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Cities' Bandwidth Capabilities Increasingly Important in Attracting Businesses

General Electric relocating its headquarters from Fairfield, Conn., to Boston earlier this year is described as being digitally driven and advantageous thanks to Boston's higher bandwidth capabilities.

(TNS) -- No matter how much it spends on technology upgrades, Connecticut will never have a city like Boston.

But it can still make investments in hardware, software, networks and data facilities that would appeal to large companies, experts say, and might prevent the next General Electric from leaving — or help to bring in its replacement.

Among GE’s stated reasons this month for leaving its Fairfield home of 42 years was to be at “the center of an ecosystem” with “a technologically fluent workforce.” CEO Jeff Immelt has stressed the importance of bandwidth as his company moves toward a more digitally focused future.

By many measures, Connecticut lags its neighbors and competitors in establishing the kind of IT infrastructure that could make a difference to a company the size of GE. But advocates say the potential is there — and the fiber optic cables to transmit large volumes of online traffic are already in the ground.

The Connecticut Education Network, established in 2000, delivers high-speed Internet access in every town and city to schools and other public facilities. Standard connections allow for 1 gigabit upload and download speeds, which is about 70 times faster than the average in Connecticut. Connections at 10 megabits or even 100 megabits are also possible, and the network links to New York City and Boston.

“CEN has a presence in every municipality in state, and at least one school from every town is connected,” said Scott Taylor, director of the Connecticut Education Network. “In some cases there are several connections, and we’re in almost every university and many libraries.”

Some businesses that perform research or work closely with universities are already connected at high speeds. The key to faster economic growth, experts say, is increasing its availability.

CEN is also the basis for the state-run effort to provide 1-gigabit capability to residents.

More on-ramps

Bruce Carlson is president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, a statewide association of tech-oriented companies and institutions. He said the state’s IT environment is becoming a top concern among members.

“There is a huge need for faster Internet service,” Carlson said. “In my mind, we’ve got a situation in Connecticut where we’ve got a superhighway of a 100-gigabit line between New York and Boston. But we don’t have a lot of on-ramps.”

The gigabit effort is a good step, he said, but not nearly enough for many businesses.

“One gig is yesterday’s news, and a lot of places are looking at needing 10 or 100 gigs,” he said.

The competition is fierce.

“We have been watching other states, and you have New York investing $500 million into its broadband infrastructure, and Massachusetts investing $50 million,” said Elin Katz, the state’s consumer counsel. “We really need to look at where we are and how we can move forward if we have such powerhouse neighbors.”

Further afield, Ohio has taken out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal promoting its 100-gig connectivity as it works to attract biotech and advanced manufacturing. Like Connecticut’s network, Ohio’s started as a way to connect municipal entities, but has expanded to include businesses.

Currently available local speeds aren’t nearly enough, experts say.

“We have businesses in Hartford who are using dial-up, and they say they have no other options,” Katz said. “This is unacceptable, and we need to see what we can do to change it.”

The departure of GE, she said, has provided an opening to discuss the importance of network expansion.

“In light of this conversation, we have to make sure in this 21st-century economy that businesses have access to the infrastructure they need,” she said. “If they don’t have it right now, we need to figure out how we create the options for them to get what they need.”

Falling behind

And while Connecticut has fast connection rates compared with the country as a whole, it isn’t making much progress.

According to Akamai Technologies’ State of the Internet Report last year, 88 percent of the state’s Internet connections were higher than 4 megabits per second, the ninth-best level in the nation. But Connecticut has also been backsliding, and was one of only two states to see a decline in average connection speeds.

By many accounts, the state lacks a sense of urgency to improve IT infrastructure.

“Connecticut has in the ground a 100G backbone — CEN — that is well connected to New York City and Boston hubs. The oddity is that the state has no apparent interest in seeing this very significant investment, more than $100 million, actually used,” said Fred Carstensen, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s School of Business and director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.

Carstensen said the network has played no role in the state’s efforts to attract and retain businesses.

“Connecticut functions as if IT is of no significance … as if we are not in the Age of Big Data,” he said.

“I don’t see urgency from the state,” said Carlson, of the Connecticut Technology Council. “If I were to look at investments for our economy, this is one of the most important ones that could be made.”

He said network connections turn Connecticut’s location into an asset. “We’ve got this location between Boston and New York, and there’s no way to attract companies here if they can’t connect to those cities,” he said. “We’ve got clogged roads, but if we could make that connection over the Internet, we could be much more attractive to companies that don’t want the cost of the cities, but want to be near enough to them.”

Plenty of work remains to convince state leaders, Carlson said. “Right now it’s just my voice,” he said. “It’s important to pull the business community together, get some facts, get some data, take that to the governor and the Legislature and see what we can do.”

Though Connecticut can’t offer a city experience like New York or Boston, a built-out high-speed network could provide advantages those places can’t.

“With our connections, it makes you feel like you’re virtually there,” said Taylor, director of CEN. “In some ways it’s easier to do business from here than from inside New York or Boston,” adding, for example, that a connection from Storrs to Manhattan could be significantly faster than one between Queens and Manhattan.

For now, CEN is focused on education, Taylor said.

“There needs to be a balance,” he said. “The large companies like GE maybe don’t need us, but maybe startups do. We would be foolish not to try to help.”

©2016 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.