Extending Internet Access to Rural Areas and Small Communities in the Upper Midwestern United States

John Clement, Paul Holbrook, and Mike Staman
CICNet, Inc.
2901 Hubbard Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48105, USA
Tel. +1 313 998 6104


The Internet is large and growing very rapidly. Many service providers exist; major commercial access providers are expanding the range of service offerings and the number of users served. However, rural and low-income urban markets are underserved and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, for economic and structural reasons similar to those that limited expansion of telephone access in the past.

A proposed solution is to involve local institutions, creating models that build on existing local resources and can be scaled so as to expand as local markets grow. This paper describes one such model, the local information utility (LIU). The LIU is built around one or more local organizations, such as a school district, a community college, or a public library. The local organization, in turn, deals with a regional service provider such as CICNet, Inc., which plays a brokering role.

Components of a local information utility include: user-level connectivity services; customer support and training; information infrastructure and content. Since the sustainability of the LIU over a long service lifetime is to be built in, strategic plans for the LIU must include consideration of the growth potential of the LIU's service area.

CICNet is putting the LIU model into operation in its service area: eight midwestern states that correspond to the "Big Ten" (actually, 13) universities. In doing so, CICNet is building upon the experiences of its Rural Datafication (RD) project. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Rural Datafication established initial tests of several models of rural and small-town connectivity in the CICNet service area.

The paper concludes with community summaries from the RD project.

Extending access to the global Internet: Issues and opportunities

The Internet is large and growing very rapidly by any of a number of available metrics. The information given below is included as illustrative of growth patterns rather than as an authoritative measurement. By the time of the INET gathering in Montreal, we can expect these numbers to be a significant understatement of the scope of the Net.

As of July 1995, there were 6.6 million hosts (identifiably addressable computers) on the Net, doubling from 3.2 million in July 1994. One can only guess how many individual users have access to the Internet at any point in time; the number of users worldwide is in the millions.[1] The Internet has become a significant social force in its own right, and access to it is widely viewed (in the United States, at least) as another indication of separation between haves and have-nots.

Another way of looking at the Internet's growth is to examine growth in the World Wide Web (WWW). As of June 1995, Matthew Gray of net.Genesis reported that 23,500 servers provided WWW pages, or one out of every 270 machines on the Net.[2] In June 1994, there had been some 2,700 servers: almost ninefold growth in one year!

Many end-user service providers already exist; the major commercial ones, in particular, are expanding in both customer numbers and service offerings. However, rural and low-income markets are underserved and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

The reasons are the same as those that for a long time limited telephone access to rural and low-income communities: customers are scattered, expensive to reach, and often cannot afford high-priced services. Rural, isolated geographical areas offer slim pickings to large commercial service providers.

The groups most realistically able to step up to provide these services are the ones with experience in these markets: local institutions who know their own communities. The challenge is to create models that begin by building on existing local resources, and can be scaled to expand as local markets grow. The community of regional and local service providers needs to come up with imaginative approaches to encourage this expansion.

A typical regional service provider is CICNet, an alliance of major research universities in eight midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). From its initial mission to provide information services to the universities in the region, the organization has evolved to serve information resource and connectivity needs in the entire region. The universities' leadership have come to see this as related to their institutions' mission as educators and information providers.

The midwestern United States

The eight states of the CICNet service area encompass about 61 million people, nearly one-quarter of the nation's population. The rural population fraction in these states is slightly higher than the nation as a whole. Although the region is undergoing a relatively strong economic recovery from two decades of stagnation and manufacturing job loss,[3] current growth patterns are far from uniform across the region. Major metropolitan suburbs, and some rural areas and small towns, have benefited from an upswing in manufacturing; but the inner cities and most rural areas continue to stagnate.

New means to create economic opportunity need to be sought. Localities need to find ways to keep their populations from declining as youth leave to find, first education, then jobs, elsewhere.

Motivations for supporting local access

The growth of the Internet as a means of communication and production offers an opportunity for new, agile groups of people to come together and work from widely dispersed locations. This potential fits recent corporate trends to downsize and outsource basic support service. When people come to realize that they can work from any location that has good telecommunications resources, the perceived worth of locating in quiet, unpolluted small towns and rural areas grows.

Another perspective is that of education. The perceived potential of computer-based networking to transform primary and secondary education is leading to widespread networking for schools. Postsecondary educational institutions (such as those behind CICNet) also are coming to see opportunities to extend their campuses by using networking and video technologies to provide educational content, in effect moving the universities closer to the community for the purpose of continuing lifelong education.

Ultimately, communities have to find their own motivations for investing in community networking; we believe that the opportunity to improve the economic prospects of many localities, coupled with educational institutions' drive to improve service and expand their customer base, can serve as overall motivating forces.

