The Internet is quickly becoming an appliance in our homes, much like our telephones or microwaves. Ours is becoming an online world, there for the taking, and most of us assume that we can access the Internet when and where we want.
In many communities in Washington State, this is not the case. Some rural and low-income urban communities have neither reliable Internet connectivity nor the equipment or knowledge needed to reap the benefits of todays digital world.
WSU, however, is taking steps to help overcome this disparity. On April 17, 2001, Governor Gary Locke and U.S. Senator Patty Murray helped launch WSUs Center to Bridge the Digital Divide. The Centers missionto assist people, communities and government to bridge the digital dividecould not be more timely or important, Locke said.
Senator Murray said, In too many parts of Washington, especially our rural areas, families and businesses are unable to unleash the vast potential of the Internet. But, because of the leadership of Dr. Bill Gillis and the WSU Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, communities throughout our state will be able to take advantage of the exciting educational, health care and economic opportunities that this technology allows.
William Gillis, director of the Center and a WSU graduate, says, The Centers key goals are to help those in rural and low-income areas get access to the Internet at a rapid speed with broader bandwidth and use the existing technology to enhance business opportunities and increase jobs.
The Center hopes to achieve these goals through outreach strategies including education, community projects, applied research, and policy analysis. The Center draws upon the expertise of WSU faculty and staff from a wide range of disciplines such as agriculture, business, communication, engineering, political science, and rural sociology.
Gillis says, President Rawlins, Dean Zuiches and Annabel Cook, chair of Rural Sociology, have been very supportive of our efforts in creating the Center.
Gillis says that a unique strength of WSU is its land-grant outreach system and the potential to leverage faculty with specialized knowledge of local communities in every county of the state.
Even though the Centers work will focus on Washington State, Gillis and faculty partners hope to establish the Center as a regional and national model program and resource.
Rob McDaniel, program leader of Community Development and a faculty partner of the Center, says, Problems we face in Washington are symptomatic of what other states face. Casting our net a little broaderregionally and nationallywill allow us to have partners with other Centers across the country and disseminate technology information. Future plans for the Center include establishing it as a national clearinghouse of technology information.
In addition, Gillis would like to bring the benefits of digital technology to other areas of the country by having the opportunity to collaborate on national research projects and provide development models to other states from our pilot projects in Washington, Gillis says.
The Wave of the Future
Those who have been involved in the development of the Center know that this is an idea whose time has come and is overdue for some segments of the population. Several years ago, WSU faculty, including Scott Fedale, chair of the Information Department in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, began to look at technological changes on the horizon which would help communities affected by the downturn in timber, apple and other industries.
Fedale has served on the Telecommunication Subcommittee of Washingtons Rural Development Council for the past eight years. As part of his work on the Committee, Fedale conducted workshops on telecommunication issues and led community discussions about connectivity issues.
The discussions with Washington residents and Fedales involvement in a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant through the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) have provided a strong foundation for the Centers goals.
Through the NSF grant, we will be test- ing the feasibility of wireless high speed conductivity via satellite with underserved populations, such as rural and low-income inner city residents, Fedale says. The results of a small pilot test we were involved with in the summer of 2000 appear to support the viability of wireless communication in rural areas, rather than the more costly alternative of running telecommunication wires, says Fedale. The NSF project will allow us to test this technology on a national scope over a three-year period.
Doing BusinessThe New Way
As many entrepreneurs are finding out, the Internet is a lifeline to clients. You can go through life without a computer and access to the Webbut its getting harder and harder to do so, McDaniel says.
Rob Fukai is a WSU regent and vice president of External Relations at Avista Corporation, which is one of the Centers leadership corporate sponsors. Having digital and data service available in all parts of our region is important for economic development, Fukai says. Its kind of like electricity was 100 years ago. If you dont have it, your economy wont be able to grow and keep pace.
Its becoming the expectation that businesses are online and can communicate with suppliers and clients, says Gillis. If youre not online, you pay premium costswhich sometimes may be the straw that breaks the camels backparticularly for small businesses.
Gillis says, More and more farmers are going online, but they still need access at more rapid speeds and a knowledge of how to use the technology to enhance their business opportunities.
In addition to rural residents having more business opportunities, McDaniel says if outlying areas have the infrastructure and bandwidth in place, more people who conduct their work through the Internet and e-mail will be attracted to beautiful areas to live, which will contribute to local economic growth.
Computer Training for Rural and Low-Income Urban Youth
Low-income urban communities face different challenges, but the dilemma is the same for urban residents as it is for those in rural areas. Even though low-income urban neighborhoods may be close to the high-speed hub of telecommunication, they often dont have access to it. Poor phone lines and no computer and Internet training hinder low-income residents from having equal access to educational and economic opportunities.
A perfect venue to teach low-income and rural youth and families computer skills is through the statewide 4-H program. WSU Cooperative Extension has already been involved in several computer repair and training programs, including Computers for the Ages in Everett and surrounding areas. In Sprague, a 16-year-old, with the help of fellow 4-H members, has initiated a computer training club for senior citizens and low-income families as part of a national 4-H project called Teens Exploring Computers and Sharing.
To expand current efforts, The Center to Bridge the Digital Divide has recently received generous funding and equipment from Microsoft to launch a youth computer literacy program through WSUs 4-H program. The program will reach about 3,000 4-H youth during its training and pilot phase, with the potential of reaching 80,000 kids in 4-H throughout the state. Youth at 20 Washington sites will learn critical computer skills through a curriculum developed by university professionals. Teen tech corps will train other kids using the curriculum.
Gillis says this and other Center pilot projects will help the Center better serve communities needs and plan long-term projects.
Funding for Projects and Growth
The Center is seeking a combination of public, private, and foundation funds. Gillis says, Were about halfway to our goal right now for the development phase of the Center.
To help reach the Centers goals, Gillis has already secured generous start-up funding from several corporate leadership sponsors (see Leadership Sponsors). Gillis stresses that the purpose of the funding is not to support a large staff at the Center, but rather to develop partnerships within Extension and across the state and region to carry out education, training, and research.
Were in a pilot testing phase right now, but we plan to move ahead in the next few years to become self-sustaining as a Center through fee-for-service projects and provide communities with the information that they need about technology and how to pursue business opportunities. Gillis adds that the Center will also be of great help to Internet providers and telecommunication services suppliers who would like to offer their products and services to rural and low-income communities.
For Gillis, there could be no better match with the Center than WSU. WSU is certainly in the best place to lend expertise and support activities of the Center, Gillis says.
You could say this is the 21st century version of the land grant missiongetting technology out to rural and low-income areas, and strengthening communities by broadening economic opportunities, says Gillis. Its an exciting opportunity to be able to do something for these communities.