Economic Development 2.0

E-cities. Cyber communities. Broadband economies. Byte by byte, digital infrastructures are being built all around us, and visions of the future are becoming reality.

In our tech-hungry, forward-reaching business world, the days of dial-up Internet connections are tucked away in a file folder labeled “Outdated.” The most progressive cities around the world are slinging webs of fiber optic wires throughout their communities, building networks of information highways, and growing their digital infrastructures. Fiber optic wire, made of pure, light-transmitting glass, is the Internet and telecommunication industry’s standard-bearer, allowing the speed and synchronicity necessary for many businesses to operate at top capacity. It is thinner, lighter, and cheaper than traditional copper wire, and has a higher capacity for passing digital information. Whether uploading and downloading data or administering conference calls with full audio and video capability, the need for quick and reliable broadband connectivity has become a paramount corporate concern-and fiber optic cables are the solution of choice.

Ironically, some cities touted as the “most wired” actually lack crisscrossing grids of cables. Wireless fidelity (wi-fi) networks deliver high-speed Internet access through a small radio tower (about the size of a soda can) to any mobile receiving device within 300 feet. While wi-fi connections do not offer the same quickness of fiber optic systems, they do allow increased mobility. Business people and city residents alike can link up to the World Wide Web from nearly anywhere-corner shop cafés to public parks, airport lounges to hotel lobbies, boardrooms to living rooms. According to JiWire, a wi-fi advertising network, the United States has the most wi-fi hot spots (62,836) in the world, more than double the number of hot spots found in the second-ranked United Kingdom. San Francisco has the most hot spots (824) in the United States, just barely ahead of New York City (818).

Communities, which for our purposes are considered anything from towns and metro areas to counties and geographic regions, continue to realize the necessity for and benefit of developing first-rate Internet infrastructures. Smart communities are coupling the mobility of wi-fi with the speed and durability of fiber optics to create the total communication package. An advanced Internet framework can help attract high-tech companies and, in turn, form industry clusters within a region. Having an established connectivity system also allows even the most sprawling cities to seem more closely knit. Communities are using their access to the Internet in innovative ways, creating links between educational institutions and libraries, research parks and hospitals. Many of these communities have designed detailed proposals, involving tech-savvy task forces, reams of blueprints, and millions of dollars, to keep their localities ahead of the information technology boom.

Innumerable organizations and publications, such as the Intelligent Community Forum, AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association), Forbes, and the aforementioned JiWire, monitor and report the digital happenings of localities throughout the world. We reviewed these and other sources’ findings and researched technological advancements throughout North America. Now, we are pleased to spotlight a handful of North America’s top wired communities.

Toronto, Ontario

Toronto, home to more than 2.5 million residents (and more than 5.5 million in the greater Toronto area), is one of North America’s most culturally diverse and financially important cities. Its landmark building, the CN Tower, juts more than 1,815 feet into the sky, an emphatic declaration of its status as Canada’s premier telecommunications hub.

In September, Toronto will launch its second annual TorontoTechWeek (TTW), bringing together the region’s information and communication technology professionals, and further cementing the city’s status as a trendsetting, wired community. Held at the Metro Toronto Convention Center, one of the most intriguing events of the week is entitled Future Forward: Internet 2010, a seminar that will discuss how different the Internet may look just two years from now and how corporations can anticipate and prepare for the technological turns of tomorrow.

TTW began in 2007 as an initiative of ICT Toronto, an alliance of IT professionals from the private and public sectors. ICT Toronto’s vision is for the city to be acknowledged globally by 2011 as one of the five most innovative, creative, and productive locations in the world for information and communication technology research, education, business, and investment. This industry is one of greater Toronto’s largest private sectors, with a core of 3,300 firms and 148,000 employees, making it the third largest ICT sector in North America behind San Francisco and New York City. ICT Toronto recently published a comprehensive report that outlines 13 recommendations, 17 actions, and 17 progress markers that detail the steps needed to further establish the city’s wired reputation.

Staying ahead of the tech curve is a hallmark of Toronto’s digital identity. Its new eCity program proposes four pillars-eService, eGovernment, e-Business, and eFoundation-that uphold Toronto as a digitally enabled city, integrating information technology with city services. From online licensing of pets through Toronto Animal Service’s ePet program to a user-friendly Web-based system that enables municipal government candidates to file electronically their campaign’s financial statements, various services are accessible to city residents via the Internet.

And the Internet is widely available thanks to Toronto’s One Zone wi-fi network. One Zone is Canada’s largest wi-fi zone, encompassing the entire core of downtown Toronto. The region also is served by Toronto Hydro Telecom’s extensive 280-mile fiber optic network which, combined with One Zone, allows for the connectivity speed, synchronicity, and mobility needed to meet Toronto’s lofty high-wire ambitions.

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta is a city so digitally diverse, so entrenched in the Internet age, it can let its numbers speak for themselves. Forbes has ranked the city as the most wired in the United States in both 2007 and 2008. JiWire ranks it sixth for number of wi-fi hot spots. Forty-six percent of the Southeast’s high-tech employment is located in metro Atlanta (with a population of nearly 5 million), according to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys. Also from the Bureau, metro Atlanta ranks third and fifth, respectively, in the U.S. telecommunications and Internet services employment sectors. So while New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are traditionally recognized as wired coastal hubs, Atlanta is a major contender from the South, with more than 80% of the city’s residents currently connecting to the Web via speedy broadband link ups.

