Friday, August 20, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Rural areas get Internet

When Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed the High Performance Computing and Communication Act nearly 20 years ago, its author, Al Gore, promised that the “information superhighway” would transform business, medicine and education and enrich the lives of people in every corner of the country.

That proved to be only a slight exaggeration, but only now is a glimmer of that dream becoming a reality in much of our rural state. We have long been pretty sure that it was coming because Arkansas ranks last in the country in broadband access, but this week the federal government finally awarded the state $102 million to upgrade the broadband network and expand it to 474 community centers throughout Arkansas. The grant is to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which along with a partnership of universities and health-care institutions put up $26 million to match the grant.

The money will come from the much-maligned federal stimulus program, which critics say is a costly waste of dollars that expands only one thing, the national debt. The original premise was that the big fiber-optic expansion in some 35 states would create and preserve jobs over the three years that it will take to complete. It will surely create and save some jobs in Arkansas, but that will be the least benefit of the grant.

The 5,600-mile network will traverse rugged terrain and remote reaches of the state to bring the marvels of medical imaging, electronic classes and the limitless library of the Internet to hospitals, doctors’ offices, colleges, police and fire departments, the far-flung health institutions like human development centers and home health agencies, businesses and ultimately to hundreds of thousands of homes.

Living in a rural community far from the blue-ribbon health-sciences institutions in Pulaski County will not much longer mean substandard care. Doctors and other practitioners in small hospitals and clinics can consult with UAMS specialists for high-risk pregnancies, stroke, heart and cancer patients. An obstetrician at Fayetteville, whose clinic is already connected, told how he had sent images to UAMS specialists one night recently to get emergency help on fetal anomalies that he had detected. Soon that technology will be available in every emergency room in Arkansas.

One of Arkansas’ gravest problems is the lack of primary-care doctors and practitioners in rural parts of the state. Doctoring is too demanding and the access to technology and specialists too hard. We can visualize the high-speed, high-volume network making practice in small-town Arkansas more appealing.

The network will link all the institutions of higher learning, including the 22 two-year colleges, expanding courses and programs and enabling limitless teleconferencing and the sharing of massive quantities of research data.

The for-profit Internet service providers might have done all that, but it is not cost-effective for AT&T, Comcast or the others to do it. The big money is in urban areas. That is why electric cooperatives sprang up to take electrical service to the countryside in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — the investor-owned utilities found it unprofitable. This is the 21st Century complement.

Is this going to be an economic stimulus or just another government boondoggle, as the Republicans say? It is hard to imagine how the government could better advance economic development in rural Arkansas — and the rest of it, too.