eCorridors - enhancing communities with the speed of light
Virginia Tech
Rationale for the eCorridors Inter-Regional Advanced Network Infrastructure Program

To succeed in war, two qualities are indispensable: the perception to discover an opportunity which is barely visible; and then, the courage to follow this faint light with intense, and total, resolution. - Clausewitz

Underpinning the new economy is access to advanced information and network technology infrastructure. Its driving force is creativity and inventiveness and new knowledge, all enabled and multiplied by technological advantages in access to the right information, producers, and consumers at the right time.

What is worrisome to leaders in Virginia's isolated and rural regions is the rate at which regions having an advantage in knowledge workers and technology infrastructure are separating in economic vitality from those that do not. One can easily conclude that catching up is impossible. Ironically, in the context of technologies (the internet protocol, advanced optical systems, high bandwidth wireless communications, microprocessors) designed to maximize distribution of information and economies of scope in computing capability, these technologies have instead led to the most significant concentration of production capacity and wealth in modern history. A very few regions of the developed world are reaping the greatest benefits in this new economy (such as Northern Virginia); a far greater number of regions are in serious economic trouble (including the Southside regions); and many of the remaining are bleeding internally and do not know it.

This characteristic of the new economy is due primarily to the fact that it is in its infancy. Also, the disruptive technologies on which it is based are well understood by the established communications industry to threaten - at best, their profitability - at worst, their existence. They have spent substantial political capital to slow the emergence of the new advanced communications services industry that will replace them. This leads to the third reason: the highest levels of access to the first generation of internet technology are concentrated where they were first deployed as part of the massive federally sponsored development efforts, such as ARPAnet, NSFnet, and ESnet - in the greater Boston region, in Northern Virginia and the greater Washington, D. C. region, in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay region, and in the greater Chicago area. Last, but perhaps most important, the regions that have benefited most are those that had in place the greatest concentrations of information and network literate knowledge workers, made available to this new economy by the end of the Cold War and the concomitant attenuation of the government investment in the defense industry - again, regions including Boston, Washington, and the Bay area.

The fact that this new economy is still in its infancy is reason for optimism - both this economy, and its enabling technologies, are still developing and changing at an incredible rate. To use Clausewitz terminology, the first battle is over and the rural regions along with most of the rest of the regions of the nation lost, but the competition for advantage has just begun. In addition, opportunity is reflected in the other elements of the explanation above for the low level of dispersal of producers and providers of network and information products.

First, State and federal regulators, legislators, and policy makers are beginning to comprehend the price their constituents are paying for the communications industry's rational reluctance to deploy technologies that do not sustain current ways of doing business and profit margins. Promises by these traditional players to meet new economy requirements for communications services and protectionist pleadings are received with increasing skepticism, and with more critical assessment. Policy is rapidly tilting towards accepting and encouraging innovators, new service providers and increased competition.

Second, new emerging optical, wireless, and "next generation" Internet technologies are eliminating the barriers-to-entry (high cost of equipment, right-of-way access, core competencies of incumbents in traditional communications systems and services, past requirement to leverage politically protected/regulated services such as the telephone switching system) for new players in the advanced network services industry (e. g. internet service providers, community cooperatives, electric utility companies municipalities, new startup's).

Third, at the state and local levels there is growing realization that continued economic growth and competitiveness are dependent on rates of growth in knowledge workers. Everything begins with competencies in using and leveraging leading-edge information and network tools.

One realization all of the members of the Virginia Tech team share is that in the long-run only the rural regions' people, with extraordinary, aggressive, and visionary leadership, will make their communities once again become the vibrant contributors to the state, national and global economy that they once were. Consistent with this analysis, the eCorridors Advanced Network Infrastructure effort is a "macro" project with great potential to transform life and prospects well into this new century.

Southwest and southside Virginia regions can take the initiative in leading and facilitating very rapid development of advanced, fiber optic, wireless, and "next generation" Internet infrastructure to enable an extraordinary advantage in costs and communications power. For instance, any one of these regions (e. g. the Dan River Region) in five years could be the focal point, the hub, for the world's most advanced communications infrastructure. That region could be within reach of every community in Southside and southwest Virginia. It would join the Danville and the Piedmont region to southwest Virginia and to Tidewater. It would create critical mass in population, natural and capital resources. The initiative would yield large economic benefits at a fraction of the cost of traditional infrastructure (such as highways) and would be private sector based. It would create substantial competitive advantage for the up to 2.5 million Virginia citizens living in, and adjoining this region, and for its businesses.

In this twenty-first century network economy, being second to market with a great idea is worth just about nothing. Varying levels of regional competitiveness and productivity tend to be a function of having critical masses of people having the facility to gather new information and to develop insight about new things on, or just over, the horizon. Perhaps Ben Davenport of Chatham, Virginia said it best, "To compete in this new economy we need something that no one else has, but that everyone will want and need." From that "something" may come the biggest advantage of all, people with unique understanding about the next generation of information and network technologies, and the new products and emerging industries leveraging them.