There are those who feel Leesburg's chance to cash in on the technology boom is coming down to the wire.
Members of the Leesburg Economic Development Commission have determined that the town's lack of an extensive fiber optic infrastructure, the telecommunications network over which sound and data travel, has been a deal-breaker when it comes to luring high-technology companies such as those in the well-wired eastern part of Loudoun County.
In recent months, town officials have watched such companies as America Online Inc. and Intel Corp. build enormous data centers--facilities that house World Wide Web servers and telecommunications equipment--in neighboring counties and in eastern Loudoun. These centers, and other similar facilities, are clean, employ few people, create a large tax base--and typically locate in such fiber-dense areas as the Route 28 corridor.
"We're concerned in Leesburg that we're quickly eliminated," said John Henry King, assistant town manager for economic development.
Two weeks ago, the commission proposed a feasibility study to determine just how far behind Leesburg is when it comes to fiber optics and what it would take for the town to catch up. So far, there are no solutions on the table, but town officials cite at least two possibilities: to grant rights of way to telecommunications companies that would deploy their own fiber optics or to spend town money to wire some sections of the town.
Fiber optic cable is replacing copper cable across the country as a cheaper conduit to handle vast amounts of voice and data traffic. Most of the copper cable in place does not have the bandwidth, or capacity, to handle data well, a major deficiency in today's Internet economy when data are rapidly surpassing voice traffic on the nation's communication's networks.
Telecommunications companies such as Bell Atlantic Corp. and MCI WorldCom Inc. spend millions of dollars digging up streets to replace copper with fiber, but they don't do it willy-nilly. The schedule is determined by where the need is greatest.
Last year, Bell Atlantic's total construction budget in Virginia was $600 million, most of which was spent on fiber deployment, and it plans to spend about the same this year. There are about 620,000 fiber optic miles in the state, most of it buried.
"We have a calculated method of doing that," said Michel Daley, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic.
One thing that can bring Bell Atlantic to an area ahead of schedule, however, is a big client.
"If the customer is willing to pay for [replacing the copper with fiber], we'll put it in," Daley said. Once that happens, it is easier for Bell Atlantic or another major telecom company to connect other customers, which is one reason high-technology companies tend to cluster together.
When America Online came to Dulles and installed thousands of miles of fiber, for example, other companies sprang up around it and continue to do so. This has created a critical mass of technology companies in the Dulles area, moving it up high on the priority list for Bell Atlantic and other telecom companies.
Growing towns such as Leesburg face a chicken-and-egg situation: Companies are telling the town they won't come because there is no network, and there is no network because companies won't come.
And, Daley said, "The customer can't say, 'Okay, here I am in Leesburg and I'm a high-tech firm . . . accelerate your deployment.' "
This could mean bad news for Leesburg, as some say the chances of the town luring an AOL-size company to put in the initial fiber is slim.
"They need the first big guy to come along that can have some serious fiber out there," said John P. McEvilly, of Millennium Realty Advisers, "[but] right now it's before its time; there are just too many good sites between [Dulles International] Airport and Leesburg."
Moreover, starting from scratch takes time, which AOL had in 1996 when it moved to the area to take over its current building at a relatively cheap price. Today's companies want to be connected quickly.
Leesburg and county officials are hopeful. First, however, they need to understand exactly what they are facing, King said. "Finding out where the fiber is is like breaking into Fort Knox," he said.
Even commission member Sandy Donaldson, who is a senior vice president of OSP Consultants Inc., a company that installs fiber, said the information is hard to find. Still, he said, it is clear that Leesburg has virtually none.
Larry Rosenstrauch, director of Loudoun's Department of Economic Development, said he and other county officials are interested in finding a map of some kind to the fiber networks in the county. Last week, Rosenstrauch appealed to the Center for Innovative Technology, a technology think tank in Fairfax County, for help.
In addition, the town hopes it can entice such telecommunications companies as Bell Atlantic and MCI WorldCom to speed up fiber deployment in Leesburg.
"Maybe what the [town] government needs to do is put some basic amount of fiber in place, the cost of which we could then recover" by leasing it to telecom companies to operate, King said.
Daley, of Bell Atlantic, said towns can smooth the process by creating a favorable regulatory climate. "Certainly towns could give us rights of ways and make it conducive for us to do the digging," Daley said.
However, he added, "I don't know anywhere where we've been able to make a commitment to wire, for example, a whole town with fiber at one time."
King emphasized that the town is in the early stages of investigating the problem.
"Certainly, the Leesburg Town Council is going to want to be very cautious when spending money," he said. In addition, "any time a government talks about putting in an infrastructure, one of the serious issues to resolve is how do you limit the impact of the disruption."
Laying fiber would involve tearing up Leesburg streets, King noted, "but we'll be better off afterward." Meanwhile, he said, "we think we've found a weakness, and what we think is a threat to our ability to compete."
CAPTION: Streets must be dug up for workers to lay fiber optic cable, but one Leesburg official says it would be worth it.