Survey: Tech companies want 'free' Wi-Fi, better fiber-optics [Missoulian (MT)]
(Missoulian (MT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Free Wi-Fi and better access to fiber-optic lines are both at the top of the wish list of some "technology companies" recently surveyed in Missoula.
Late last year, a Missoula City Council subcommittee conducted the survey to determine how municipal government can best support the economic development of local businesses with a focus on technology. Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who chairs the Economic Development Subcommittee, said research shows fiber - not "free" Wi-Fi - drives economic development, but pulling cables up to businesses isn't always easy because of the cost.
"Getting the fiber into actual buildings so that they can use it is tricky," said Copple, who also noted "free" Wi-Fi isn't actually free because someone pays, even if the user doesn't.
Since the national economy crashed and the local one took a battering when Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. closed in Frenchtown and other businesses shuttered along with it, the city of Missoula placed a focus on economic development. Mayor John Engen launched an initiative that led to the Missoula Economic Partnership, a public-private effort to bolster companies already here and recruit new ones.
Copple wants city government to find more ways to
support the partnership, so she launched the subcommittee to take a close look at one narrow area of interest: technology infrastructure. The goal of the group, made up of both councilors and businesspeople, is to "identify needs and possible solutions to Missoula's technology infrastructure that would help existing businesses expand and increase the city's competitive advantage in recruiting new companies."
The survey, conducted both online and with hard copies, was one first step. Given the relatively high number of respondents asking for fiber, Copple said one of the next steps will be a conversation with telecommunications companies about ways the city can help them reach more customers with the service.
Dave Martin, with Blackfoot Communications, agreed some older areas in Missoula are hard to reach with fiber cables. But the problem with fiber and Internet speeds is more of perception and marketing, said Martin, vice president of product management and chief technology officer.
Blackfoot does get requests from customers for speed, and he said Missoula's rich broadband can easily accommodate the capacity most businesses need. Sometimes, customers and providers have different ideas about what it should cost, but he said most requests are for 10 megabits per second, well within the capability of Blackfoot's infrastructure as well as CenturyLink's or Optimum's systems.
And if a business truly does need a fiber connection, it's easily available near the Missoula Development Park near the airport, throughout downtown, and just about any place other than the Brooks and Orange Street area, 39th Street and Third Street near the mall.
"Areas that have been more recently developed have great access, but we still find that the average speed requested is far below what requires fiber for support;" Martin said.
Just 5 percent to 10 percent of the companies in the Missoula area actually need speeds high enough to require a fiber connection, he said. The hospitals are among them, and they do have that service.
To better support economic development, Martin believes people interested in attracting technology companies to Missoula should market the strong broadband already here, the connections "at virtually any speed." Those working on economic growth can select niche locations, such as the Old Sawmill District and the Missoula Development Park, as ones that will have fiber connections to every building, and then "market the heck out of that."
"When we're promoting Missoula as a technology hub, do you do it generically Or do you do it with a focus " Martin said.
The hard copy version of the survey had a 24.1 percent response rate. Both online and hard copy respondents requested fiber and free Wi-Fi, with 15 of 36 respondents asking for fiber in the hard copy and 21 of 70 respondents to this question asking for fiber - and the same number asking for free Wi-Fi - in the online survey.
Survey questions and outcomes of the online version also included the following:
"Does your business have what it needs to thrive Please consider access to skilled labor, technical expertise, equipment, facilities and bandwidth."
* Yes, more than enough access: 13.6 percent.
* Adequate access: 49 percent.
* Not enough access: 30 percent.
* Don't know: 7 percent.
In written responses, participants said they need the following: more bandwith; skilled labor such as welders and machinists, software developers, digitally literate administrative assistants, IT professionals; affordable air travel; and better space for manufacturing and start-ups.
"How affordable is the access and capacity of your current internet service versus what you need "
* Very affordable: 17 percent.
* Somewhat affordable: 53 percent.
* Not affordable: 17 percent.
* Don't know: 7 percent.
See the full results with this story on Missoulian.com. The hard copy survey had 99 respondents from a sample size of 410 for an estimated 24.1 percent response rate; the sample size was pulled from 3,000 technology companies. Ninety people responded to the online survey.
The questionnaire also asked people whether they were familiar with economic development programs already operating in Missoula, and Councilman Dick Haines, a committee member, said he was disappointed in the results.
Among those who took the online survey, 59 percent had heard of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, but just 30 percent know the role it plays in urban renewal. Just 53 percent had heard of the Montana Community Development Corp., and 45 percent understand what it does.
"So many people either hadn't heard of them or didn't know what they did, which just had all kinds of red lights flashing toward me," Haines. said. "...I thought boy, we've got a long ways to go to get people to understand the business community in this city."
Haines, who is frequently critical of local government for being unfriendly to business, said he still believes public agencies need to do more to support private efforts. But he said business owners also need to take initiative and learn about the resources available to them.
"We've got a business community here that's not tied together and not tied into some things that I think would help them," Haines said.
(c) 2013 The Missoulian
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