In the corporate realm, Internet and cable giants like Earth Link, Cox Communications, BellSouth/AT&T, and Cingular, in addition to 137,000 other businesses, all call Atlanta home. In the education arena, metro Atlanta’s two largest public universities, Georgia State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, enroll more than 44,000 students per year. This combination of big business and higher education translates to an insatiable demand for Internet access and communications technology. Students and CEOs alike take advantage of the more than 500 wi-fi hot spots in downtown Atlanta, plus the 760,000 miles of lightning-quick fiber optic cable (operated by BellSouth) enmeshed throughout the city. Additionally, Atlanta’s metro area is the world’s largest toll-free calling area, spanning more than 7,000 miles.

The capital of Georgia also benefits from Wireless Atlanta, a citywide, public-private partnership, that provides a blanket of high-speed Internet connectivity to residents, visitors, and employees. This initiative was part of Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin’s second term goals to improve quality of life and promote economic development.

The wi-fi network’s deployment began in 2007 when transmitters were installed on outdoor utility poles around Atlanta. Ninety-five percent of outdoor areas are covered by the network, and many public parks and common gathering points offer free access. Essentially, everywhere in Atlanta is Web-ready.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Winston-Salem, NC is encircled by 26 miles of fiber optic Internet connectivity, which has transformed the city, once known mainly for tobacco, into a knowledge-based community of 223,000 people. Anchored by the efforts of WinstonNet, a nonprofit community technology initiative established in 1997, Winston-Salem aims to bridge the digital divide by linking educational institutions to its fiber optic network and providing community-wide wi-fi access through its innovative Wireless Winston initiative.

Winston’s fiber optic network was born in the 1990s when Wake Forest University developed a high-speed Internet network to connect its medical school to its main undergraduate campus. The larger community, however, realized the potential of this technological advancement and formed WinstonNet, which, in 1999, used a U.S. Department of Education grant to connect its local school systems to Wake Forest’s fiber optic ring. This fiber optic ring was then linked to the larger, statewide North Carolina Research and Education Network for easy information sharing and greater connectivity.

The impact on the Winston-Salem community is undeniable. One hundred percent of government offices, most businesses, and 88% of households have broadband Internet access. WinstonNet offers free computer access in its 44 labs, located in public places such as schools, churches, and libraries throughout the city. In addition to free Internet access, the labs’ computers hold current Microsoft Office software, free email accounts, and free data storage. This community computer program is led by Wake Forest and Forsyth Technical Community College, and is sponsored by the Cisco Foundation and the Microsoft Corporation, which granted $491,000 in development funding in 2005.

“This project is establishing Winston-Salem as a national model for how corporations and community organizations can work together to harness the benefits of information technology,” says Harold L. Martin, chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, one of the network’s educational partners.

In 2006, WinstonNet launched the Beehive Web portal which provides information, in both English and Spanish, on employment, taxes, health, immigration, and much more for the entire community. Again funded by Cisco and partnered by national nonprofit group One Economy, the Beehive is the nation’s third most visited community Web portal, and its bilingual structure responds to the 37% increase in immigrants to North Carolina from 2000 to 2006. The portal is maintained by Winston-Salem’s public library system.

Also in 2006, WinstonNet, in partnership with Forsyth County Libraries, used a three-year grant from the state to create a computer training program, complete with a full-time coordinator and 40 volunteer trainers. In its debut year, the program trained nearly 1,000 people in 189 classes taught in both English and Spanish. Classes for the visually impaired and physically challenged are currently being planned.

While Winston-Salem has certainly utilized its 26 miles of fiber optic wiring, the city also sees the benefit of going wireless, underlining a dual approach to Internet connectivity. Wireless Winston includes plans for low-cost or free wireless Internet service throughout the city and, currently, all 44 WinstonNet computer labs also offer wi-fi access. WinstonNet aims to place computer equipment in low- and moderate-income level households, and it maintains that its initiative will not use any taxpayer money to complete. Instead, WinstonNet is seeking a private vendor to own and operate the busy network.

Currently, the fire department of Winston-Salem uses a wireless dispatch system that provides data routing and imaging and helps decrease emergency response times-just one example of how wi-fi mobility can enhance public safety.

Economically, the city’s aggressive approach to bolstering its digital infrastructure has helped draw and maintain 37,000 biotech employees as residents, with biotech companies bringing about $10 billion in annual revenue to Winston-Salem. In 2005, Dell Computer opened a manufacturing facility in Forsyth County, creating 1,500 jobs and investing more than $100 million-another example of the city’s tech success.

The Best of the Rest

The North American wired communities highlighted here are large threads in the ever-growing web, but smaller communities also are rapidly linking up. Sallisaw, OK offers DiamondNet, an advanced video, Internet, and telephone service, to 4,800 households and commercial facilities. Sallisaw invested $7 million in this fiber optic network, which should be fully operational by year’s end and profitable within three years.

“The information age makes the availability of these services paramount to our quality of life,” says Bill Baker, Sallisaw city manager. “In terms of economic development, we see this as a big plus for Sallisaw as businesses and industries look for relocation or expansion sites.”

Another small community, Powell, WY, is wiring every home and business with fiber optics. This ambitious endeavor, PowelLink, boasts Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) technology, which brings fiber to every front door in Powell. The network is a result of an innovative partnership between the City of Powell, network service provider TCT, and municipal broadband network facilitator, U.S. MetroNets (USM).

“This model breaks new ground. You can count on the fingers of one hand those cities that have gone forward to provide FTTH,” says Ernie Bray, CTO and founder of USM.