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Friday, May 11, 2007 | Type “bandwidthbay.org” into your computer’s web browser, and you’ll find one of those generic pages with a smiling woman and a couple dozen unrelated links that comes up when a web site domain expires.

The site used to celebrate the extent to which downtown San Diego was connected to the Internet. “Bandwidth Bay,” once one of downtown San Diego’s most loudly shouted campaigns to entice business to the city core, has been slipping quietly out of parlance, though links and mentions of it still exist on many official websites like those of the Center City Development Corporation and the city of San Diego.

Disconnected

  • The Issue: An Internet connection initiative called “Bandwidth Bay” conceived to attract high-tech businesses to the city core a few years ago has slipped from parlance.
  • What It Means: Some former members of the Bandwidth Bay committee say the initiative’s fade is an inevitable consequence of technological evolution. Critics see it as evidence the city still thinks in the 20th century.
  • The Bigger Picture: When Silicon Valley took off in Northern California, downtown San Diego planners hoped they could make Bandwidth Bay a similar high-tech destination for businesses. Since then, Internet connectivity has become a given, and downtown’s facelift has shifted marketers’ attention to tout more amenities than just thousands of miles of fiber optic cables underneath the streets.

Many people familiar with the initiative say that’s because connection to the Internet has become ubiquitous, an assumed component of any office space like a telephone jack or electricity. CCDC representatives said the initiative’s end came naturally with the bust in the dot-com industry. But others see the initiative’s fade as worrisome, an indication that technological vision has been pushed to the side in favor of addressing the city’s meat-and-potatoes concerns.

Bandwidth Bay was a committee, an advertising campaign and some tech-savvy projects at the turn of the century. Downtown advocates such as CCDC, the San Diego Downtown Partnership and a handful of private companies comprised the group, which worked to attract business, high-tech especially, to downtown. Touting the core’s 71,000-some miles of fiber optic cable — a vehicle for transporting information as light impulses — beneath the streets, the group hoped the neighborhood’s wired-ness would draw businesses from elsewhere in the county and nationwide to relocate to downtown San Diego.

They solicited a GIS (geographic information system) map of those thousands of miles of fiber, gathering some previously disconnected pieces of information to show prospective businesses where, exactly, they could connect to the Internet. Andrew Abouna at SanGIS built the GIS map, which is still online, but said it hasn’t been updated since 2000 or 2001.

The program’s other major components: privately sponsored wireless “hot spot” Internet access points in a few key downtown locations; wiring some other entire buildings; and marketing, marketing, marketing. Between 2001 and 2003, CCDC put more than $271,000 into the program, while private organizations and companies sponsored the initiative with building space and Internet connections.

“Downtown had some of the most expensive amounts of fiber optic cable that had been there from the Navy and other things,” said CCDC’s Derek Danziger, who helped steer the committee. “The Internet was still kind of emerging as a tool for business.”

Supporters hoped that Bandwidth Bay would become for downtown San Diego what Silicon Valley became for Santa Clara. It was to be the metonym for forward-thinking companies doing business in San Diego, the place where now-Qualcomm Chairman Irwin Jacobs created the first digital wireless communication network in the late 1960s. The group felt visionary, many said.

“The amount of energy in the Bandwidth Bay committee, the amount of electricity that was in that room was off the charts,” said Steve Williams of SENTRE Partners, a commercial real estate firm that was intricately involved in the initiative. “Everybody really felt like they were doing something really cutting-edge.”

And some outside the room thought what they were doing was cutting-edge, too. The project garnered awards and attention from state and national associations and media. A CCDC publication from spring 2004 termed the public-private Bandwidth Bay collaboration the creator of a “playground downtown for Internet enthusiasts everywhere.” SENTRE Partners and its Bandwidth Now subsidiary company joined other private companies providing free Internet access at places like the NBC building, the Santa Fe Depot and the Balboa Park’s Ruben H. Fleet Science Center.

But eventually, the Internet became ubiquitous, emerging more quickly than the group anticipated. Its members gradually stopped meeting, stopped using “Bandwidth Bay” as a comprehensive slogan to lure businesses to downtown, stopped funding the consultant position. And CCDC, at least, started using a broader picture than just downtown’s connectedness to market the core.

