Oct 31 2006

Bridging the Rural Tech Divide

As e-government initiatives sweep across America, government officials strive to provide access to technology and enhanced services in cities and towns, big and small.

Melissa Solomon

A lay preacher with the United Methodist Church, Paul Smathers researches his sermons online. He also shops online, files his taxes online and downloads veterans’ benefits forms online. “Out here, online is absolutely essential,” says Smathers, who lives in Edgeley, N.D. “Any basic government form you need, if it’s not available online, you write and wait two weeks for it to arrive or you drive 140 miles [to a government office].”

Despite that, few of Smathers’ neighbors seem sold on the value of technology. His hometown, population 600, just got Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) access last fall, but he doesn’t know many neighbors who subscribe. Living 35 miles from the county seat and 140 miles in either direction from the nearest state and federal government offices, Edgeley’s residents have learned to make do in relative isolation.

However, with technology advancing around the globe, permeating and oiling the machinery of everyday life, small towns like Edgeley will be lost if they don’t move forward, Smathers warns. They’ll be shut out of high-tech and telecommuting jobs, as well as the expanding pool of online government services. In fact, many farmers in towns around Edgeley find the Internet so valuable for market research, advertising and to check weather reports that they connect via satellite.

“I firmly believe that without technology, today’s small towns are doomed,” Smathers says. “It’s as simple as that. This is an information age. You’re lost if you can’t access the Internet.”

Sharing Technology

Government is supposed to be available equally to all citizens, says Sharon Strover, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute there. But as more government services become available online, people without Internet access are at a disadvantage.

Private sector competition often works well in spreading Internet access. But when it doesn’t, government should step in, Strover asserts. Because government agencies are such big customers of the private sector, they may be able to negotiate or partner with vendors to cost-effectively expand access to citizens. “I think there’s definitely a role for states in this,” she says.

Government at all levels is hard at work in an effort to reduce and eventually eliminate the rural divide that separates its citizens. It’s expanding the communications infrastructure, using practical services to demonstrate technology’s value, training people to use IT and supporting them so they continue to make technology a part of their lives.

For example, Rio Rancho, N.M., is making every effort to provide Internet access to its citizens. The local cable provider started laying fiber optic for broadband Internet access only a few years ago, but DSL was restricted to the main thoroughfares, recalls Peggy McCarthy, assistant to the city administrator. Now, with a new citywide wireless network, citizens who live in areas so remote that they can’t even get cable television or natural gas are able to get high-speed Internet access.

Social Security Administration (SSA) offices in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming provide another example of government bringing technology to rural areas. These offices are setting up broadband videoconference links in rural locations, says Rick Schremp, director of electronic service delivery in SSA’s regional office in Denver.

Residents of Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming who would like “visual service” can travel only a few miles to attend a videoconference meeting with a claims representative located 110 miles away at the SSA field office in Casper. In the year that the video channel has been in place, one SSA office has gotten more than 130 claims, in contrast to the handful it received during the same period of the previous year, Schremp reports.

“I see this as an incredible opportunity to provide face-to-face service in the government,” he says. “With broadband, we’re delivering a level of service that far surpasses what we were doing 20 years ago, when, on occasion, we even made house calls.”

Big State, Small Population

Sitting in a Washington, D.C., coffee shop, John Moore spotted a man wearing a North Dakota baseball cap, so he struck up a conversation about an exciting program he’s working on in the state.

Moore, a program analyst in the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), described the North Dakota Government Rural Outreach project, which delivers technology infrastructure, equipment and training to the state’s far-flung citizens to better connect them with government services. The man in the baseball cap, whom Moore had assumed was a tourist, said he was well aware of the program. In fact, he helped get it off the ground. Moore then realized he was talking with Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

The encounter captured the essence of North Dakota, a state with only 634,000 residents. North Dakotans have ready access to their mayor and governor, often because they know them as friends.

“In a large state, I would be lost in the nowheres,” Preacher Smathers says, “whereas in a state like North Dakota, anyone who wants to can have an impact.”

The catch is that those few people—9.3 per square mile—are dispersed across a vast landscape, which makes it difficult to reach all of them with government services. Of the state’s 373 cities and towns, the 20th largest one has only 2,336 residents.

