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Rebooting Buffalo The start button has been pressed on the Buffalo Niagara region's technological transformation

She Ikes to wander from her room, sometimes out to the porch where she can see the cars shoot past on the highway. The elderly woman doesn't always know exactly where she is within the Beechwood nursing home - but an electronic tracking system does. The plastic doohickey on her wrist beams signals to receivers placed at 26-yard intervals.

At the nurses' station, Ralph Camp keeps an eye on her with a map that pops up on his computer. If she wanders out of safety, the tracking system chirps an alarm and displays her location.

"This allows us to know where a resident is at any given time," Camp says - without having to lock her in.

The tracking system is just the beginning of changes at Beechwood Homes in Getzville, and it's only one example of how digital technology is spreading to every level of the local economy.

Visions of an information-based economy faded about five years ago, after dot-corn ventures soured. Proponents of a digital revolution were silenced by the collapse of their high-flying ventures.

But now, bastions of the old economy are making good on the vision by rebooting their operations with digital know-how. In Buffalo and elsewhere, old-line companies are slashing costs by using new devices, innovative software, and the fiber-optic data pipes that were built to carry the Internet revolution.

Sprinkled along the fiber-optic lines that wind through Buffalo - a crossroads of the information highway -nursing homes like Beechwood as well as hospitals, call centers and even gritty factories are boosting output and productivity.

"Both 'new5 and 'old' economy firms are embracing IT [information technology]," concludes a Brookings Institution paper. For regions, "success in the new economy does not depend solely upon attracting or growing high-tech clusters."

At Beachwood, the wireless tracking system that allows residents to roam freely is just the beginning - coming next is a wireless nurse-call system. Residents will push a button on their bracelet when they need help, not one mounted over their bed. Nurses will get the summons on a phone they carry with them, instead of having to jog back to the nurses' station.

Says Information Technology Director Pete Calandra: "We anticipate there being a tremendous reduction in the time it takes to care for residents."

Then there are companies that reinvent their market by grafting digital technology onto old-style products.

Chris Palmerton bought the assets of Buffalo Filter out of bankruptcy in 1995 and started making biohazard "smart filters," whose digital brains enhance users' safety.

The 60-worker company makes filters that clear the air in laser-surgery operating rooms, where smoke can carry viruses and other hazards. The device's electronic brain gives operating instructions in any of 15 languages, allowing global sales, while its timer keeps track of a filter's useful life.

A new generation of devices uses wireless ID chips in each filter to monitor their use, preventing them from being "recycled" past their useful life. When the filters are reused, "people can think they're being protected, but they aren't," Palmerton said. Today the business is profitable with about $20 million in annual sales.

> A fiber-optic hub

Many wireless devices need to connect into the wired world at some point, and in this respect Buffalo has an advantage.

Digital technology plugs into the information pipelines that wind through Buffalo and its suburbs, a junction point on North America's fiber-optic communications network. The city is the 24th-largest traffic hub on the Internet, ahead of many larger cities, according to a study by the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Its position as a crossing point into Canada attracts more fiber than the population and business activity would support.

For many local businesses, the technology erases the distance to major cities and big markets. Call centers, law offices, insurers and other companies use the fiber-optic network to perform work for far-flung clients as if they were next door, tapping into the local force and low-cost real estate.

Now the communications links that power big companies like GEICO or HSBC are becoming critical to smaller shops as well.

At Gowanda Harley Davidson, an Internet link connects sick bikes all the way to the manufacturer's R&D center in Wisconsin for diagnosis. The system made laptop computers an important repair tool in the shop, alongside oily socket wrenches.

"Before, everything was hands-on experience," service technician Eric Fuchs said. Mechanics listened to the bike, took a guess at the problem, and replaced one part after another until it was fixed.

Now the manufacturer's software reads sensors on the bike and pinpoints the trouble based on fuel consumption or temperature levels, getting the rider back on the road sooner.

"That's important in a climate like ours with its short [riding] season," Fuchs said.

The computer system also lets workers look at updated manuals online, instead of old paper books, and even downloads new operating instructions to a motorcycle's electronic brain.

Fiber-optic cables that carry data and phone calls connect at the region's "carrier hotel" in the Main Place Tower. About a third of the downtown building has transformed into a multistory junction box for communication lines, property manager Patrick Hotung says.

According to network operators, 19 carriers offer connections in Buffalo to data pipes measured in tens of gigabits - billions of bits per second - of transmission capacity. Most of the networks interconnect at the carrier hotel.