Developing local access mechanisms

In rural communities and small towns across the country we envision the formation of local information utilities (LIUs), a means of access for every member of the community--access to local and community information resources, to statewide and regional information, and to the wealth of the Internet--and access, also, to the power to build and make available community and other resources for others to retrieve.

As experience in localities grows, we can anticipate the local information utilities will broaden their information holdings and come to integrate educational, business, cultural, and governmental purposes and information within their structures. Indeed, in examples that exist today we can already see all of these areas, although not necessarily in one and the same local resource.

Local institutions, singly or in collaborative partnerships, will be the founding organizations. The partners can be any local institution or group: a school district, a community college, a public library, a business group, a community coalition, or even a local Internet service provider such as a telephone or cable television company. The plan is implemented so as to adapt to local conditions and growth patterns.

In turn, the local organization deals with regional service providers. CICNet is one such provider, working with and through state networking groups in the Midwest. CICNet envisions seeding dozens of local information utilities across each state, providing low-cost access to information resources, means for life-long education, and engines for economic development to users statewide.

To achieve this goal and support the local information utilities, CICNet and other regional and state service providers need to play a brokering role, developing technical, human, and capital resources to help local groups plan and implement realistically.

Components of a local information utility

Access begins with the means for widespread connectivity. At the user end, the local information utility will provide at least dialup SLIP or PPP access at 28.8 kilobits per second. To connect a community, at least T-1 connections (1.5 megabits per second) are recommended, although in limited circumstances fractional T-1 bandwidths may still be useful (128, 256, or 384 kilobits per second).

The regional service providers provide connections from their locations to a utility's local node. As an option, the service providers can provide referrals or consultative engineering design services for construction of wide-area networks in the community beyond the local node.

Local information utilities may, at their option, resell services to other users or user groups. At local option, the utility may also create private information exchanges (PIXs; purpose-driven connections between local groups) to support more efficient means of local resource access.

Connectivity, of course, is not enough. Customer support, user training, the right mix of services, the proper information infrastructure, and appropriate content areas also need to be considered.

Customer support

The local information utility model includes user training and support. Support is considered critical to the success of the utility in the community, and the agreement between regional service providers and local customers should place special emphasis on the customer's efforts to provide a robust service package.

The local information utility must define locally appropriate user training, both entry-level and advanced. Regional service providers should work with the LIU to support the definition process, and can provide training for local trainers or broker referrals to knowledgeable resources, often at postsecondary educational institutions in the region.

The LIU will also define a help desk capability to answer service questions from users.

Regional service providers should provide a centralized referral capability for networking consultants, trainers, and other experts.

Application services

The range of services an LIU will provide includes electronic mail, news, Web and Gopher servers, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), mailing list management, and caching applications for Web client and server response speedup. Other services will be provided on the basis of an appropriate bandwidth infrastructure (i.e., higher bandwidth may permit the use of CU-SeeMe multiway video, or MBONE broadcast video).

Regional service providers should provide referrals to suitable software suites for these applications, and will provide ongoing specialized training for help desk staff to update and upgrade their capabilities.

Information infrastructure

The regional service providers need to supply every LIU with a basic package of middleware and services, and should be responsible for their coordination and for conducting ongoing, standards-based research and development. The capabilities include:

Regional service providers will also find themselves frequently responding to LIU special requests for structuring service offerings--for example, access restrictions in response to special "appropriate use policies" (AUPs) for given user subgroups, such as minor students.

Content areas

Content will depend on local preferences. Examples of community-specific content include:

Regional service providers should provide referrals to other regional, state or neighboring LIU resources, and will organize aggregate Web pages with pointers to LIU resources.

Regional service providers will also provide referrals to content experts and will offer training for LIU information "scouts," and to resource creators and designers. This will encourage local users to become, not just "information literate," but also active producers of information resources, weaving each LIU into the global information infrastructure.

Identifying and supporting sustainable models: The role of intermediate service providers

Ensuring the long-term viability of each LIU is essential. Working agreements between the LIU and regional service providers will need to contain a detailed strategic plan, which the customer will prepare with help as required. The regional service providers can also support the long-term viability of the LIUs with a variety of resources and services:

In all of these areas, CICNet, local state networks and other groups have been acquiring the requisite experience over the past few years; it remains to be brought together into one place.

Through its Rural Datafication project, CICNet has since 1993 sought ways to create Internet infrastructure and services in difficult-to-reach and difficult-to-serve user communities. Awarded $1.3 million by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with NSF-sponsored networks in eight states from New York to Iowa, Rural Datafication was, and remains today, the only project of its kind in the nation, focusing on strengthening the ability of state networks to deliver services to rural communities, while simultaneously attempting to develop workable solutions that scale to vast geographic regions and huge user populations.

