"There's just not a great demand in Brewster for high-performance fiber wiring,'' Rod Armstrong, state information technology coordinator, said with a laugh.
Recently, as the state looked to provide high-bandwidth fiber for 89 of its 93 county seats, officials figured Brewster could get by without the advanced technology.
Nebraska officials have been given credit in recent years for understanding both when and where large-scale information technology initiatives are going to work. The state is known for its long stretches of terrain without hills or valleys, but flat certainly isn't the word to describe the state's approach to IT. Nebraska is known for a host of innovative and sometimes off-beat solutions to problems that states across the country are facing.
"I'm not a technology wonk,'' said Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who confesses that his greatest personal achievement in technology was switching from a manual to an electric typewriter in college. "But I respect technology and can anticipate what positive impact it can bring if we use it as a tool instead of a toy. You need to use the right technology with the right purpose. You need to use it to expedite a much more cost-effective and efficient way to do what you want to do. It's true in government and it's true in business.''
At a seminar held in the greater Washington area earlier this year, there were as many heads nodding as there were chuckles as Armstrong described his state's ideas and successes in its estimated $75 million information technology ventures:
- The state has gained national attention for using a cigarette tax to fund information technology. Specifically, $11.4 million of the tax revenue will pay for year 2000 computer conversion expenses, to ensure state systems will work once the next century begins. The state now is looking at having all the needed date-code fixes and tests completed by Jan. 1, 1999, to allow a year to correct any unexpected glitches.
"They recognized the need and went forth and got the approval for the funding,'' said Mary Ann Lapham, director of Nebraska operations for Rockville, Md.-based CTA Inc., the prime contractor to make year 2000 code changes for the state's agencies. "They made it happen. It's a priority in the governor's office and that makes a big difference.'
- Nebrask@ Online (www.nol.org), with Lincoln, Neb.-based Nebraska Interactive as the prime contractor, costs $900,000 a year to run but doesn't use a dime of general fund tax dollars. Instead, a $3 fee charged to users to get a driver's record contributes toward the service. Insurance companies, for example, frequently need that information.
- Nebraska is in the top five states in providing computers for students, with a computer for every 6.5 students, according to research released this year by Denver-based Quality Education Data. The national average is a computer for every 10 students. The state fares even better with multimedia computers, ranking third by providing one for every 11.5 students - twice better than the national average, QED reported.
- In late 1996, the state converted its satellite public television signal, eyeing a directive from the Federal Communications Commission to have all public TV stations go digital in the next six years. By going from analog to digital, the state freed up bandwidth that it now leases to states like Michigan.
"The work is done and the leases are in place,'' Armstrong said. "Now, we're in the process of paying for the digital technology.''
- Upcoming is N-Focus, a virtual one-stop shop for social services benefits. Whether the application is for food stamps or welfare, applicants will have their eligibility information entered into a computer to automate the benefits process and reduce the need for multiple case workers. The prime contractor on the project, which is now a pilot project in southeast Nebraska, is Chicago-based Andersen Consulting.
But innovations aside, the town of Brewster's experience mirrors that of the state. The consensus is that Nebraska's technology is well on track. It's the people who need to catch up with it, said Chris Hoy, the state's technology coordinator for community information.
A recent technology conference brought 100 workshop presenters to Kearney, Neb., one of the most wired areas in the state. Its integrated services digital network's bandwidth can support a number of high-end telecommunications tools, including voice/video transmission. But not one of the 50 vendors who attended asked for their booths to be hooked up to the network. They didn't have anything to show off that needed it, Hoy said.
As many states are finding, it's an evolution to get people acquainted and comfortable with the digital revolution.
"The biggest problem is going to be people, not stuff,'' Hoy said. "You could wire the United States by the next afternoon. Nothing would happen the next day that isn't happening now.''
|Nebraska's Infotech Sketch ||IT budget: |
The state hasn't officially tracked the spending for IT, but officials estimate it at $75 million to $100 million.
|Projects include: |
- Increasing bandwidth for 89 of 93 counties on its state computer network.
- Using $11.4 million in cigarette tax revenue to fund year 2000 computer compliance.
- Converting public television satellite signals to digital, and selling freed up bandwidth space to other customers like the state of Michigan.
- Establishing N-Focus, a streamlined social services benefits application system.