Striving To Be An Intelligent Region

August 15, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Ninety-two percent of businesses in Kent County are connected to the Internet. But 41 percent of those companies still use a phone modem instead of a high-speed connection.

In the three-county area of Kent, Barry and Ionia, 86 percent of reporting businesses can access the Internet, and phone lines connect 53 percent of those firms to the Web.

Those are a few of the findings from an extensive survey recently completed by the local link of the LinkMichigan Initiative, a statewide push to get businesses and residents on the broadband bandwagon.

The drive to do that came out of Lansing, specifically former Gov. John Engler and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and Kent County has taken the administrative point position for the local initiative that involves Kent, Barry and Ionia counties.

The ultimate goal of the effort is to provide high-speed services to offices and homes in the area. The first phase of reaching that goal involved finding how many companies and homes were connected to the Net, what types of connections were being used, how much the service cost, what broadband role local government should play, and other related issues.

The ultimate objective underlining the effort, however, goes way beyond just having the latest, high-speed cyber access linked throughout the area.

"We want to be an intelligent region," said Ray Hoag of Grand Community Net, an affiliate of the Community Media Center, and a key participant in the effort.

Besides getting smarter, a successful effort could also bring the area a political reward.

"We believe if we develop policies as a region, we can have more impact in Lansing," Hoag added.

The survey for Kent showed that businesses use phone modems the most; that most companies pay $50 a month for their service; and that most firms feel they will need the same access speed in two years or didn't know what speed they would need then.

The findings for the three-county area were similar except that more businesses in Kent already had higher-speed connections like DSL and cable than those in the other counties, and that Kent firms paid slightly more for service than companies in Barry and Ionia.

Hoag recently told county commissioners that six of 10 businesses surveyed reported that there was room for improvement in their service and that half said they would allow workers to telecommute if they had a high-speed connection.

"Affordability makes the equation a little more complex," said Hoag.

Hoag said link participants were working with REGIS, an agency of the Grand Valley Metro Council, to develop an Internet provider bank that firms could contact for service, upgrades or anything else broadband.

But perhaps the survey's most revealing conclusion was that technology itself isn't the selling point that will get everyone on board.

"We need to sell ideas. We need to identify personal pain and show how technology can ease that pain," said Hoag.

The telecom infrastructure survey ended the first phase of the local initiative, and the second phase is expected to look at how the broadband gaps can be filled. Kent County Deputy Administrator Al Vanderberg said an effort would be made to bring Muskegon, Newaygo, Allegan and Ottawa counties into the fold, and then tackle that weighty issue with seven, instead of three, counties.

"We're maybe thinking of calling it the West Michigan Broadband Coalition," he said. "This isn't something that people have committed to or anything like that. But discussions are being held to see if maybe that group would be interested in moving forward.

"This has truly been a public-private initiative from the beginning. So it would not only be the governmental units that make up those seven counties, but also the private companies that have shown a lot of support to date," he added.

Funding for the first phase of work officially stops at year's end, so financial support for the next stage needs to be found.

"Back when the program started, I think it was implied that the first grant was basically the first phase and that there very well could be funding for future phases," said Vanderberg.

The MEDC gave $231,000 to the first phase of the local initiative, part of the $1.8 million the agency distributed to 13 counties for regional efforts across the state. Kent, Barry and Ionia counties, the Urban Cooperation Board, The Right Place Inc. and the Frey Foundation provided local matching grants that totaled $81,000.

Ottawa and Muskegon counties also got MEDC grants.

MEDC spokeswoman Jennifer Owens said the local initiative needs to apply for a grant for the second phase and explain what work would comprise that stage.

"We certainly wouldn't close the door to funding the second phase, but we don't have a formal application from them yet," she said.

Owens said there was a good chance that a grant application would look stronger to the MEDC if it were a seven-county effort instead of a three-county one.

"Adding additional counties is definitely a plus for them," she said.

Virchow, Krause & Co. LLP conducted the telecom survey, which cost $195,000. The public accounting and consulting firm has an office in Holland. Kent County invited 65 companies to bid on the survey and 13 did.

Vanderberg told the Business Journal that over the past year he has found a lot of interest in the initiative from both the public and private sectors.

"They want to see this area compete globally in the future and be able to communicate with high-speed Internet. It gets really fuzzy as far as the intermediate steps of how to get there, and that would be what this broadband coalition would need to work out," he said.

"We don't need to be an island. None of us can be islands out there," added Hoag. "We need to be in an instructive and collaborative mode."

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