Information Revolution Spreading Beyond Urban Boundaries

February 11, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Rural America is catching up with urban centers in the information revolution.

Contrary to the worry of some public groups, rural counties gained greater access to computer networks and digital hardware between 1986 and 1992.

"Manhattan, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Chicago and other hubs no longer have a monopoly on advanced digital technology," said Shane M. Greenstein, a U. of I. economist who headed the study funded by the National Science Foundation.

The finding runs counter to last fall's report by the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University, which argued that modern telecommunications is skewed toward urban areas and that rural America has not benefited from the approaching technological era. This viewpoint has been echoed on Capitol Hill by some rural lawmakers.

"The argument that telecommunications has been concentrating in urban areas cannot be sustained by our data," Greenstein said. "Access to digital information has, in fact, become more widely dispersed."

He likened the findings to the growth of railroads and telephone service in the 19th and early 20th century. "These networks started out in cities and spread from the center to the periphery and eventually from coast to coast."

The U. of I. team studied three components of the nation's digital infrastructure in 1986, 1989 and 1992 -- the miles of fiber optic cables laid by local telephone companies, the number of computer users with one or more large supermini computers and the processing capacity of those computer users.

The data base was the largest ever surveyed, embracing 95 percent of the U.S. population and between 12,386 and 13,788 computer sites in each sampled year.

Matching the distribution of fiber cable per square mile to the number and location of computer sites, the researchers compiled a "networking index" for each of 1,400 counties.

Greenstein said fiber optic mileage in the U.S. multiplied twentyfold -- from 265,472 to 6,316,436 miles -- between 1986 and 1992. This is considered significant because fiber optics can handle far greater amounts of information than traditional copper telephone wires.

Over the same six years, national computing capacity expanded from 112,000 mips (million of instructions per second) to 553,231 mips.

The report, "The Evolution of Advanced Large Scale Information Infrastructure in the United States," was co-written by Mercedes M. Lizardo, a U. of I. economics graduate student, and Pablo T. Spiller, a former U. of I. economist who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.

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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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