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bob maginnis 12/31/00

December 29, 2000

The new electronic highway you're probably unaware of



With less fanfare than usually accompanies the ribbon-cutting at a new convenience store, the State of Maryland and a private partner have laid a large fiber optic cable on a route that slices north through Washington County along Interstate 70.

To the technologically minded people I know, this is big stuff, a improvement as important to economic development as adding another lane on the interstate. But just why, I wasn't sure.

For an explanation, I turned to Scott Hesse, who owns Mid-Atlantic System Integrators, a Hagerstown firm that provides a variety of computer-related services.

"The ways we communicate now have been with us for over 100 years," Hesse said, adding that the networks and switching systems that service this old-style telephone-type of communication had to be matched to it.

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Like an old country road designed for horse-and-buggy travel, the old system isn't capable of handling all the traffic that business needs to put on it, Hesse said.

"We need more and more massive highways with lots of bandwidth. Bandwidth refers to how many lanes the highway has, and the one going across Maryland is tremendous," he said.

There are problems involved in distributing this capacity, or building the on-ramps, so to speak, but once a community is wired, Hesse said, then companies can get high-speed Internet connections.

And what's the business advantage of that?

"The biggest single thing is that it's like a massive party line - a way to have many simultaneous conversations going on at one time," he said.

Not only can people talk to each other, but suppliers' equipment can also be linked to customers' computers "so that the whole supply chain of a business can be simplified," Hesse said.

Such arrangements are extremely complex, he said, but much simpler than they would have been with the old telephone-based systems.

What other possibilities does this open up?

"For one, I remember going to the World's Fair in the 1960s and seeing demonstrations of the photo-telephones they said we were going to have in a few years. It didn't happen then, but now high-speed Internet can give us visual imagery, so we can see who we're talking to," he said.

A by-product of this is that traditional telephone carriers will eventually disappear, Hesse said, as more people begin moving to the Internet.

Something else we'll see, Hesse said, is more information available on a regional basis. For example, he said, leading professors in their fields will lecture via the Internet and perhaps even interact with students in remote classrooms.

Such technology might even be used by churches to present their services on-line to prospective members, Hesse said, so that someone looking for a place of worship need not attend every one in town.

Consumers will also find enhanced opportunities for shopping and for entertainment, he said.

"All of a sudden, you'll have a television with millions of channels. We'll need a better remote control and certain search engines that can find these sites," he said.

What's the best way to promote these possibilities?

"I think it's really good the technology committee has been formed by the chamber to make this a part of the community," he said, adding that one of that group's jobs will be to put together a list of the assets - the various fiber-optics networks, for example - that exist within the community.

Once the group figures out what's available, then it can use it to not only promote business, but also make the resources available to the public, he said.

Over time, Hesse said, the location of a business will become less important than the skills its employees can "put through the pipe" to help clients.

For a business like his, that also means that competitors can come through that same "pipe" and serve his clients, Hesse said. But he added that it also means that if it's possible to work anywhere, why not choose a place away from all the things people don't like about big city life?

Washington County would seem to be that place now. Far enough from the metropolitan areas to have affordable rents, there are also cultural attractions like the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, the Washington County Museum and a variety of historic sites.

The problem with all of this is that unlike the interstate highways or the power industry, state and local governments haven't figured out all the rules, like who gets access (and where) and who bears certain costs involved with this new technology. The local technology committee will not only have to educate the public about such matters, but elected officials as well, so that when these issues are legislated, Washington County isn't stuck at a rest stop on this new electronic highway.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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