Study Will Assess Telecom Technology Needs

June 19, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — Putting existing telecommunications services and systems to better use, identifying service voids and bringing additional technology to town are the goals of an upcoming technology assessment planned by the local chamber of commerce and the area’s natural gas utility.

A consultant retained by Energy One, formerly Michigan Gas Utilities, will visit Grand Haven for three days in November to assess the area’s current telecommunications infrastructure, the services and products now available in the area and how they are used. The consultant will then formulate a plan to use them better and address existing deficiencies.

At a time when small communities are often left out of the loop in telecommunications investments, the initiative is critical for the area, particularly when it comes to recruiting businesses to town, said Joy Gaasch, president of The Chamber of Commerce of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg. The availability of telecommunications services such as broadband Internet and fiber-optic lines for videoconferencing are playing an increasingly important role in economic development, Gaasch said.

“If we want to recruit those businesses who need that technology, how do we fit in and what do we need to do to get them?” Gaasch said.

The chamber, formerly known as the Association of Commerce and Industry, and Energy One are splitting the $5,000 cost of the initiative.

In assessing a community’s existing telecommunications base and needs, consultant Bill Coleman of Community Advisors Technology Corp. in St. Paul, Minn., likes to attack the issue from a market development viewpoint.

Rather than complain about the lack of telecommunications investment by the large telecom firms in their area, community and business leaders need to step up and build their case. Part of Coleman’s role is to help communities gather qualitative data they can use to make their area more attractive to telecom providers.

“Each community has to prove that it’s a market that can use the investment and sustain that investment over time,” Coleman said. “They need to try to create a climate where that business can thrive.”

“It’s a real challenge for the community, but there are a lot of different strategies people can take,” he said.

Quite often businesses and governmental leaders are unaware of what’s available locally, Coleman said.

“Sometimes there are people with telecom services that people don’t know about. We usually find there’s more stuff in the ground than people know about,” he said.

Businesses can potentially address a lack of service in an area by pooling their needs for similar services. If, for instance, a dozen or so companies within a given market can demonstrate a need for a particular service, they have a better chance of attracting a provider to extend a service to their area if they work together, Coleman said.

“It is imperative for a community to get people talking as a community,” Coleman said.

Addressing those kinds of issues is the basis for the initiative, said Karen Benson, vice president of economic development for the chamber. Benson hopes the efforts will lead to the development of a technology plan that outlines “where we need to be for technology” as the organization competes in the economic development arena over the next five to 10 years.

“It becomes not the end-all, but one more tool for people to plan with,” Benson said.

Energy One, which has several thousand natural gas customers in the area, launched the Team Assessment for Community Telecommunications initiative about two years ago to help small and rural communities it serves address telecommunications and technology issues.

The utility sees the initiative as an investment in its markets, said Gordon Welch, economic development director for Energy One. By helping communities in their local economic development efforts, Energy One in turn is shoring up its own market base, he said.

“We want to make sure those communities prosper,” Welch said. “If we have strong economies in those communities, it’s good for us. We have investments in gas lines in those communities and they are not going anywhere.”

The Grand Haven area is surely not the only community seeking to address local technology and telecommunications issues.

The Holland Area Chamber of Commerce has had a subcommittee working for months to assess the level of existing technology services and current and future needs. One issue the panel is weighing is whether to encourage the Holland Board of Public Works to build out its fiber optic network developed in the mid-1990s, versus working to lure private investment to town. The options are being weighed against the time and investment each will require, Holland Area Chamber President Chris Byrnes said.

“The thought is, how long will it take for the private sector to provide the infrastructure that the businesses in Holland need?” Byrnes said.

The subcommittee’s report and recommendations are expected to go to the chamber’s board of directors by the end of the year, Byrnes said.

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