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Pasco's future tied to high-tech dedication

I must admit I was skeptical. At Business Development Week sessions led by economists from the state Labor Department and Bank of America, I expected to hear a lot of "on one hand or the other" predictions. I was prepared to raise the call for a one-handed economist. But the message from Labor's Philip Nochlin and Bank of America's Alison Lynn Reaser was surprisingly clear:

Instead of chasing traditional manufacturing jobs, they said Pasco's future lies in offering middle-to-high-skilled, mainly business-to-business services _ and in coaxing businesses to embrace use of technology. But capitalizing on Pasco's unique opportunities will take vision and an investment in the technology infrastructure.

Consider Precise Medical Transcription, the New Port Richey business Tom McCarthy runs with his wife. Precise takes a doctor's dictated notes then types and returns them before it's time for that patient's next procedure. For 13 years that's involved having a courier shuttle the tapes between the doctors' office and the transcriber. Doctors count on a 24-hour turnaround, but hospitals had to have records faster.

So Precise went digital, using the phone lines to record the data then have the transcriptions print out from a computer right there in the hospital.

"We also transmit to other employees, who are out of state," McCarthy explained. "The doctors send voice messages over the phone lines to a digital recorder and (the transcriber) in turn sends it back by modem. We've been doing that for about five or six years. Where the Internet would be most helpful is in cost."

While McCarthy says he has qualms about the security of the Internet, it would certainly help his company move data faster and might help him serve bigger clients who need a faster turnaround.

One way to help a small company grow into a major player is to increase its efficiency. McCarthy's company _ with about 29 employees and mostly local contracts _ might not be the biggest beneficiary of better computer connections now, but hospitals and medical jobs are the fastest growing segment of Pasco's economy, and companies such as Precise could well be the wave of the future.

To make these high-tech gains reality will take a new infrastructure revolution that parallels the proliferation of highways and electricity earlier in the century.

But it seems we may already be behind. Even neighboring Tampa ranks 26th among major U.S. cities in the amount of data that can flow through its lines. Rural areas like Pasco, that could attract technology-based companies with low costs of living and relatively inexpensive real estate, are even less wired. So what will it take to connect us to those kinds of jobs?

The first step is an inter-city backbone of fiber-optic cable connecting most of Florida with the rest of the nation. The state is encouraging major players such as AT&T, Sprint and MCI Worldcom by allowing them to lay cable in public rights of way. In return, the companies are helping to create more educational opportunities.

But the last mile of high-speed connectivity is local cable, wireless and phone connections that link homes and businesses to that backbone. It is here that areas such as Pasco have the greatest opportunity to make their mark and help businesses such as McCarthy's.

Most small operations aren't wired for fiber optics, and rewiring or creating new connections won't be cheap. And most small businesses can't afford high-speed connections like T-1 lines. But cost savings could be realized if new office parks incorporate the appropriate wiring and spread the cost among tenants.

Aggressive cable companies have spurred increased competition from people wanting to deliver fast connections via copper phone lines. Thus, digital subscriber lines, or DSL _ which are a little slower than fiber optics, but still move a lot of information _ can let companies move data inexpensively at about five times faster than an average modem. A recent Supreme Court ruling, allowing rival companies to use existing phone lines owned by companies like GTE and BellSouth, already is encouraging growth in local DSL providers.

The other option lies in transmission over the airwaves. In the long term, densely populated areas such as west Pasco might save by installing on buildings wireless transmitters that beam data over radio waves. No matter the medium, local governments can begin conversations with cable and phone providers when they renegotiate the agreements that outline a given utility's service area. They can follow the state's lead in allowing cable to be laid in public rights of way alongside new roads and old railroad tracks. Business leaders can make sure public officials understand there's a demand.

The economists told business leaders last week that Pasco was ripe for attracting data service industries:

"Florida's economy is one of the fastest-growing economies in the country," said Reaser, the senior vice president and chief economist for Bank of America. "We're in the fifth year of what usually is a 30-year cycle in technology. Every single company should be figuring out where they come out in the e-commerce world. It's going to (create) whole businesses overnight and make whole new businesses obsolete overnight."

All these businesses stand to benefit from efficiency gains to be had by speeding computer-to-computer connections. Now it remains to be seen whether local government and business leaders will stop chasing smokestack manufacturing industries and invest in the serious work of laying Pasco's technology infrastructure for the future.

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