Remarks by Assistant Secretary Irving at the Rural Telecommunications Institute Annual Summit

Expanding Opportunities for Rural Communities
Somerset, KY
May 21, 1999
"Expanding Opportunities for Rural Communities"

Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

at the

Rural Telecommunications Institute Annual Summit
Somerset, Kentucky
May 21, 1999

 


Good afternoon. I am delighted to be back again at the Center for Rural Development and to join you at the Rural Telecommunications Institute Annual Summit. And I'd like to thank Hilda Gay Legg, [the Executive Director and CEO of the Center], for inviting me here today.

For those of you who don't know, NTIA and the Center for Rural Development have had a long relationship. The Center has worked closely with NTIA in guiding our telecommunications policy, as we try to meet the needs of rural residents. And we have tried to work with the Center to promote the use of advanced technologies in rural communities.

I also want to thank Congressman Harold Rogers for his leadership on many critical telecommunications issues. Congressman Rogers has played a significant role in ensuring that the rural communities in northern and eastern Kentucky share in the benefits of the Information Age.

At base, all of us -- NTIA, the Center for Rural Development, and Congressman Rogers -- share the same goals. We all know that new technologies can expand opportunities for all communities, whether they are urban or rural, rich or poor, remote or central. As the Center's mission statement proclaims: "no young person will need to leave home to find his or her future." New technologies really can bring new opportunities to our doorsteps, no matter where we live. What I'd like to talk about today is what this means, in terms of economic development and educational opportunities, for our rural communities.
 

The Technological Revolution

There is no question that new technologies are the key to our future. The Internet, for example, is revolutionizing the way we work, play, and communicate. Who would have thought, five years ago, that today we would be getting our news, our weather information, exchanging emails, listening to music, making purchases, and even making telephone calls -- all on a computer.

What's even more staggering is how many of us today are using the Internet on a regular basis. In 1993, there were fewer than 100,000 Internet users; today, there are nearly 200 million worldwide. Five years ago, there were 3 million Internet "hosts"; today there are more than 40 million hosts.

As Secretary of Commerce Daley has noted, "[t]he Internet has the potential to become the country's most active trade and commerce vehicle, creating scores of high-paying jobs and revolutionizing the way companies do business with each other and with their customers." In 1993, very few thought about making money through online transactions. In 1998, transactions online totaled roughly $30 billion. At the end of 1998, 76% of merchants and retailers reported that they were selling, or planning to sell, goods online (compared to 36% in 1997). And, according to some estimates, revenues generated by e-commerce could account $3.2 trillion in sales by year 2003.

But it is more than just the Internet that is connecting our communities. Wireless services and satellite technologies are also opening new doors for Americans. They are enabling businesses to communicate with each other, even when they are geographically isolated. They also are allowing those in remote areas, or those at home, to take distance education courses from universities worldwide. Many are now taking such courses to brush up old skills or to learn new ones to find jobs in newly expanding areas. Even navy officers serving on aircraft carriers can now access courses using computers, satellite transmissions, and video conferencing.
 

Rural Economic Development

These technologies can have a real impact on the economy of a rural community. The Internet, for example is changing the way businesses market their products and buy and sell goods. As long as you have a PC and a modem, you can buy your supplies and market your goods anywhere in the world. A small company in central Kentucky, for example, can now reach buyers in Kalamazoo, Caracas, or Kuala Lampuur.

Because electronic commerce overcomes geographic barriers, it can change the fate of rural businesses. Farmers can now market their products to large cities, simply at the click of a mouse. A small family business can sell its wares anywhere in the world. For example, I can now easily sample Kentucky fare simply by going on the "Taste of Kentucky" Web site. In three seconds, I can order a Derby pie, classic Kentucky BBQ sauce, traditional Hadly pottery, or a Louisville stoneware mug. This is good for local business; and it's also a valuable way to preserve local customs and traditions and to share them with the world.

New technologies are also enabling information-based companies to locate in rural and remote regions. Think about how many times you have a called a company based in Louisville, Chicago, or New York, and found that you were talking to someone in a satellite office in a small town many hundreds -- if not thousands -- of miles away. New technologies, such as the Internet and high-speed telecommunications networks, are allowing many companies to expand to new regions -- as long as that area contains technology and a skilled work force.

In fact, I was interested to read recently that World Trade magazine ranked a high-tech company in Orem, Utah as the fastest-growing high-tech company in the country. This company, which makes storage device management software, was selected out of 10,000 small high-tech companies as the next potential Microsoft, based on its export sales, its revenues, and its growth in employment. Twenty years ago, Orem, Utah was a tiny town. But today, the town is evolving into a high-tech hub. And in years to come, Orem may become as well known as Redmond, Washington, the home of Microsoft.

Using advanced technologies to spur economic development is one of the key goals of NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP). TIIAP grants are available to state and local governments, local non-profit organizations, and other public institutions. TIIAP grants require at least a 50 percent matching grant, which has led to the creation of many successful public-private partnerships.

