Technology cowboyM-Fs brand is broadband

The Eastern ShoreM-Fs first technology director, Jim McCormick, is helping to put rural Caroline County in the digital wireless forefront.

Bridging The Digital Divide

September 26, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

In Caroline County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the term "high tech" might seem a foreign concept in the great expanses of cornfields that separate the handful of small towns.

But parked beside a narrow road in Greensboro -- population 1,750 -- police Chief Jeffrey A. Jackson is sending an instant message across the Internet and checking criminal records on his computer, all while sitting in his steel gray cruiser, a 1996 Crown Victoria.

Several miles away in Denton -- population 3,000 -- Kevin Gillespie, director of the county's emergency medical services, is discussing plans to visit a medical technology company near the headquarters of Microsoft Corp. in Washington state. The purpose is to help plan development of a heart monitor system the county hopes to use that would beam real-time data about patients from an ambulance directly to the hospital.

And in most of the county's towns -- places of tree-lined, quiet streets, pickup trucks and occasional refugees from city life -- antennas transmit high-speed wireless data through a county system linked to one developed by the state's public libraries with help from an Israeli broadband company called Alvarion Ltd. and a Pennsylvania wireless company called Business Information Group.

When it comes to technology, "we have to keep up and not catch up," Jackson explained. "The minute you have to catch up, you're already behind."

Caroline is one of Maryland's poorest counties, with a median household income of about $39,000, compared with the state median of $53,000. But technologically, it is ahead of many more affluent areas, in large part because of some committed people with expertise or interest in the area.

To stretch a technology budget of about $367,000, a fraction of that of larger places, Caroline officials have bought fiber-optic cable on eBay and pursued numerous grants, including one that will enable them to break ground on a technology business park in the spring.

Caroline's is a story repeated in many communities across the country where computer enthusiasts in local governments or school systems are using creative thinking and financing to help bridge the "digital divide." In North Carolina, for example, small towns are using settlement funds from tobacco lawsuits to finance broadband deployment.

"What's happening in a lot of these communities is people are just doing it for themselves," said Scott Lindsay, president of the Rural Broadband Coalition, a national advocacy group in Washington. "The people may not all be tech-savvy, but they have their hearts in the right place and know it's the right thing to do for their communities."

Technology is often integral to a community's standard of living, from attracting business to raising wages. But commercial companies typically ignore places like Caroline, which are seen as too sparsely populated to make installation of services such as broadband cable and digital subscriber lines worthwhile. Cable provider Comcast Corp., for example, serves most of the county's 10 towns, but two-thirds of Caroline's 30,000 residents live outside those municipalities.

"Rural areas are historically disadvantaged on all kinds of fronts: human resources, technology and financial resources, all those sorts of things," said Stephen R. McHenry, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, an independent state agency that works to improve the quality of life in rural areas. Caroline County, McHenry said, is "really with limited resources doing a terrific job."

When Charles C. Cawley was appointed Caroline's county administrator seven years ago, he discovered no computer in his office, no network and no one paying technology much heed. But Cawley had a vision that what the county needed was a piece of the future.

"We're certainly not rich, but we can do a lot of neat things with not a lot of money," Cawley said at his office in Denton last week. "We're mostly manufacturing and industrial parks, and we want to get away from that. ... We have a large population of people who [commute to jobs] at NSA, why can't we have a branch office?"

Five years ago, Cawley hired Jim McCormick as the first technology director of any jurisdiction on the entire Eastern Shore. The job's title, "computer network supervisor," didn't suggest much vision, but McCormick made up his job as he went along, impressing supervisors with "outside the box" thinking.

"He's very intelligent, and difficult to understand. We have to have him bring it down to our level," said county Commissioner Mario J. Gangemi.

McCormick, who said he's been described as a "technology cowboy," was out of his fashion element one day last week, dressed in khaki pants, a polo-style cotton shirt and boat shoes. His cowboy boots, he explained, were being resoled.

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