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Net access down on the farm

A new study shows that rural areas are not as isolated from the Information Age as popularly believed.

Rural areas are not as isolated from the Information Age as popularly believed and are closing the gap with their urban cousins, a new study shows.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, shows that the nation's information backbone has spread increasingly into rural areas because of heavy private investment over the past decade.

The government has made efforts to expand the infrastrucure as well. Vice President Al Gore unveiled his Access America program, pledging to bring government services to citizens in every corner of the country through the Net and other technologies. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission and state regulators have been working on a multibillion-dollar proposal to ensure quality phone service for all, including Net access for schools.

But, the authors of the new study, entitled "Evolution of Advanced Large Scale Information Infrastructure in the United States," say private industry has already expanded telephone service, Internet access, and electronic commerce systems. The authors conclude that the government needs to rethink its strategy for funding and distributing backbone networks.

Researchers looked at the geographic distribution of large business computers, as well as voice and data transmission backbones. Specifically, the study compared the deployment of fiber optic cable by local telephone companies and large computer use in 1986, 1989, and 1992. The data was originally collected by the FCC.

"Over this period of time, there has been a deepening of the backbone infrastructure into smaller and smaller areas that were not served before," said Pablo Spiller, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the report's authors.

"This is an important development for two reasons," he added. "It creates possibilities for companies to open up in those areas, and people's access to the information infrastructure has become easier and faster throughout the nation."

The study doesn't show that technology and investment are both equally distributed everywhere. Instead, it says, "all regions, rural and urban, whether initially ahead or behind, became more alike over time."

This is nonetheless important to analysts because it means that companies have had much wider flexibility in where they decide to do business, said Shane Greenstein, an economist with the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

"A lot of things come downstream as a result of having a lot of backbone," said Greenstein, who wrote the report with Spiller and Mercedes Lizardo, an economics researcher at the University of Illinois. "It means most of the nation is technically ready to accept technology like the Internet."