“The bulk of the towns have 500 or fewer people,” explains Glenn Miller, director of the Government Rural Outreach initiative at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. For many of them, filing for Social Security benefits or renewing a driver’s license could mean driving 100 miles on country roads, which may be icy in winter.

Extending government services across rural regions is a challenge faced by states around the country. But North Dakota’s unique combination of big-state and small-community characteristics makes it the perfect place for government to examine what causes the rural divide, explore the problems it creates for citizens and find strategies to eliminate it.

Like other states, North Dakota is finding that technology can serve as a bridge to those rural stretches. The trick is getting that technology to them.

“We still have people who think that you throw computers into these rural areas and something magical happens,” Miller says. “But it’s more complex than that.”

In North Dakota, most schools and libraries have T-1 lines, so a fair amount of infrastructure extends to small rural towns. However, as Miller points out, “People don’t all live in town. And when they live out of town, it tends to be quite a way out.”

Many homes can get dial-up service, and even though Internet service is relatively inexpensive, it’s hard to convince people to spend money on something they have gotten along without, Miller points out. “If they don’t perceive a real value, they’re not going to mess around with it,” he says.

Three years ago, when the North Dakota Government Rural Outreach program began, most government Web sites were primarily informational, so it was hard to keep people engaged. But, as e-government sites have grown in sophistication and usefulness, so has the incentive to use technology.

About 16 percent of North Dakota’s population collects Social Security benefits, according to Miller, so they need to interact with government. Providing a more efficient process for those interactions can make an enormous difference in citizens’ lives.

“Communities need to have some plan for what they’re going to do with technology,” he adds. “If they do, computers and the Internet can remove geographic boundaries.”

Building a Portal

Tom Saddler has heard his fair share of war stories. Literally. As the veterans service officer in Grand Forks County, N.D., his job is to meet with veterans and determine what benefits they may be entitled to from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Did they serve during wartime? Did they suffer any injuries? Do they have any health problems?

In the past, Saddler would pore over publications and visit Web sites to research benefits, medical conditions and claims codes for his clients. Now, he uses a community-of-interest portal designed for county veterans service officers by North Dakota’s Government Rural Outreach program.

Veterans can visit the portal to access a wealth of information: contact numbers; health-related links, such as a pharmacy benefits management program and My HealtheVet, which lets veterans access their medical records via the Internet; benefits-related links; and other links, such as employment listings.

“The initial project was to build something for veterans in the boondocks,” Saddler says. However, in addition to providing basic information for veterans, another section of the portal was created to include all the complex information used by the veterans service officers. A veteran can ask a relative with Internet access to look up a contact number on the portal, and staff members like Saddler can use it to sift through benefits information and medical reference materials.

“We go way beyond what the basic vet would use,” he says. “The portal has pulled a lot of information into one place.”

Rural technology outreach programs aren’t necessarily about getting people to use computers themselves, Saddler adds. Sometimes, they give agencies better tools to serve their constituents. When a veteran has his son or daughter look up a veterans service officer’s number online, even that’s a step in the right direction, says Saddler.

“To get the older veterans to sit down and work with a computer is a tough challenge,” he says. “This gives them a starting point, and that’s very important.”

In the farmlands of Stutsman County, N.D., only a handful of veterans have used the portal, acknowledges Warren Tobin, the county veterans service officer. Most of the veterans he works with are older, having served in World War II or Korea, and they aren’t tech-savvy. With a local National Guard unit returning soon from Iraq, however, he suspects the portal will become much more popular.

“I think it’s got a lot of potential for the 20-something and 30-something folks who are coming back,” Tobin says. “The Internet is their source of information. They live in that world.”

The county veterans service offices were ideal matches for the Government Rural Outreach project for several reasons. First, a large percentage of veterans are senior citizens, and seniors are disproportionately represented in rural regions, explains Miller. In North Dakota counties with 5,000 or fewer residents, 21 percent of the population is 65 and older; in counties with 10,000 or more residents, the senior population is 12 percent.

Another reason for the success of the veterans’ portal is that the VA has done more than simply make the e-government services accessible. County veterans service officers like Saddler and Tobin are available to use the portal with veterans and to show them how it can be useful to them.

