The Road Less Traveled

By Louise Fickel, CIO |  Networking

IN A REMOTE SLICE OF WESTERN

Massachusetts known more for stunning scenery than high technology, accessing the New Economy was a daily challenge. For starters, local businesses were being charged significantly higher prices for telecommunications services than their counterparts in urban areas. Charles Podesta, CIO of Pittsfield, Mass.-based Berkshire Health Systems, which manages nursing homes, hospitals, clinics, visiting nurse associations and physician practices, says his company was spending about $85,000 a month last year for data and phone services.

But that's about to change. Thanks to Berkshire Connect, a consortium of companies, government officials and nonprofit organizations, that bill will soon drop to $48,000 per month. The savings will allow Berkshire Health to build a new network, which in turn should translate into additional savings, such as cheaper long-distance rates for residents of nursing homes managed by the company.

In a region famous for independence and self-reliance, a group of frustrated people have banded together to address one of the nation's most pressing issues: the digital divide. By convincing one of the world's largest telecommunications companies to provide more affordable high-bandwidth service to local businesses, Berkshire Connect has ensured that this community will not get left behind in the rush to join the New Economy. Magnify Podesta's story many times over, and -- so the thinking goes -- companies and residents alike will profit.

Although the digital divide involves both economic and social issues, Berkshire Connect has focused on development of a new telecommunications infrastructure and the delivery of better, more affordable service to local businesses. Supporters such as Podesta say fostering economic development is a good first step to ensuring that everyone in the county benefits from the digital revolution.

As communities everywhere scramble to ensure that they don't get left behind during this period of explosive economic growth, Berkshire Connect offers some valuable lessons. Indeed, people are beginning to point to Berkshire Connect as a model for bringing rural and poor communities into the New Economy.

To ensure a thriving economy, companies need a technology infrastructure and skilled employees who can step into high-tech jobs. Yet for a rural community hundreds of miles from a major city or an inner city neighborhood struggling with poverty, gaining affordable access to the Internet or becoming adept with a PC is difficult, sometimes impossible. Telecommunications companies often focus on providing high bandwidth to corporations in cities, charging higher fees to rural and inner city communities or simply ignoring them. Meanwhile, new economy jobs usually require specialized training and education -- opportunities that are often unavailable to low-income residents.

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