Rural Business Takes A Fiber-Optic Leap

Article excerpt

HARD-PRESSED rural regions are exploring ways of diversifying their economic base. For some, new technologies are compensating for one major disadvantage: distance from traditional manufacturing and commercial centers.

West Virginia is harnessing a new fiber-optics grid across parts of the state that puts high-speed data transmission and other capabilities within reach of a local work force.

"This brings the jobs here, where the workers are," says Roberta Fowlkes, a vice president of C&P Telephone. Ordinarily, residents would have to commute to Washington, D.C., or to neighboring Virginia, to perform similar work. They are employed by companies based out of state, but they avoid a daily 75 to 100 mile trek.

A fiber-optic network permits technology-dependent firms in areas not otherwise feasible as business sites to utilize voice, data, and image transmission.

Senators Conrad Burns (R) of Montana and Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee, and representatives Rick Boucher (D) of Virginia and Mike Oxley (R) of Ohio, are supporting legislation that would encourage phone companies to build a nationwide fiber-optic "highway."

The legislation would remove regulations that prohibit phone companies from providing television services. Lucrative TV services would provide the financial incentive for phone companies to build the fiber-optic networks.

Keypunch and data entry jobs handled today in rural sections are rote functions. In a new wave made possible by fiber optics, even managerial jobs will be handled from afar. Pictures, video, voice, or text can be transmitted as pulses of light at the rate of a billion bits of data per second.

"Catalysts for new technologies already available would certainly let coworkers share ideas rapidly," says Milton Grodsky, director of the Center for the Study of Management and Organizations at University of Maryland University College.

"Telecommunications is not a panacea," says Aliceann Wohlbruck, executive director of the National Association of Development Organizations, "but it can change the equation in years ahead. …