As I drive along the remote west coast of Norway, I'm pretty sure I've arrived at the end of the world. The single-lane blacktop hugs a fjord with towering cliffs on each side; the only other access is by boat. Nestled at the end of the fjord is the small town of Modalen. Population: 350. Aside from its spectacular setting, the sleepy community has two main attractions: hydroelectric power and sand lots and lots of sand.
This, to say the least, is an economic backwater. But Modalen is no longer feeling isolated. Since the beginning of the year, everyone in town in homes, businesses and schools has been linked to the Internet with a broadband connection. Overnight, this Norwegian outpost has become part of the worldwide Digital Village. "I was looking for a town in the middle of nowhere to serve as a pilot for broadband testing," says Jostein Eck, marketing manager for the Norwegian telecommunications firm Nera, as he gestures toward the snow-capped cliffs. "We see it as a model for communities outside urban areas."
It's also a model for survival. Leif Egil NAmdal, Modalen's mayor, sees the project as a way of keeping people from moving to commercial centers like Bergen, a 90-minute drive away. Modalen can scarcely afford to lose any citizens. "This is good for the future," NAmdal says, "an investment in young people." To help Modalen's residents get their connections working, the city has enlisted a technical team of early adopters: a squad of teenage schoolboys who go door-to-door.
Modalen isn't the easiest place to wire. Nera has supplied each house with plate-sized antennas allowing families to link to the Net by a radio linkup. (As the town's few residents are scattered over 385 sq km, using copper or fiber-optic cable would be too pricey.) The Internet is connected to a set-top box on a TV, controlled by a wireless keyboard. Modalen's 2 megabits per second is roughly 35 times as fast as conventional modems. Each customer pays $18 a month for the service; the municipality covered the installation costs of nearly $345,000. It can afford to: Modalen earns more than $2 million a year from the nearby hydroelectric dam.
There's a clear potential payoff for the town's few businesses. Otto Moe, general manager of financial software firm Uni Micro, says broadband access should cut costs. The company has 7,000 clients, most of them in Oslo, an hour away by plane. "Customers can now connect to our servers in Modalen for support or access to our databases," Moe says. Before broadband, the company had to maintain offices in Oslo and Bergen to handle customer relations. Now it's expanding in Modalen, adding a new building and more staff.
Modalen will soon start unrolling the new look. Utilities will read meters over the Net, simplifying billing. Businesses will be able to submit electronic invoices and receive payments directly at a local branch of SpareBank 1. And there will be ready access to Internet telephony, which offers long-distance phone calls at almost no cost (except for the $1,100 handsets). "This is the future, and it's all free," says Jarle Neset, a local computer salesman who owns one of the five such phones in the town.
Can technology truly change such a remote place? Harald Kjensli, Modalen's official computer manager, is counting on it. He expects residents will apply for building permits online and eventually hold virtual town meetings. Kids will be able to retrieve assignments and hand in homework via the school's Web pages. That's especially appealing to older students: with no secondary school in town, they currently face a daily two-hour bus commute. Other, unexpected innovations are sure to follow. Opinion pollster Norsk Gallup is participating in the experiment to gauge the effect of high-speed Internet access. As Eck puts it: "We want to see how broadband changes people's lives."