HOLLAND — As work becomes more digitized and mobile in nature, economic developers will need to add yet another high-tech tool to their toolbox to attract and retain businesses and talent.
Connectivity can play a key role in courting the growing number of digitally focused businesses and high-net worth workers, who can work for global companies from anywhere, according to West Michigan economic development professionals. They say providing connectivity remains paramount to the economic sustainability of their communities.
“The future of work is going to require connectivity, whether it be connecting that office to the world or connecting your home to the world,” said Dean Whittaker, president and founder of Whittaker Associates Inc., a Holland-based economic development consultancy. “If you look at a lot of industries, going forward, they’re all going to be digitized and information-based. For our companies here to compete globally, they’re going to need to have that kind of access to the world.”
The push for connectivity is playing out firsthand in two West Michigan communities. Both the City of Holland and Laketown Township are in various stages of developing their own fiber optic internet service networks to provide 1 gigabyte per second (Gb/s) connections for business and residential customers.
While Holland already has some fiber optic infrastructure in place, the proposed $63.2 million project would greatly expand the coverage to more residents and make high-speed internet service a public utility through the Holland Board of Public Works (BPW), sources said.
Cost estimates for the project were based on the assumption that 39 percent of residents and businesses would pay for the high-speed internet service, according to a study commissioned by the BPW and completed by Kensington, Md.-based Columbia Telecommunications Corp.
The study suggests financing the project with a combination of a 20-year, $45 million bond and two long-term loans. The project would add roughly 450 miles of new fiber to connect residences and businesses in the city of Holland.
While the cost of the project has raised some concern from residents, the BPW is exploring the project in the most efficient manner, said Jennifer Owens, president of Zeeland-based Lakeshore Advantage, the area’s economic development agency.
“I think the way that Holland BPW is going about the potential deployment of fiber is spot-on,” Owens said. “They’re looking at it like a business plan, testing different sites and seeing if it’s viable. That’s exactly how a business would go about it.”
Meanwhile, Laketown Township — located a few miles south of Holland — proposed a nearly $8.6 million project that would establish a fiber “backbone” throughout the 22-square-mile township, according to a report by Bloomington, Ind.-based Yates Engineering Services.
REAPING THE BENEFITS
In preparation for the larger fiber project, Holland began a pilot program in January that offers 1 Gb/s service to several businesses in the city center.
Collective Idea Inc., a Holland-based software development firm, is one of the businesses taking advantage of the pilot project. Though the company has consistently searched for faster internet, it’s found existing options for 1 Gb/s service to be too expensive, said Collective Idea founder Daniel Morrison.
Moreover, since the company conducts the majority of its work digitally, it continues to need additional bandwidth to expand its operation, he said.
“We’re a growing company and we’re always doing video chats. We send files all over the country and log into servers everywhere,” he said. “We don’t want to have one download cut off a video chat with a client in another room. We need that bandwidth to help us continue what we’re doing and grow. I think a lot of businesses are in the same boat.”
Morrison is also a member of Holland Fiber, an organization including businesses owners and other community members who advocate for the fiber project.
In addition to Collective Idea, 1 Gb/s service is also available at Lemonjello’s Coffee LLC, the Lokers Shoes building and the Butch’s Dry Dock building in downtown Holland.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONNECTIVITY
Whittaker echoes the importance of increasing connectivity speeds for businesses, especially as it pertains to attracting additional talent to the Holland community.
High-speed connectivity gives young professionals the option to settle in communities that offer all the amenities they’re looking for, while also allowing them flexibility in which firms they work for, Whittaker said. Having a concentration of professional workers will then attract additional companies to the area, either through a physical location or digitally.
“Everyone is struggling to find people. … That’s what this is all about,” he said. “Right now, companies are going to where the people are.”
Moreover, having the 1 Gb/s internet service in the hands of a public utility creates an “open road” of service, instead of relying on other internet service providers, Whittaker said.
Overall, Whittaker thinks the Holland fiber project underscores the commitment that city leaders have to the the community.
“It says something about the leadership of the community that they’re planning ahead,” Whittaker said. “Do you want to be in a place that doesn’t plan ahead or one that does?”