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No Back Roads

On the Internet, there are no back roads. If you have an Internet connection in Jackson, Montana (population 38 people, 53 dogs), you can be as much a part of the information age as if you live in Manhattan.

In fact, the Internet directly addresses the unique challenges rural areas have: geographic isolation, small schools and libraries, few stores, and fewer sources of news. Given this, you could argue that having Internet access in a rural area is even more important than having it in an urban area.

Although urbanites have enjoyed the benefits of the Internet and online services for years, many rural areas have only recently become wired. Major online services and national service providers haven’t been interested in creating local dial-up access points for small towns. The 38 people who live in Jackson, Montana don’t represent a large enough customer base for America Online and AT&T WorldNet. As a result, rural dwellers have had to make expensive toll calls to get online. "Unlimited access" pricing means little when you’re paying a dollar per minute in long-distance charges.

But country dwellers are by necessity self-sufficient. They make things happen themselves because they know outsiders won’t do it for them. In dozens of small towns and cities, people who believed the Internet could benefit their communities have worked together to bring local access into their area. These digital barn raisers are the unsung heroes of the Internet age.

Last July, I embarked on a seven-week, 26-state, 9,400-mile trip across America – from California to New England and then back again – to meet people who have brought Internet access into their area and people who have taken advantage of the access to do remarkable things. Together with my wife and colleague, Maryellen Kelly, and my standard poodle, Trixie, I went from small town to small city to research and document the Internet’s arrival in – and impact on – rural America, posting the results of our explorations on a Web site that I created during the trip.

<http://www.nobackroads.com/>

My goal for the trip and its Web site were to document how rural America is connecting itself to the Internet and to discover how the Internet is influencing small towns and cities. During the trip, I visited with and interviewed various rural-access pioneers and then posted stories, RealAudio interviews, QuickTime VR virtual-reality movies, and digital photo albums about them and about interesting places along the route.

In Ritzville, Washington, Becky Lyle, wife of a fourth-generation wheat farmer, struck a deal with Brigadoon, a Seattle-based service provider that establishes partnerships with rural areas. She then went on to create an award-winning Web site for wheat farmers.

<http://www.ritzville.org/~blyle/>

In Dillon, Montana, Ken and Nellie Bandelier, two retired educators, obtained a federal grant to found Dillon-Net, which has established over a dozen public-access sites. Throughout rural Beaverhead County, an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined but with a population of just 8,000, you can walk into public offices and libraries and get online. Dillon-Net also has six notebook computers that residents can borrow for one week; there’s a waiting list for them.

<http://www.bmt.net/~dillonet/>

In Cascade, Idaho, logger-turned-science-teacher Clinton Kennedy convinced the school superintendent to install a phone jack in his classroom so that students could do research on the Internet. Student Ben Plehal built a Web site for Cascade High School’s advanced biology class – and won a national educators’ award for it.

<http://www.cascadehs.csd.k12.id.us/advbio/96-97 /biocoil.html>

Two small cities that we visited have taken the concept of self-sufficiency to the limit. Two years ago, the residents of Cedar Falls, Iowa voted to build their own fiber-optic network. Now the local utility company offers not only cable TV, but 10 megabit-per-second Internet access – for $29 a month. People are moving to the area to take advantage of the kind of broadband access that major cable companies are just beginning to provide. High-tech buildings are springing up in the cornfields. Locals refer to the area as Silicorn Valley.

<http://www.wired.com/wired/5.09/callback.html>

Glasgow, Kentucky has performed a similar miracle, wiring a city of 14,000 with fiber and offering 4 megabit-per-second access for $11 a month. It, too, is attracting new businesses. (Incidentally, Kentucky has some of the best town names in America. Dog Walk. Paint Lick. Rabbit Hash. Belcher. Dot.)

In some cases, local or state governments are getting involved. The Kansas State Library system operates a service called Blue Skyways, which provides a Web presence for towns with populations as small as eight. Volunteers John and Susan Howell spend their weekends driving across Kansas helping small towns establish their own Web sites. She’s a retired newspaper editor; he’s a Unix systems engineer with Boeing.

<http://www.kumc.edu/kansas/>

Technology skeptics may decry the Internet’s arrival in the boondocks. "People won’t socialize anymore," they snarl. "They’ll just stare at their screens." Wrong. In many of the towns I visited, Internet access has brought residents together. Ritzville, Washington, holds a monthly Internet night, where people get together and swap URLs and tips. In Cascade, Idaho, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a group of high school students to develop the town’s Web site. Back in Kansas, John and Susan Howell enjoy getting old-timers to share stories with the kids who are helping to build the town’s Web site, thereby closing a generation gap and also proving to the kids that there is something interesting about their particular speck on the map.

Other skeptics fret that the fabric of small towns will be ripped apart as the forces of the outside world push in. Wrong again. For one thing, the idea that there is a universal "small-town fabric" is an urban myth perpetuated by Norman Rockwell. Every small town is different, and some have a fabric of decay that could stand to be ripped apart.

But more to the point, no one I visited with saw the Internet as some external evil that would ruin their town. They looked upon the Internet in the same way that their predecessors looked upon the railroads: as an essential connector to the outside world, as their town’s lifeline. Towns along the tracks flourished; towns that the railroad passed by withered.

Writer John Steinbeck concluded his masterpiece of an American travelogue, Travels with Charley, by saying, "Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased." This certainly applies to the "No Back Roads" trip. The places and people we visited are burned into my brain – and bookmarked in my browser.

We’re keeping in touch. In Ritzville, Washington, the wheat harvest came two weeks late this year, but they had a fine crop. In Dillon, Montana, the Bandeliers have added seven new public-access sites since I was there. In Kansas, Boeing has generously given John Howell a one-year sabbatical to assist the Blue Skyways project full-time. And Ben Plehal, Cascade, Idaho’s high school webmaster, has begun his first year of computer science studies at the University of Utah.

Journeys are about discovery, about lives touching briefly and then parting – except on the Internet, where distant lives can intertwine, and where a journey of discovery never has to end.

[Jim Heid went online in 1981 with a 300-baud, manual-dial modem. He writes for PC World and Macworld magazines, and is the author of HTML & Web Publishing Secrets (IDG Books Worldwide, 1997). He and the rest of the "No Back Roads" crew live in a town of 398 people on California’s Mendocino coast.]

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