Utilitys HighSpeed Link Fuels Economic Development

May 28, 2002
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HOLLAND — The drunken driver who put the community into darkness one night more than a decade ago probably never knew what he or she started.

By running into a utility pole at 16th Street and Waverly Road, the driver knocked out all of the Holland Board of Public Works’ (BPW) electrical circuits, leaving the entire city without electricity for a short period of time. As a result, the BPW decided to take a serious look at developing a better control system that would prevent all of its power circuits from going down at the same time.

The BPW’s solution was to develop a fiber-optic network for its own use, as well as for use by anyone else who was willing to pay for access.

“It grew from there,” BPW General Manager Tim Morawski said of the fiber-optic network that was developed out of the evening’s darkness and is now drawing increased interest in the past year and a half from businesses that need and want a high-speed telecommunications link.

“I felt this was bound to be something that was going to be in demand, and it hasn’t let me down from that standpoint,” Morawski said.

The system, developed in 1992 at a cost of just $600,000, today provides a growing number of businesses a high-speed link around town at a time when such connections are becoming increasingly important to the business world and the public sector’s ability to support and sustain it. The BPW maintains the network with the $300,000 it generates annually in connection and monthly access fees.

In addition to providing itself a tool to control electrical circuits and power loads, as well as an in-house telecommunications network, the BPW now has more than 20 business and organizations connected to the system, which has about 50 miles of underground fiber and offers transmission speeds ranging from 3 to 25 megabits per second.

“We’re setting up a network that can share and be an enabler of economic development,” said Luiz Costas, BPW’s telecommunications engineer.

The BPW has received requests from residential developers about wiring their new housing developments, and has been asked to extend the network to neighboring Holland Township, Costas said. He expects interest in the network to continue to grow.

“There’s a lot of energy. One thing moves to the next,” Costas said.

Holland Community Hospital uses the BPW’s network as a link to its facilities throughout the area and physician offices. The network provides the hospital a low-cost option for high-speed data transmission, said Bill Van Doornik, Holland Community’s director of health management and information systems.

Among Holland Community’s uses is transmitting patient medical records between the hospital and private physicians, Van Doornik said. Without the BPW network, the hospital would have to go without or have to develop its own telecommunications link around the community and incur regular operating and maintenance costs that go with it, he said.

“Being able to reach out and touch this loop has been great for us in terms of savings,” Van Doornik said.

The Holland BPW at one time sought to use its fiber-optic network to develop a telecommunications system that offered residents and businesses telephone, Internet and cable television services. The venture never materialized when, in a 1998 ballot proposal, it did not receive the 60 percent majority of votes needed to pass.

Since then, the BPW and AT&T Cable Services have struck a deal for AT&T to use the existing network and add its own fiber lines in areas where the BPW system does not extend to provide digital cable television and high-speed Internet service to its customers in Holland.

While business groups, after seeing other communities develop fiber-optic networks and launch their own telecommunications systems, have begun to question municipal governments’ role in areas that compete with the private sector. Holland also has drawn questions over a city ordinance that effectively prevents development of a second fiber-optic infrastructure.

The intent was not to stymie competition, but prevent a duplication of infrastructures and to guarantee low-cost access to the technology for all to use, Morawski said. He likens the situation to the public ownership of roads and highways for the common benefit of everybody, leaving the private sector to focus on their particular service.

“We’re not taking away competition, but we’re providing a means of competition, and I think businesses and industries in the state would be very excited about that possibility,” Morawski said. “We want to make sure customers have access to the technology they need to compete in the world today.”

Even the head of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce doesn’t see the publicly owned system as posing unfair competition to the private sector. Holland, like many communities, is lacking in telecommunications infrastructure investment and the BPW’s network helps to fill that void, chamber President Chris Byrnes said.

“Right now, we’ve just got nothing,” Byrnes said. “We’re almost an afterthought as far as investment.”

The BPW is “making the kinds of investments and the kinds of plans that are going to put our community in a position to compete economically in the future,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes hopes that as the BPW enlists more customers on its fiber-optic network, a private party will finally step up and develop a system that provides a high-speed connection with the rest of the world.

They built a great network through the community, but how do we get out of town and how do we get to the rest of the world?” he said. “It’s a great asset to the community and something we have the ability to build upon.”   

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