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Chillocothe on the Net: Innovation from the Heartlands

By Howard Rheingold

When I discovered that small towns like Miramichi, New Brunswick, in Canada , rural Oita in Japan, and Chillicothe, Ohio, are laying fiber optic cable, opening Internet access businesses, making deals with companies in other countries, it began to sink in that the world economy has already begun to shift from Tokyo and New York to everywhere. Is it possible that the Net is making region-to-region small business possible, breaking the monopoly ofs giant multinationals on global markets?

New modes of transportation and communication make new kinds of businesses possible. The railroad and the telegraph made nationwide companies possible, the telephone made the modern corporation possible, and the Internet is making it possible for small towns and rural regions to conduct business with other small towns and rural regions half a world a way.

I had seen for myself high-tech development in Oita and New Brunswick, so my attention was captured when Gerald Tebben, business editor for the Columbus Dispatch, told me that a consortium of mom-and-pop telephone companies in Ohio is bringing local Internet service to a rural region of twenty three thousand people, forty five miles south of Columbus. It all started, as it often does, with one local Net evangelist, and one entrepreneur.

Stan Planton, as head librarian at Ohio University's Chillicothe campus, had Internet access through the university, which he used to demonstrate the Net to local business contacts. Planton has been using the Net to make arrangments between midwest American distributors and South African wine exporters. Samples are sent air freight, but the rest of the negotiation is virtual. Another Chillicothe company, JER/JLM Enterprises, started out on a dining room table and has moved into its own building, largely because of the computer systems, software, and training businesses it arranged through e-mail with companies in Russia. A delegation from Russia came to visit Chillicothe in person to finalize agreements with local businesses. That certainly got the attention of the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chillicothe Telephone Company, an independent company serving thirty thousand people, joined a coalition of similar companies throughout the region to bring local Internet access to personal computer users with modems who otherwise would have to make long distance calls to a big-city Internet service provider. Bill Bright, Director of Network Services for the Chillicothe Telephone company, responded to my queries "Most of the initial subscribers seem to be people who are very computer confident," he replied. "Many of them are current subscribers to online services. Several are small business owners -- a stock broker has been one of our best marketers. There is a lot of interest from high school students who are heavy computer users or have been exposed to the the Internet at school. And we are getting some interest from parents of college students who would like to communicate with their children via e-mail."

Bright noted that "Several of us here participate in an online extension of a local Bible Study school. College students who were in the group when they were in town during high school now "meet" on the Internet by sending e-mail to a Bible study mailing list."

Will access to Net culture change traditional small-town, rural, values? It will be instructive to check back with Chillicothe in a year or so to find out how it went. They've been holding town meetings to talk about putting up a Web page. Right now, you can find out for yourself via the Ohio State University, Chillicothe Campus home page

Bright's e-mail Bible study class came to mind when Stan Planton claimed: "In a world where everything touches, "where people can interact instantly, the question could be something like "how do traditional values fit in?" I think Chillicothe's answer is: "probably pretty well."

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Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold