Rural applications thrive on fiber

Rural applications thrive on fiber

George Kotelly

Senior Editor/Features

Fiber-optics-based applications are stimulating business, education and medical activities throughout the United States, especially in rural areas. Optical cables and networks are transforming small towns into virtual big-city neighborhoods. By means of fiber-optic communications, widely separated and less densely populated communities can export their local capabilities and import their outside needs, such as for entertainment, health-care, schooling and commerce.

Several states, including Nebraska, North Carolina and Iowa, are operating leading-edge optical networks to link scattered municipalities for telecommuting, telemedicine, distance learning and videoconferencing. Moreover, advanced optical communications technologies are permitting small towns to grow by attracting new companies and workers.

A major result has been the reversal of people leaving small towns. Government reports disclose that several hundred U.S. rural counties have become more populated during the 1990s. Although some changes are due to retirees and companies seeking lower operating costs, most changes involve thousands of people opting for less-stressful rural environments.

In the true sense of telecommuting, researchers, analysts, journalists and consultants comprise some of the workers who prefer to live and work where they want--in distant places near lakes, forests and mountains. They can, however, perform their skilled endeavors even though they are physically isolated--perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles--from their customers or employers, by communicating nationwide and worldwide via fiber-optic network connections.

Several rural states contain thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable, which provides digital links for data communications and interactive video applications. Businesses, agencies and organizations are using these optical links to conduct small-town transactions, telemedicine and distance learning with big-town customers all across the country.

In many small towns, public buildings provide two-way videoconferencing equipment connected to a fiber-optic network. A myriad of local groups and town agencies use the network for local, statewide and national meetings, and information exchanges.

In addition, fiber-optic cables link local manufacturers` plant facilities with corporate headquarters in other states, as well as with shippers and customers around the country. In nearly all applications, widespread usage of optical networks has resulted in increased sales and employment.

Local telephone companies have boosted revenues by installing fiber-optic networks that link local farm cooperatives, establish telemarketing centers, spawn cable-TV systems and provide long-distance operator services. By offering a variety of telecommunications services, rural telephone companies are cost-effectively competing with the major national long-distance carriers.

Small schools, with only a few hundred students or fewer, are fiber-connected to statewide distance-learning networks. Accordingly, students are able to receive instruction in foreign languages, advanced mathematics, computer basics or any course from teachers miles away--via interactive videoconferencing.

Furthermore, fiber-optic technology means improved health care via telemedicine. Doctors in small hospitals and care centers can discuss a patient`s condition--via interactive television--with medical specialists anywhere in the country. The specialist usually provides a preliminary opinion and delivers a complete diagnosis shortly thereafter, by digital messaging, imaging or storage media. Virtually all large medical centers in the United States are establishing two-way health-care programs for patients living in rural states such as Nebraska, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

For more detailed information, check out this issue`s special report--Applications Review--for several articles that demonstrate how distinctive fiber-optic applications are meeting ordinary people`s needs (see page 35).

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