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Editorial: Bandwidth bandwagon?

What if the city had decided to invest in a newfangled communication network known as the telegraph back in the 19th century? Or, what if city leaders had decided, decades later, that there was a strong and abiding public interest in ensuring that every household had access to an electric typewriter?
As a fellow once sang, the times, they are achangin’ ó and the technologies of the day are always changing with them.
Such musings arise as the city of Salisbury considers launching a fiber-optic cable system that would cost about $30 million and would, in essence, create a new e-utility supplying homes and businesses with high-speed, high-capacity access to cyberspace, as well as offering new options for telephone and cable TV service. For the city, a fiber-optic-to-the-home system offers the possibility of linking two goals: Giving computer users better connectivity through greater bandwidth and offering a cyber selling point to attract more young, wired professionals to Salisbury.
No one can predict which technologies will endure (think safety pin) or which will go the way of the cassette tape, which is why venture capitalists need iron stomachs and titanium nerves. As Salisbury contemplates its fiber-optic future, less venturesome taxpayers, inevitably, will ask one question: How much is it going to cost me ó worst-case scenario? Based on initial feasibility studies, city officials believe the system could be launched using bond issues that system revenues would pay back and even show a profit within three years. Although the customer base isn’t large enough for a private company to install fiber optic lines to local homes and businesses, city officials are convinced that the business and residential market will soon be there and that it’s to the city’s advantage to tap into it now.
Salisbury is hardly alone in jumping onto the bandwidth bandwagon. Wilson is about to launch a fiber optic system, while some other N.C. cities have tapped into fiber optics in a smaller way by taking over existing networks. Back at the turn of the millennium, the state legislature also endorsed the idea that high-speed access is an important growth and development tool by creating the Rural Internet Access Authority (now the e-NC Authority) to help expand high-speed access into underserved areas.
Obviously, the Internet isn’t a passing fad, and high-speed access is fast becoming a necessity for even medium-duty online users. Still, it’s worth noting that only one resident showed up at a Tuesday hearing to cheer on this endeavor, although Councilman Paul Woodson said another local businessman had enthusiastically endorsed it. Granted, it’s the opposition that usually packs the house or fires off angry e-mails, not supporters. One public hearing isn’t a reliable gauge of community interest. And it may be that many residents simply aren’t familiar with the advantages of fiber optics, or the enhanced connectivity they offer.
In that case, the city may need to use some old-style communication strategies to whip up interest in this brave new frontier. While there’s a persuasive argument that the city has an interest in providing this 21st century infrastructure to its citizens, it needs to make sure the market is there ó or will be in the near future. Meanwhile, anybody want to buy some typewriters?

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