Donald Fry: After the ‘fiber from heaven’ scramble, what’s next?

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By Donald C. Fry

Three months ago, when Google sought cities to compete as a location for the Internet giant to install, at its own expense, a 1 gigabyte-per-second fiber-optic network, municipalities across the country engaged in a wild scramble to draw attention to themselves as prospects for what amounts to “fiber from heaven.”

One Midwest city changed its name to “Google” for a month. A mayor in Minnesota took a dip in Lake Superior in February. A mayor in Florida jumped into a shark tank.

To its credit, Baltimore did not succumb to such gimmicks to gain Google’s attention. Our city’s application opted for substance over style by clearly and convincingly documenting our technology-rich business sector, tech-savvy workforce, and our city’s standing as a world-renowned knowledge center.

That tech-rich environment was on display this week, when an overflow audience of high-tech managers and advocates crammed into the University of Baltimore’s Thumel Business Center on June 2 to begin charting Baltimore’s high-speed fiber future.

The Google challenge has served to focus Baltimore’s business, educational and civic leaders on the major positive impact that widespread access to high-speed fiber could have on our economy, culture and quality of life.

The June 2 event, presented by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Greater Baltimore Committee, was about next steps. It was designed to begin a community examination and dialogue about the prospect of fully converting our city’s information technology to a high-speed fiber environment.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has asked Baltimore’s Google Czar Tom Loveland, CEO of Mind Over Machines, and I to co-chair a blue-ribbon task force to map the city's fiber future – to develop a game plan for high-speed fiber here.

This week’s conference reinforced what high-speed fiber can do for business growth, education and health care in a city or region. One thing is clear about today’s business environment. Information is a major driver of economic development. With information, access and speed are the keys.

We heard video-conference presentations from the mayor of Lafayette, La., and from the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. – two cities that took different routes to building their high-speed fiber networks.

Lafayette made development of a fiber network a public project, financed by revenue bonds, after being turned down by the local private provider. Fort Wayne, on the other hand, successfully persuaded Verizon to make it the company's first "fiber-optic city" in 2005. This is a similar approach to what Baltimore and 1,100 other cities are pursuing with Google.

Despite their different approaches, Lafayette and Fort Wayne experienced the same kind of anecdotal but extraordinarily positive impacts. Companies that were attracted to Lafayette because of its fiber resources include a Hollywood special effects production firm that hired more than 140 employees, reports Joey Durel, the city’s mayor. Fort Wayne’s fiber network has lured new businesses to the city and nurtured ground-level entrepreneurship, reports former mayor Graham Richard. The city has experienced an “explosion” of home-based entrepreneurs, he said.

Both cities also report significant educational and health care benefits ranging from offering fiber-enhanced foreign language subjects in public schools to instituting electronic medical record-keeping in community health care clinics.

High-speed fiber is not magic, however. It must be smartly deployed through a high degree of community teamwork. Cost remains a big issue – not just the cost of installing citywide infrastructure, but developing a framework where access to fiber is affordable to residents.

Another challenge is to gain wide acceptance among members of the community that high-speed fiber is something that they need. Approximately 30 percent of Americans who currently have access to some type of broadband service though cable, phone or fiber, choose not to use broadband either because of cost factors or computer literacy issues.

These and many other logistic and cultural issues must be examined and addressed as the mayor’s task force works toward crafting a plan for high-speed fiber in our city.

Baltimore remains aggressively in pursuit of Google designation as one of its fiber-optic demonstration cities.

It’s important that, as a community, we fully grasp the transformative economic and cultural impact that a state-of-the-art, high-speed fiber network would have on our city and region.

But it’s even more critical that we have a sharp, shared vision for this remarkable technology in our midst and a well-designed plan for achieving it, however we get there.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

BRAC growth no longer a future event – it’s happening now

Economic development is a contact sport

Despite the recession, bioscience growth still percolates in Baltimore

State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

Wind power has potential in Maryland, but solar emerges as early renewable option

It's not good to be clueless in cyberspace

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid -- a bad habit continues

Where's the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives
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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.