are many different types of LANs Ethernets being the most common for PCs. Most Apple Macintosh networks are based on Apple's AppleTalk network system, which is built into Macintosh computers. LANs are capable of transmitting data at very fast rates, much faster than data can be transmitted over a telephone line; but the distances are limited, and there is also a limit on the number of computers that can be attached to a single LAN.

    Reporter Ben Raymond Lode can be reached at ben.lode@lee.net, or at (541) 746-1671, Ext. 316.
  • The store's Web address is: www.christmas-treasures.com