Monday, May 5, 2003

Butler Co. betting future
on fiber-optic network



By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - Looking to the future, Butler County has built a different kind of highway system - one without cars, trucks or asphalt.

It's a highway system made of fiber, providing high-speed Internet access with state-of-the-art transmission quality for video, voice and data services. Butler County officials see this fiber-optic system, now 100 miles long, as critical to their plan to lure high-tech businesses and jobs with good pay.

Fast-growing Butler, which owns one-fourth of the system, has invested $3 million in it already and plans to invest a lot more - perhaps more than $100 million - to expand it so that every business and residence has high-speed broadband access at reasonable rates.

But some question whether the county should spend all that money on a fiber-optic network when state funding cutbacks have forced reduced funding for social services and a debate about raising the sales tax. And there is no guarantee the county will recoup its investment in the fiber-optic network.

Hamilton Councilwoman Kathy Becker recognizes the importance of a fiber-optic network, but worries about committing tens of millions of county dollars. With today's rough economic climate and the squeeze on federal and state funding, she said, county officials need to keep in mind that social service needs are rising.

"We need to place the highest priority on serving people in the streets and in the community," said Becker, who is a coordinator of homeless services for Transitional Living Inc., a private non-profit agency in Hamilton assisting people with severe mental health issues.

Ruth Wadsworth, an 83-year-old Hamilton resident, also has misgivings about the fiber-optic network. She was one of the regular riders of buses provided by the Butler County Regional Transit Authority - until the agency pulled its buses off the road at the end of last year because of a lack of funding.

"I'd rather see them spend some money on public transportation," Wadsworth said. "I used to ride the bus to the post office, the grocery store, everywhere."

But Commissioner Courtney Combs said the fiber-optic network will help lure new businesses, whose tax revenue will help bolster social services.

"One of the ways to ensure that the county's human needs will be taken care of is to have a strong business tax base," he said. "A good fiber-optic network is essential for attracting businesses."

"We believe that over time, it will be justified by the services available to businesses and homes," Commissioner Mike Fox said. "It will help us get new jobs and keep the jobs we have."

Butler is just beginning to market its fiber-optic network to businesses. If the county realizes its goal of providing access to every business and residence in the county's 469 square miles, it could be the first county in Ohio and one of the few in the nation to be wired 100 percent for high-speed broadband service.

"We feel that the county's fiber strands will be valuable enough that the revenue from leasing access will absorb a large percentage of that cost," said Combs.

Technology experts praise Butler County for their ambitious plans, but say it's difficult to predict whether the county would recoup its investment.

"It makes sense for Butler," said Dr. Frederick H. Siff, vice president and chief information officer at the University of Cincinnati. "In their state of development, they are clearly a booming area, and this will tend to keep that fire going."

Peter Teklinski, director of the telecommunications and networking department for the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said Butler County officials need to carefully evaluate the demand before jumping into the residential market.

"A lot of people are doing more graphics and media-sharing," he said. "They're taking advantage of lower-cost high technology. But if all a person wants to do is send e-mail, they can survive on a normal telephone line."

Nancy Kaplan, vice president of Adventis, a telecommunications consulting firm in Boston, said Butler will need to capture at least half of the potential residential users to recoup its investment.

"That's an extremely high rate," Kaplan said.

Butler's fiber-optic loop runs from Cincinnati Bell's facility in Evendale to Hamilton, Oxford, Middletown and back to Evendale. There is also a line running along Ohio 4 from Hamilton to Middletown.

Cincinnati Bell installed the cable and will maintain, monitor and repair the system. Butler's primary partner in the project is Normap Inc. of Columbus, which owns most of the network.

The system now serves Butler County government and Miami University's Oxford, Hamilton and Middletown campuses, allowing users to obtain high-resolution graphics or images over the Internet in a matter of seconds.

In coming months, Butler County officials expect to get a better grasp of the system's financial potential and its capacity for expansion.

Fox likens the economic importance of fiber-optics today to that of railroads and telegraph lines in the 19th century and interstate highways in the mid-20th century.

"Things that make people and products move have always been crucial factors in the creation of jobs and wealth," he said. "This is no different."

E-mail skemme@enquirer.com




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