A note about CICNet

CICNet was founded by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) in 1988. The CIC is the academic analog to the Big Ten Athletic Conference, and has a 35-year history of supporting cooperative academic programs among the Midwest's major research institutions. CICNet connects academic, research, nonprofit, and commercial organizations in an eight-state region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Approximately 250 organizations are connected to the Internet either directly by CICNet or through the region's state networks, themselves in turn connected to CICNet.

Case studies

1. Door County, Wisconsin.

(Excerpted from case notes by John Clement. Not to be cited or quoted in its present form without permission of the author.)

The impetus for creating a community network here was provided by John McMahon, a salesman for Cisco Systems who came to live in the county. When the Rural Data community grant applications were announced by WiscNet, McMahon rounded up community members, formed the DoorNet coalition, and an application was put together. The application did not win a grant, but the DoorNet coalition decided to fund the equipment privately and went to WiscNet for connection support.

As of fall 1995, DoorNet offers local dialup access all the way up the county (with the exception of Washington Island, in Lake Michigan). The hub router is located at the county library, and runs eight phone lines. Since all lines are often busy, they have requested eight more lines from WiscNet. User charges are $40 for software, and a subscription fee of $10/month per account plus $1/hour line usage. The next phase, which should be in operation at present, takes advantage of the fact that there were already local-area networks at each school. A router is placed at each school, forming a wide-area network, with 56Kb lines.

I visited a very active Internet workshop for teachers of four school districts, run by DoorNet volunteers. It was clear from the tone of participation that at least some of the teachers were already active users of educational resources accessible over the Internet.

Plans are now under discussion for a wideband network, with interactive video, data and voice capabilities.

2. Two Harbors/Silver Bay, Minnesota.

(Excerpted from a draft report by A. Mickel of MRNet. Not to be cited or quoted in its present form without permission of the authors.)

MRNet's second site agreement (under the Rural Datafication program) was signed by the Lake Superior school district in Lake County, Minnesota, the poorest county in the state. The school district, which has sparsely equipped computer labs in each of their two high schools (at Two Harbors and Silver Bay, respectively), was the choice of a community group to host the hub. Two Harbors is on the North Shore of Lake Superior, some 30 kilometers from Duluth; in a tourist sense, the entire North Shore considers itself one community through Silver Bay and Grand Marais in spite of its length: 170 kilometers! The Two Harbors/Silver Bay community group first heard a presentation by the MRNet Sales and Service group in January 1995 and then failed to get Internet services in all four attempts before working with Rural Data: in negotiations with an MRNet ISP based in Duluth, in negotiations with MEANS, in negotiations with MNet and in a failed referendum to get local dialing service to Duluth.

The network site negotiations began in July 1995 and involved MRNet and representatives from each of Two Harbors, Silver Bay, and Grand Marais. Their insistence on being treated as a single entity despite the realities of telephone topology was a major reason for the failed negotiations with the other providers. Two Harbors is served by GTE; Silver Bay and Grand Marais by USWest. By splitting Grand Marais off as a separate case because it was in a different county, we satisfied the other two groups by promising to locate the hub in Two Harbors (which is twice the size of Silver Bay) and running four expensive foreign exchange lines to Silver Bay. Before actually incurring costs for the foreign exchange lines, we at MRNet decided it made more sense to use some of our own equipment and build a separate hub in Silver Bay. We are serving each town with a 56Kb connection. We now have more than 60 subscribers each in Silver Bay and Two Harbors. The school district has since become a 56K MRNet member.

Ann Treacy of MRNet held several training sessions for subscribers in the libraries in both Silver Bay and Two Harbors; they were well attended. Interest and usage has remained high. Two Harbors has had 10 modems in the pool. Twice we have had to add additional modems to the Silver Bay pool--from 6 to 8 to the present 10. They have gained local expertise and are helping themselves out a lot more than when we first began the service.

In the case of Two Harbors and Silver Bay, by pricing the service correctly from the start (at a fixed rate of $25 per user-month), we enjoyed terrific response and support from the community, and the school has been given new impetus to invest in technology programs in a poor school district.


[1] The number of persons that can obtain access through a single machine is highly variable; a multiplier of ten users per host is widely used as an average, but has no particular basis in fact. A December, 1995 study by New York-based Find/SVP estimates the number of U.S. Internet users at 9.5 million, well under the numbers given in an earlier Nielsen Media Research survey, which had reported 24 million North American users. The Find/SVP study also estimated the number of U.S. Web users was about 7.5 million (Wall Street Journal, 12 Jan 1996, p. B2).

[2] See (http://www.netgen.com/info/growth.html) As of 1 December 1995, Netcraft reported finding nearly 60,400 Web servers (http://www.netcraft.co.uk/Survey/Reports/951201/ALL/).

[3] See, for instance, "Economic renewal puts luster on the Rust Belt," Washington Post, 19 March 1996, p. A1.