The building's nerve center is a deceptively bare-looking area divided by metal cages. Called the "meet-me room," it's where 17 networks hand off traffic to each other - bridging international lines to the local networks that wind through the city to hospitals, call centers, universities and factories.

"Six or seven years ago, the bottom fell out of telecommunications," Hotung says. But today the carrier hotel is as full as it was during the bubble's apex.

> Fueling job growth

Like an underground cable, the benefits of digital technology can be hidden. The new jobs that technology spawned at places like call centers and hospitals are difficult to pinpoint. They're likely part of the private-sector services total, a catch-all of 368,500 jobs which is up 6.5 percent since 1995. The sector has grown every year except for the recession year of 2001.

"Tech isn't a single sector; if s all over," said John Slenker, regional economist at the state Labor Department in Buffalo. For example, one of the biggest employers of computer programmers is the retail industry. Supermarkets and department stores are transforming their businesses by tracking each sale, cutting their inventories and better predicting what shoppers will buy.

New digital technology "didn't make a new class of workers, it made everybody [a technologist]" he said. "That's one of the tools you have to have."

At many companies, technology helped offset the negative effects of another sweeping trend: globalism, and the influx of low-cost imports.

James Boldt, head of the Buffalo technology consultant Computer Task Group Inc., remembers one corporate client who invested $4 million in computer systems - and saw the investment pay for itself in just two years by cutting clerical chores.

"If you look at productivity gains in the U.S., they were huge," Boldt said. "For a number of years, [companies] have been living on those investments."

Big companies used "enterprise" planning software to reduce labor and inventory costs. Now the big-business tools are becoming available in lite versions that small companies are using to automate costly tasks.

"We can see things quicker from a customer's perspective," says David Arno, chief executive of Airtek in Lancaster.

Last fall the 130-job company installed software from SAP, the German software giant, to track production of its industrial air-drying equipment Now, when customers call to check their orders, "we don't have to go out on the floor," Arno says. "The salesperson can tell them if it's in the plant, or on the dock."

Airtek uses SAP Business One, a scaled-down version of the corporate enterprise software, which costs about $3,500 to $4,000 per user. Arno said he expects it to save on inventory - and on time spent keeping track of production.

"With everybody having a full plate, it cuts down on the extra communication," he said.

One of the most dramatic technology bust-ups locally was that of Adelphia Business Solutions. A relative of the cable TV company, it strung fiberoptic cables within cities and between them. The implosion of the speculative bubble in telecommunications pulled the company down into bankruptcy in 2002, wiping out stockholders who had paid as much as $60 a share.

But the disaster for investors was a boon for the region's digital infrastructure. The company had built an extensive fiber network that continued to operate, first as TelCove and now as a unit of national provider Level 3 Communications, giving businesses ultra-fast connections to the Internet and to private data networks.

"The Buffalo market is really a strong metro," says Ed Gallagher, regional vice president for Level 3, which bought TelCove in July. The former Adelphia network now has hundreds of miles of fiber cable and about 200 'lit" buildings, or those with active data connections.

> Fiber available

Another fiber provider called Fibertech Networks survived the technology plunge and built its own 180-mile fiber network in and around the city. It counts 2,000 commercial buildings within 100 feet of its highspeed lines, embracing 85 percent of the business activity in Buffalo.

These days, sales manager Patrick Dolan sees a new crop of businesses plugging in, joining the usual customers like universities and government offices.

Companies "that weren't a fiber candidate five years ago - now they are," he says.

Zenger Printing, a 70-employee business, leases a strand of fiber from Fibertech that connects its North Buffalo plant with a sister site in Kenmore. Now either site can send the big digital files that represent an entire page of content, as if the company's expensive plate-making system was in the next room.

"Normally, you'd have to have one of those systems within each of your plants," president Peter Zenger says. But "we don't have to spend another $300,000."

The fiber connection costs $1,000 a month - twice what the business used to pay for a conventional phone-company data line, but with many times the capacity, Zenger says.

The company's accounting and payroll systems also connect over the wire, which brings digital files into the plant.

All the pictures and copy for print jobs arrive in digital form, he says. Speed is critical because the work often needs to be turned around quickly, such as time-sensitive election campaign materials.

"It's not unusual to get artwork one day, and have [printed material] in the mail stream the next day," Zenger says. "Having a better digital infrastructure is key."

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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