| The information highway. Such a 90’s term. It was all the rage before the dot com crash. We were all going to cruise down the information highways. Jet age George Jetsons. Then Silicon Valley turned to dust. The whiz kids went back to school and started their PhDs and we all forgot about the information highway.
But not all of us. Some, like West Kentucky Rural Telephone and Western Baptist Hospital, are well aware of what the information highway is, who’s on it and more importantly, who’s not. Last week, Western Baptist rolled out a new robotic medicine program. A doctor at UL can diagnose a stroke patient in West Kentucky. The robot with a television face asks questions and probes the patient. The doc sees the data real time and makes a decision.
Cool, huh? Sure. If you have a fast internet access. The problem is that Robby the Robot doesn’t do dial up.
West Kentucky Rural Telephone rolled out their vision of fiber optics throughout the Purchase. “Fiber to the home” – using spun glass cables to send television, internet, phone service to homes in the area. High speed transmission lines mean downloading movies faster than renting them at the local movie emporium. High speed transmission lines means kiss Ma Bell goodbye. High speed transmission lines means faster pictures, better homework research, more Face Book, more MySpace, more job applications, government website access, college classes.
Cool, huh? Sure. If you can afford to buy the service when it comes to your neighborhood and if you can afford the equipment to run all those spiffy applications on.
The problem with all the wonderful information highway apps is that those designing the roads don’t stop to wonder how we out here in rural America are going to afford the cars to run on them. Presently, the stimulus package doesn’t include any money to buy computer equipment for low income students or their parents or their grandparents. It is as if the builders of the 21st century superhighways think that if they build it, we will come.
It is all depressingly like the first heady days when the General Assembly passed the Kentucky Educational Reform Act. Money was allocated for equipment, to be sure. But only half of what was needed to buy computers. The school boards had to come up with the rest. And the General Assembly forgot that computers need cords and tables and chairs and rooms and updated electrical systems. Those costs fell on the schools. Some were able to take full advantage and go from zero to sixty in no time. Others – they were on that country road, ambling along. School boards that didn’t recognize the need for fancy new computers or didn’t have the money to get the program going as the solons in the Capitol envisioned, were left choking on the fast adapters dust.
West Kentucky is already behind the rest of the state. (Okay, thank goodness for Eastern Kentucky-we’re the same pale pink on the tech map as they). We must have high speed internet. It is not a want anymore. It’s a need. Companies are not going to locate in towns where they can’t get high speed internet. Period. Young people are not going to stick around a place with no Wi-Fi, pathetic wireless, and no jobs in the industries that are going to be around into the 21st century. They will be leaving in droves. Period. Hospitals that cannot get fast access will not be able to offer the same kind of care that their wired counterparts only a few counties over can give. Those without will suffer. Doctors will leave. Nurses will find other jobs. Patients will follow the docs. Period.
If any of you out there reading this think that the information highway is some sort of antiquated, outdated, punch line of the 90s, then you are sadly mistaken. We either get on the superhighway or we become as many communities that were cut off from interstates and four lanes during the building booms of the 50s and 60s– ghost towns, boarded up storefronts, overgrown empty houses, abandoned, empty. And it will not be just the young who will be leaving; it will be all of us.
Because nobody wants to live in a ghost town.