Local technology initiative needs to be heard

Northumberland County could be on the threshold of major move forward into the 21st Century economy, but it is going to take some unprecedented co-operation between residents, government and community groups.
Northumberland MP Paul Macklin set up the Research Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee only one month ago. Its mandate is to take a serious look at what is going on in Northumberland in the area of technology and the new economy, in particular what role the Internet might play.

Committee chairperson Susan Hale announced last week the committee is going to assess the Internet needs of residents, organizations and business, taking those results to the National Broadband Task Force, a federal body looking at Internet hardware needs for communities. We are very lucky in Northumberland because we have some pretty good services including fibre optic, DSL (high-speed via copper wire) and wireless. It is vital everyone with an Internet connection fills out an online survey to assist the committee since any future funding will likely be based on the demonstrated need.

On the heels of this news, Northumberland Internet provider and pioneer Tom Copeland returned from his job as board chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, the group represents those who gives us access to the Internet, to announce two important initiatives. His group wants to set up some industry guidelines for ethical, moral and fair standards for Internet delivery. It also wants to lead an education program that includes a web-literacy component to ensure safe and responsible Internet uses.

Then, as if the heavens themselves began to move, the Northumberland Economic Partnership is in front of Hamilton Township council saying it wants to create a new body called Community Futures Corporation to, among other things, steer a grassroots economic development plan. Macklin is also backing this plan.

These initiatives all have merit and deserve support. Northumberland is in a strong position to take advantage of the new economy. While dot.com companies play havoc with the stock markets, this does not come close to reflecting the energy and momentum taking place on the Internet. We must keep our eye on the long-term, while this short-term adjustment runs its course.

The greatest hurdle will be bringing the diverse community together under a clear vision without allowing competing interests to undermine those trying to lead the charge. If politics enters this, we are doomed. And it could. Angus Read, a well-known Tory, serves on the Cobourg Network Inc. an Internet initiative run under the public utility. With Macklin’s Liberal-backed efforts, we could see partisanship supercede what is good for the community.

Any future e-commerce initiatives WILL apply to everyone. Not every business or person will want to set up a web site. But, a critical mass must be created. For example, a hotel or resort may see a web site as a natural extension of marketing, compared to a local coffee shop that has no obvious reasons to want to market a doughnut to the world.

But those businesses that do not see an advantage to having a web site should be prepared to be participate regardless, either through online advertising or sponsorship of larger community web sites. This will be essential to create a critical mass needed to sustain long-term viability of our community online.

These committees should be careful not to hurt current Internet companies. These entrepreneurs have spent years in places like Cobourg, Port Hope and Campbellford, investing personal resources and taking huge risks to get us to our current position. They have also offered all kinds of free services and assistance so our community could get up to speed. Now there is an obligation to ensure future plans will not favor anyone or use public sector money to set up an unbalanced business environment.

One way that could be achieved is through an e-commerce incubator in the county. We should not expect Northumberland to become some kind of Silicon Valley. Getting companies to locate here is a waste of time. Instead, funds could be used to assist smaller businesses in paying for the expensive services. Small companies could be given a chance to grow and flourish and we could possibly attract other entrepreneurs. This seems to be the kind of activity the economic partnership wants to support.

Instead of looking to existing dot-com companies to come to Northumberland, the committees might target telecommuters, those people who might work in Toronto or want to move out of the big city, and relocate here. There is a long list of ways we could encourage them to commute a few days and work in home offices for the balance.

There is plenty more that can be done. No doubt the people serving on these committees are putting all kinds of great approaches on the table.

The economic partnership and the research and innovation committee should be meeting jointly or, at the very least, talking to each other. And before anyone gets too far down the road, all parties – both public and private sector – should come to the table with only one goal in mind: to build a new Northumberland for the new economy of the new century.

First published: Feb. 28, 2001

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