Monday, May 05, 2008

A new kind of high-tech 'farm' blooms in rural areas

Cheap electricity, particularly that generated by dams, has brought massive "server farms" of Internet-based businesses to some rural areas, with the promise of economic dividends, but skeptics say expectations are too high, Hugo Kugiya reports for the Los Angeles Times from Quincy, Wash., pop. 6,000, just across the Cascade Mountains from the Internet hot spot of Seattle, where Microsoft, Intuit and Yahoo have built a server hub.

"Rural America -- particularly the inland Northwest, where wind- and water-generated electricity is some of the cheapest in the nation -- is suddenly coveted by technology companies. They construct sprawling buildings with massive computer servers, the hidden muscle and bone that process the seemingly weightless, rapidly growing data of people's everyday lives," Kugiya writes. "For a town like Quincy, built on potatoes and apples, the arrival of high tech has proved an inspirational and a cautionary tale."

The town spent millions to buy land and install infrastructure, and "arrival of Microsoft and Yahoo triggered a wave of local real estate development last year," but many homes went unsold and prices have been slashed, Kugiya writes. But Aleeta Merred, executive director of the Quincy Valley Chamber of Commerce, told him,"It's like we're still waiting for something. So far, we're not really seeing the growth we expected."

Some basic facts: "Data centers employ dozens, not hundreds. Some are technicians and engineers, but most are electricians, plumbers, heating and cooling specialists: skilled tradespeople, but not the makings of another Silicon Valley," Kugiya writes. "The hope is that every job at the data center will support two or three other jobs in town -- a subcontractor or a short-order cook, a teacher or a landscaper." (Read more)

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