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In Northern California’s Humboldt County, broadband infrastructure is making advances, while fiber optic outages continue to hold the country’s economy hostage. I discuss this issue in the 02/06/07 guest column for the Eureka Times-Standard Newspaper.

WiFi at the Wharfinger…a Good Start…

WiFi at the Wharfinger is good, but we also need redundant fiber optics.

On January 18, the North Coast Small Business Development Center held a terrific workshop about business financing options in Humboldt. As CFO of my company, I was looking forward to attending, but on the morning of the event things got hectic at the office and I decided to skip it. There was no way I could be away and out of touch for practically an entire day. So I sat down to read my email, and happened to skim the notes from the last Redwood Technology Consortium meeting.

“It was announced that wireless access is now available at the Wharfinger Building”

Thanks to Eureka City Manager David Tyson and staff, our business community now has wireless Internet access at the Wharfinger, and the Adorni Center will soon follow. This is a great step forward and a huge free benefit for any local resident who organizes, exhibits or attends business and community events at these important gathering spots. We owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Tyson and staff for bringing Eureka that much closer to the modern age.

Knowing that I could stay connected to the office, I went to the SBDC workshop with my wireless-enabled laptop in tow. In between learning about the difference between a 7A SBA loan and cash flow principals, I was able to chat on-line with my business partner, help solve a mini crisis at the office, communicate with clients via email, and be assured that everything was OK until I returned.

But, WiFi hotspots are only the beginning, and if we are to continue to make progress, we must get involved with the RTC to ensure that our region’s Internet infrastructure needs stay on the radar of State policymakers and local communications companies.

Later in the week, an ironic turn of events occurred, when Humboldt’s only fiber connection to the Internet went down temporarily, and local newspapers announced Pacific Lumber’s bankruptcy filing. These two events, and the previous Internet outage in January, are a wake up call and a sign that our dependency on natural resources is ebbing, and developing Internet infrastructure is what we must focus on if we want to remain a viable community.

Even Bandon, Oregon, a town with less than 3,000 residents, has better infrastructure than the entire county of Humboldt. Thanks to their communications provider Comspan USA, a 4-year old company based in Roseburg, Bandon has fiber-to-the-home Internet infrastructure for every citizen. Simply put, fiber to the home delivery speeds blow away anything that the fastest DSL or cable lines can deliver, and it means that residents can get bundled television, phone and Internet services all on one line, starting at $100 a month. But it’s not about the entertainment factor.

In the next five years, Comspan and a Canadian business partner will bring fiber-to-the-home in 20 more rural Oregon towns, boosting their infrastructure beyond much of what’s available in the rest of the U.S., and bringing it up to the same level playing field as countries with highly advanced Internet infrastructure like Korea. Comspan’s ambitious undertaking will allow rural Oregon towns to thrive, attract and retain entrepreneurs who can build viable enterprises, conduct business outside of the area, and bring outside money in.

Yet, in Humboldt, the critical nature of building our Internet infrastructure still isn’t on the minds of many residents. For example, during one Internet outage, a KMUD noontime D.J. announced the outage and then proceeded to say “well, I guess you all need to find some other way to amuse yourself today,” What? Amuse myself? Excuse me, I needed to work that day! Instead of using the media’s power to inform, the DJ decided to perpetuate the myth that the Internet isn’t good for much more than playing World of Warcraft. This needs to change.

For businesses, our ties to the web are critical to our livelihood and our ability to infuse money and energy into this county. I hope that the next time Humboldt goes offline, all of our local media will use it as an opportunity to remind our community that better Internet access is as critical as 911 emergency services, and that it’s vital that we stay focused on the goal of fiber redundancy and better infrastructure.

Don’t wait for the next outage. I implore all of you, business owner or not, to get involved for the sake of our economic future. The best place to start would be by contacting the Redwood Technology Consortium to find out what upcoming events are taking place.

Copyright 2007. The original version of this article first appeared in the 02/06/07 print edition of the Eureka Times-Standard newspaper.

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