Don Whiteaker, mayor of one of Wyoming’s tiniest towns, came to Spokane on Friday to say yes, the much-hyped information superhighway can reach small-town America.
CBS News and several magazines have declared Whiteaker a guru of the high-tech home on the range. Because of his efforts, isolated Lusk, Wyo., with a single stoplight and 1,500 residents, is now known as “the best-wired little town in America.”
Equipped with a new fiber-optic network, residents of the small eastern Wyoming city have a telecommunication pipeline with state-of-the-art capacity and speed.
Whiteaker, a weather-tanned, rugged 60-year-old, was a guest speaker at Friday’s “Telecommunications: Wired for the Future” seminar held at the Ag Trade Center.
After showing a tape of the CBS News broadcast about Lusk’s digital efforts, Whiteaker talked to the group about his philosophy of “if you build it, things will happen.”
He also acknowledged that it’s one thing to install a brand-new digital telecommunication system in a back-water town.
It’s another thing to get people to use it.
During a break, Dick Hol, information systems director for the Community Colleges of Spokane, asked Whiteaker how many “power users” Lusk has - people or businesses tapping into the wide-band network for more than basic phone service.
Whiteaker said there were only four so far: three schools and one business.
Later, Hol said small towns like Colville can find inspiration in Lusk’s example.
“I think Don’s unique in being so aggressive. He’s helping his town’s infrastructure evolve,” Hol said.
But when it does, will Lusk’s shopkeepers and train engineers and their families sign up for e-mail, on-line chat or fax-on-demand?
Whiteaker’s reply: “I just don’t know.
“But I am sure that unless we got aboard that sucker, we’d continue dying and never get connected to the outside world.”
The system Lusk now has is a full fiber-optic data network that passes by every business, home, office or school in the community.
The city built the system in 1993 with $315,000 from a state grant and from other government sources. The last step was convincing US West to run a connection 40 miles from Orin Junction to Lusk.
What the town got is the ability to handle the high-tech gizmos one might find in the Silicon Valley or hot-wired Seattle: high-speed compressed data, cable-TV modems or satellite video-conference systems.
While few residents need those services now, Whiteaker said the appetite will grow.Some rural hospitals are already using high-speed phone lines to transmit X-rays or to help doctors diagnose a patient whose test results are displayed on video monitors in offices hundreds of miles apart.
A few critics in Lusk say people move to small towns precisely for the face-to-face intimacy and direct contact that computer networks and digital networks can never provide.