Finally, since government services usually play a pivotal role in veterans’ lives, veterans often become an enthusiastic audience once they are informed of the variety of valuable resources available online.

Training and Support

The North Dakota Government Rural Outreach project primarily targets four groups: seniors collecting Social Security benefits, veterans, farmers and Native Americans. Because those groups tend to make up such a large portion of the population of the state’s rural regions, project leaders decided that focusing on them would go a long way toward bridging the rural technology gap, says GSA’s Moore.

Project leaders realized early on that training and support were as important as equipment and infrastructure. So they worked closely with the Center for Technology & Business in Bismarck, which provides training to small businesses in North Dakota, to educate trainers in several communities, says Miller of the Government Rural Outreach project. Then the trainers can interest their neighbors, teaching them how to navigate e-government services.

“You have to get out there,” he says. “You can’t push technology out of an airplane at 15,000 feet, and you can’t mail it out of Washington.”

Project leaders are considering working with community organizations, such as nursing homes, senior centers and Kiwanis clubs, to better reach their constituencies by setting up computers in their offices and training citizens to use them.

Without technology, some citizens—especially those who lack transportation or who have health conditions that prohibit participation—might not be able to access government services. If government can use technology to reach out to those citizens, it’s obligated to do so, many advocates contend. Online access should be as fundamental to a community as a water treatment plant, Miller says.

“Treat technology and access to technology as a fundamental service,” he advises. “Don’t treat it as an extra.”

Totally Unplugged

Although Internet access and use has skyrocketed in recent years, there’s still a long way to go to bridge the digital divide, particularly among rural, elderly and low-income populations, according to John Horrigan, research director at the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, D.C.

Here are some statistics from the Pew Internet Project’s January 2005 survey of 2,200 Americans:

• One-third—34 percent—of adult Americans have no access to the Internet; in rural areas, 44 percent lack access.

• Of all Internet users in the United States who go online from home, half have broadband connections. For rural Americans who go online from home, 39 percent have high-speed connections.

• Of U.S. households with $100,000 or higher annual income, 94 percent have Internet access. In U.S. households with incomes of $30,000 or less, that figure drops to 48 percent with Internet access. In rural areas, the percentage dips even lower—to 43 percent.

• 44% of adults in rural America lack Internet access.

New York State: No Second-Class Citizens

SINCE 2000 WHEN Gov. George Pataki launched New York’s Government Without Walls initiative, the number of online services has increased every year and grown more sophisticated. Agencies are using portal technology to make e-government more efficient and accessible, and they’re doing a better job of marketing their online services even in the most rural upstate regions, says state CIO Jim Dillon. Today, more than 295 services and transactions are offered online by 55 of the state’s agencies.

“It’s a huge priority for us in New York state,” he says. “We’re very sensitive to the fact that all of our citizens deserve the best of services. There are no second-class citizens because of where they live in the state.”

That doesn’t mean that conventional methods of delivering services will end. “There will always be some people who would rather visit a local office to renew a driver’s license than to navigate the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Web site from home,” Dillon acknowledges. But as increasing numbers of people turn to e-government services, it’s government’s job to make those services as useful and efficient as possible, he says.

“Day by day, things change,” Dillon says. “The demand for Web-enabled e-government services will continue to increase over time.

“That doesn’t mean we can do anything to convince my 90-year-old mother to use Web-enabled services. No matter how proficient we become in e-government services, we need to reach across the spectrum and offer services that will appeal to everyone.”

On the technological end of the spectrum, the challenge lies in getting high-speed Internet access into rural pockets, Dillon says. That will make e-government more efficient and appealing throughout the state and will introduce more citizens to online government services.

The best way to spread broadband access, he adds, is through the educational system: public schools, colleges, libraries and New York’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) programs. Many of these institutions are building networks that can be leveraged for public purposes.

As a result of competition between Digital Subscriber Line and cable providers, commercial markets are expanding their services to rural upstate regions. The combination of market forces and government efforts to work with the educational system will help bridge the technology divide in rural areas. “I think we’re seeing steady progress,” Dillon says.

Services from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Taxation and Finance are popular online offerings in the state. So are Web-based applications for professional or recreational licenses.

“There are untold possibilities,” Dillon says. “Virtually everything we do in an office can be done online.”