“We don’t need to promote [the fiber network] as a standalone thing,” Danziger said. “It’s not the novelty that it was at the time.”

Compared to some cities around the world that have launched programs to make free, wireless Internet access available across entire cities, San Diego’s efforts pale, said John Eger, the Lionel Van Deerlin professor of communications and public policy at San Diego State University.

“Every city in the world now — thousands of cities have awakened to the new economy and are aggressively deploying broadband and wireless,” Eger said. “We’ve slipped from about one or two in the world maybe 10 years ago to about 15th in the world. For many years now, we seem to be asleep at the switch and have fallen way behind.”

Once Internet connections became commonplace in office buildings everywhere, the Bandwidth Bay committee struggled to find the next hook on which to hang its marketing, said Matt Spathas, partner with SENTRE Partners.

“Bandwidth Bay was a baby step,” he said. “That wasn’t a 21st century vision. Bandwidth Bay ‘fizzling’ is maybe a little bit of an overstatement, but to create a city that’s forward-thinking, it’s only a piece.”

High-density residential development boomed while the Bandwidth Bay group sought to integrate business into downtown’s rapid facelift. Most condominium developers include their own hookups for the Internet, but some downtown residents say they’d like to be able to connect to the fiber network, pieces and rights of which are owned by a variety of telecommunications providers.

Danziger said the focus of the Bandwidth Bay initiative was primarily for businesses, though some residential developers attended meetings to get a sense for what technology was developing downtown.

Eger chaired Mayor Susan Golding’s City of the Future Committee, and said this initiative’s fading is one in a long line of good ideas that become forgotten.

“San Diego doesn’t seem to have much sustaining power,” Eger said. “It doesn’t matter what the initiative is, it kind of gets lost somewhere along the line. We don’t have the attention span to see things through.”

Eger acknowledged the city of San Diego is focusing on some fundamental problems.

“But it isn’t inconsistent to me to think that you can also be visionary while you’re taking care of the affairs of the day,” he said.

But Fred Sainz, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said he disagrees with the assertion that the city has forgotten to think about its technological future. Just look at the tremendous concentration of telecommunications, wireless communications, biotech and high tech companies in the region, he said.

“The city must be doing something right,” he said. “Granted, we may not be sitting around ruminating about these things.”

Sainz said the city has projects in the works to bring wireless connections to some of its parks and libraries.

“I disagree in the most strenuous of fashions that this somehow constitutes a failure on the part of the city,” he said.

Williams said the program became bogged down in committee meetings and failed to keep up with the technology landscape evolving around it. A consultant, Deb Egelske was hired to manage operations, and Williams said she issued a 100-page business plan for the project.

“As soon as you process-itized it, the energy dissipated,” Williams said.

Reached in Denver at her real estate agency, Egelske deferred comment to the project’s members still in San Diego.

But even those members have foggy memories of the program’s funding. CCDC’s financial records indicated a budget of around $271,000 between 2001 and 2003. Danziger said he recalls CCDC split evenly the costs of the consultant and the marketing programs with the Downtown Partnership. But Todd Voorhees, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, said he was unable to find any record of his organization, a privately funded nonprofit, contributing any money to the project. Voorhees said none of the organization’s current staff were there while the project was running, so their institutional memory is incomplete.

The project wasn’t designated a short-term plan, Danziger said, but he said he wasn’t surprised when at least the formal marketing push evaporated.

“I think it was always envisioned to be around as long as … it was necessary to be there,” he said.

Spathas said general society’s aversion to change makes initiatives like this successful only in spurts, not in the long run.

“If we built the freeway system the way we built the Internet, we wouldn’t be driving anywhere; we’d be on a bunch of dead ends,” he said.

Eger agreed that politics get in the way of planning for the city’s technological future. Staff and committee appointee turnover is a big concern, he said.

“Every time somebody new comes in, they throw out the old,” he said. “I don’t believe the obstacles are technical. This vision thing has disappeared from our discussion.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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