Our TIIAP grants to the Center for Rural Development exemplify what we are trying to accomplish. In one project, the Center developed an information network to support entrepreneurs, small and new businesses, and the expansion of the region's existing industries. The Center houses a videoconferencing and distancing learning facility, connected to the Kentucky Information Highway through a high-speed telephone line. The video and data network helps provide worker training programs, a program to encourage tourism as a way to expand the local economy, and an agricultural marketing program that focuses on product utilization.

In another Kentucky-based TIIAP project, the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development is planning to provide technological resources in four rural eastern Kentucky counties. The goal here is to promote entrepreneurship in rural communities by encouraging use of the Internet. Residents will have access to a laptops and interactive community kiosks. An interactive Web site will also help geographically isolated rural entrepreneurs connect to new markets. Finally, the project will help high school students apply their technical skills within the community on a fee-for-service basis. This program, we hope, will encourage youth to develop a business in their home town, rather than take their talents to an urban center.

In addition to the TIIAP programs, there are numerous other projects underway to connect rural Kentucky. The Center for Rural Development, for example, has started an ambitious project of connecting all 40 counties in its service region together through a telecommunications network. This regional network will enable residents, organizations, communities, and businesses of Southern and Eastern Kentucky to obtain information quickly and communicate with each other, even across mountainous areas. All of these efforts should make a real difference in the development, and future growth, of our rural communities.
 

Educational Opportunities

I also want to talk about how new technologies are expanding educational opportunities, which can also help revitalize our rural areas. The State of Kentucky already knows how important it is to integrate advanced technologies in our schools. In fact, back in August 1995, Kentucky became the first state in the nation to connect all of its local schools districts to the statewide network through dedicated 56KB and T1 lines.

Today, the State has supported the Kentucky Education Technology System (KETS), a $533 million initiative to provide networked computers and other electronic tools in local schools. Students in every corner of the State can now pull down resources from the Library of Congress, visit a dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian, or listen to great historic speeches online.

These technologies are expanding our horizons in many other ways as well. Distance learning programs, using the Internet or video conferencing and satellite technologies, are enabling students and adults to follow courses at educational institutions around the world. If your local college doesn't offer advanced business or agricultural courses, you can now take these courses at colleges thousands of miles away -- if you have the right technology.

NTIA's TIIAP program is helping the Center for Rural Development expand distance learning opportunities in the Southern and Eastern regions of Kentucky. The Center has created a dedicated network connection at four regional community colleges, and will help equip the classrooms with Internet and two-way interactive capabilities. As a result, students at community colleges will be able to take distance learning courses offered by the University of Kentucky -- without leaving ever leaving their home town.

But there is another reason why it is important to incorporate advanced technologies in our schools and colleges. That is because technical literacy will be key to many jobs of the future. Today, a significantly high percentage of jobs require computer literacy. More than seven million Americans now work in information technology jobs. More Americans now build computers than cars, make semiconductors than construction machinery, and work in data processing than petroleum refining. In a recent US News and World Report survey of the "best jobs of the future," eight out of the twenty selected jobs involved high-tech skills.

And it is not only technology-related jobs that will require these skills; jobs in all areas will require computer literacy and other technology-related skills. D.C. Cablevision told me recently that it would not even consider someone for a job - of any kind - if that person does not know how to use a computer. And look at what is happening in the retail industry: on-line sales of travel, music, clothing, automobiles and electric goods have increased by 200% over the last 12 months. The same is occurring in the insurance, banking, and real estate industries. Millions of Americans employed in those industries will need high-tech skills, as will policemen, farmers, government employees, and educators -- all of whom will be incorporating new technologies in their work.

If we want to spur the economic development of a region, we need to prepare a work force with the necessary skills. The State of Kentucky recognizes that need, and is allocating funds for education technology. The Clinton-Gore Administration also recognizes how important it is to prepare our children for the digital age. As a result, the Administration has set forth a vision of connecting every classroom, library, hospital, and clinic in the United States by year 2000. Through the education rate (or "e-rate"), schools and libraries can get discounts to make telecommunications services and computer network connections affordable.

Kentucky's schools will save nearly $50 million as a result of the e-rate discounts. That's a savings of $88 per student -- more than any other state in the nation, except for Alaska. Because the Administration believes that these discounts are making new technologies more widely available, we are calling upon the FCC to fully fund the e-rate program so that all eligible schools and libraries can receive these discounts.
 

Conclusion

An investment in technology is an investment in our future. It will expand the horizons of our children, our students, and our communities. Last year, Vice President Gore noted that:

Throughout this millennium, the story of human achievement has been a story of wonder, a story of discovery, a story of imagination, but also of a story of courage - to try new things, to believe in what we can't see, and to boldly follow wherever the road may take us.

Today, that road of discovery is a highway of light and speed to connect the largest city to the smallest village across the globe. In a world once limited by borders and geography, the only limits we face today are the borders of our imagination.

As we stand on the precipice of the new millennium, these words ring more true than ever. Geographic boundaries no longer isolate rural communities. Now, let's use our imagination and new technologies to expand our opportunities and to realize our dreams for the future.
 

Thank you.