By WANDA REESE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Gov. John Engler is taking his case for a proposed statewide high-speed Internet “superhighway” directly to the court of public opinion.
The issue was a priority item in his State of the State Address, and a speech given at the Michigan Broadband Breakfast this week. Engler wants support for a three-bill high-speed access package the Legislature has agreed to vote on before the end of February.
Deployment of the plan would create uniform pricing for telecommunications providers and a new financing authority to help fund the construction of a broadband infrastructure.
“The governor considers this a ‘jump start’ mechanism for development and expansion through the private sector — with no ownership through the state,” said Matt Resch, Engler’s deputy press secretary.
Resch said Engler’s strong interest in quick growth of high-speed connections is fueled by his belief that it will improve the state’s staggering economy.
Amid sobering budget projections that state budget Director Don Gilmer said would mean considerably “less money to spend,” Engler’s vision is drawing substantial criticism from one industry expert.
“They don’t understand the technology,” said Chuck Scott, president and owner of Gaslight Media, a Petoskey-based Internet services provider (ISP). Scott calls the governor’s plan a “very disruptive approach to a business that’s already functioning well.”
Citing a “general lack of understanding by those pushing for the legislation,” Scott said supporters and architects of the proposed expansion are also under the incorrect assumption that many areas of the state are underserved.
Scott voiced his concerns publicly last week while testifying before members of the Senate Energy and Technology Committee.
At issue, Scott said, are maps released by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) outlining what it calls Michigan’s high-speed telecommunications system.
MEDC spokesmen said the maps demonstrate the existence of a “digital divide” within rural and cash-strapped urban communities throughout the state.
“These maps show … that Michigan has a growing digital divide when it comes to high-speed access throughout the state,” said Doug Rothwell, MEDC president and CEO. Rothwell said implementation of the plan would mean greater access and opportunities for many residents in underserved areas.
The mapping project, directed by the Technology Policy Group, used some 40 databases in drawing its conclusions.
Scott said the results “were simply incorrect,” and missed a major proportion of Internet capacity in the state that is being adequately served. “There are essentially no businesses or organizations in the state that can’t get broadband service if they know how to ask for it.”
Scott said applications for digital subscriber lines (DSL) provide greater benefit for residential customers where there is demand for browsing the Internet. Companies that build and market DSL “target their services to consumers,” he said.
Scott said the demand in the business sector is for high-speed bandwidth that supports file exchange or transfer, which requires greater capacity than that needed for simple Web browsing.
To imply that Michigan businesses are being underserved “is an insult to Internet providers who work hard to provide service and do the job well,” he said.
A study conducted by Gartner Consulting of Southfield places Michigan at the bottom of all states in technology development. Resch said the governor sees the plan as a blueprint for the future, a hedge against “the state experiencing this type of financial crisis in the future.”
By WANDA REESE