Northwest Florida has a major fiber-optic pipeline, but until now businesses haven't been able to tap into it.
By Julie S. Bettinger
If the average fiber-optic pipeline is the equivalent of a garden hose, northwest Florida has the Mississippi River running through it. Between fiber-optic lines running along Interstate 10 and a huge pipeline next to the east-west CSX railroad tracks, the region has the highest possible capacity for bandwidth available today.
Major telecom companies put the lines in place as part of an effort to connect Jacksonville and New Orleans: Northwest Florida just happened to be on the chosen pathway. Unfortunately, most businesses along the route have had no way of tapping into the network, which would allow them to greatly increase their Internet speed.
But that may be changing. In downtown Pensacola, for instance, the University of West Florida's Institute for Human and Machine Cognition just moved into its fully renovated off-campus headquarters. The center's Internet service provider, Gulf Coast Internet, persuaded Qwest Communications to provide access to its pipeline. Now the institute has about 30 to 60 times the bandwidth of the average business, says retired Navy Adm. Tim Wright, the institute's managing director.
Epik Communications, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, also has provided access to its pipeline in Tallahassee, giving businesses an opportunity to tap into it.
"For so long, northwest Florida has been insulated from the rest of the world," says Rick Harper, director of the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development. "What this kind of access does is level the playing field."
Okaloosa and Bay counties also will get access to the fiber-optic network. A portion of defense-related funding awarded by the state in January is earmarked for fiber-optic installation in those counties.
Larry Sassano, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, says the No. 1 project for Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base -- both in Okaloosa County -- is to be connected. With the grant, they'll have a fiber-optic line running between their operations and Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City. That would allow them to exchange huge volumes of data at lightning speed.
One requirement of the grant is that the infrastructure must be mutually beneficial to the community. That means businesses close to the pipelines can have access, too.
Without the grant, the infrastructure to connect to the pipelines would likely have never happened, Sassano says. "We're not a major metropolitan area," he says. "We would be the last in line to get it otherwise."
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