Silicon Insider: Tech Revolution off the Map

The next great technology revolution -- one that will define the first half of this century and bring a billion more consumers into the world Internet economy -- has already begun in two places you likely couldn't find on a map.

A few days ago, I happened upon a recent copy of The Economist. The magazine was facedown, so what I noticed first was a glossy back-page ad for Hitachi. Having written enough ad copy in my misspent youth to last a lifetime -- and knowing just how fraudulent most of it is -- I studiously ignore most tech ads.

But something about the familiar light in the ad's photos caught my eye: gray Oregon sky. Indeed, the misspelled headline read, "Smalltown Oregon Logs On" and there was the Coquille River passing through Bandon, Ore. And just below it was a photo of some of the princesses in the annual Bandon Cranberry Festival.

Bandon is a small fishing (and former logging) town of about 2,800 citizens located on the southwest coast of Oregon, on the so-called "Oregon Riviera" -- which means it is both warmer and wetter than the rest of the coast -- about 90 miles north of the California border.

The Tech Evolution of a Logging Town

Longtime readers of this column will remember that I've written about Bandon on a number of occasions. I first visited Bandon as a teenager, returned as a poor writer on my honeymoon more than 20 years ago, and have come up every year since. For the last seven years I've owned property on the beach there as well.

I've used little Bandon as a case study in how the high-tech revolution has come to small-town America. The little village I first visited as an adult was trapped in a downward spiral of recession as the logging industry dried up and the town's children moved away in search of work almost the instant they graduated from high school.

In those days, going to Bandon from Silicon Valley was like stepping back four decades in time. There were only a handful of TV and radio stations. Dial-up Internet access (when it finally came) took forever and was prone to cutoffs every few minutes. Cell phone calls (analog only) often took a half-dozen attempts as the cell rotated away every two minutes. FedEx took a drive to the little community airport and required an extra day for delivery. And a good gust of wind (it can hit 100 mph in the winter) would cut off the electricity for hours.

And that, of course, was both the appeal and the irritation of living in Bandon: When you wanted a break from the craziness of modern life, it offered the slow pace and low stress of old-fashioned, small-town life. But if you needed to get anything done on deadline, Bandon could also drive you half insane with frustration and isolation.

Why Is Bandon Featured in a High-Profile Ad?

Curious to find out why a global corporation like Hitachi would be talking about little Bandon, Ore., in a glossy ad in an international business magazine, I (after making sure no one was looking) tore off the back cover and took it home.

Here's what I read:

"The rugged Oregon coast is the last place you'd expect to find America's first 2.5 gigabit-connected town. But here's where it all started, thanks to fiber-to-the-home technology from Hitachi."

The ad also invited me to check out a video on the subject at So I did -- and got to see a nice (but expensive) little five-minute doc about how broadband is changing Bandon.

Knowing the town as I do, I could see how it was edited to amplify the rustic side, leaving out the many other changes that have taken place in Bandon in recent years. Thus, the ad featured the local cranberry festival and a lot of shots along the river dock (including my favorite eating joint, the Minute Cafe) and the local skateboard park.

By comparison, except for one shot of the beach, with its famous rock formations (the shot happens to be of my backyard) nothing is shown of the new million-dollar houses, or of the pair of new world-class golf courses that draw wealthy golfers like Michael Jordan to land their private planes at that little municipal airport, or in Coos Bay just up the coast.

But that's OK, because at its heart Bandon is still a small town -- and that makes Hitachi's decision to install America's first 2.5-gigabit citywide cable system there, of all places, something of a miracle.

As it happens, I was one of the Bandonites who signed up for the cable service, and I now have a router and wi-fi setup in both my family's vacation home and our rental property. I was up there a couple months ago, using the system for the first time -- and I did notice the network seemed pretty fast. Actually, looking back, it was very damn fast. In fact, it was faster than my Comcast system here at home. When I get back up to Bandon this weekend, I'm going to give the system a real test-drive.

Bandon Outpaces Silicon Valley

Now, think about what I just said. I live in Sunnyvale, Calif., at the very epicenter of Silicon Valley.

Google, Apple, Cisco, Intel, HP, Yahoo! and Sun are all about equidistant from my house. I live one mile from where the video game was invented, two miles from where the integrated circuit was invented, two blocks from where the inventor of the microprocessor lived, and four blocks from where the Apple Computer was first built.

And yet, my access to the Internet in Silicon Valley is now inferior to that available to the residents of a small fishing village on the southwest Oregon coast -- inhabited by many folks who still don't have digital cell access.

Meanwhile yesterday, a story written by the European VNU Business Network described how the southern African nation of Namibia had just become the first country in the world to power the base stations of its mobile phone network using wind and solar power.

It's likely that all you know about Namibia is that Brad and Angelina chose to have their baby there. But for me, after Silicon Valley and Bandon, Namibia is my other home. My family has spent three of the last six summers there, living on ranches, in the big city, down with the bushmen in the Kalahari and camping in the barren north among the Himba people.

Trust me when I tell you that Namibia, as much as Bandon, is a place where you would least expect to find the cutting edge of technology. A desert country, it is one of the least populated nations in Africa. But it is politically stable and, thanks to tourism, hunting and diamond money flowing down from nearby Angola, it is also, by African standards, a prosperous nation.

All of that has apparently combined to make Namibia the ideal place to experiment with "green" mobile networks. The base stations that have been installed are, it is reported, completely self-sufficient. Between solar panels and a small wind turbine, enough electricity is produced to not only run the base station, but to also electrify the surrounding fence to keep out wild game (and, left unsaid, probably thieves).

Crucial to the operability of these base stations is that they eschew the standard GSM mobile technology for WiMax, which requires less power (Intel ought to be ecstatic).

The new green base stations are being given a four-month trial run to see how well they work. Assuming they pan out, these stations could soon be at the heart of the truly wireless world, where every square inch of Earth, from pole to pole, Death Valley to the summit of Mount Everest, is on the global information broadband grid.

When that day comes, and it is coming fast, civilization will change in ways we can't yet imagine. And the revolution won't have begun in Silicon Valley, or even Bangalore, but in Bandon, Ore., and the nation of Namibia.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.