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July 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Guest Opinion: Can you guess how many businesses call Palo Alto home? Guest Opinion: Can you guess how many businesses call Palo Alto home? (July 21, 2004)

by Mark Heyer

There is a great mystery in Palo Alto: How many businesses call our town home?

This should be a straightforward question for our city government, but Palo Alto is one of the few cities anywhere without business licenses. Our city government doesn't have a clue what is going on in terms of who's actually doing business. Nor does the Chamber of Commerce.

Dunn & Bradstreet reports about 4,500 businesses in Palo Alto. My experience going into Palo Alto homes to service their computer problems tells me that there are many, many hundreds of "invisible businesses" in Palo Alto.

Suppose the number of unreported home-businesses is 2,000, averaging a conservative $50,000 per year. If true, the Palo Alto economy is undervalued by $100 million or so!

And we are far from a few lonely voices. If we include real estate agents, employees of corporations working at home, non-profit workers, club volunteers and eBay entrepreneurs, we who work from home represent one of the principle engines of our local economy. Yet to the City of Palo Alto, we are invisible -- and unappreciated.

The home-office/business movement is much more than just a simple lifestyle choice. It is -- and should be -- a key component in our strategies to reduce traffic and pollution, reclaim commute time for family and community activities, improve neighborhood interactions and make our community more livable -- while generating substantial income for our local economy.

The evolution and development of effective home-office policies and services is key to our economic and civic future.

Palo Alto goes to great lengths to support the visible business engines of our community -- providing parking, retail-business zoning, promotional campaigns, development resources and more. The Chamber of Commerce lobbies on behalf of traditional business owners, but has few members from the home-office underground. Our anonymity renders us powerlessness to advocate for the things that we need to prosper and contribute even more to our community's success.

So what do we need from the city that we can't get at Fry's? How about a really good municipal-information utility -- a fiber-optic intranet. Residential DSL and cable "broadband" were never designed for business and are not supported as such. The typical so-called broadband-upstream (outgoing) speed is one-tenth of one percent of the speed of any home or office computer network - all but useless for business. By design, these systems prevent us from communicating directly with each other. We cannot communicate amongst ourselves in our own community the way any office does over its corporate local-area network.

Many countries are moving rapidly to develop their residential fiber-optic information infrastructures: India, South Korea, China, Japan and Malaysia to name a few. Can you spell "outsourcing"? If you purchased a home loan in Palo Alto recently, it is very likely that your "customer service representative" is located in India.

Yet our federal government and incumbent providers (Comcast and SBC locally) are mired in a death struggle with the FCC that is relegating Palo Alto to an information Stone Age compared to what other, hungrier nations are doing to provide the latest information access to their populations.

But it does not have to be so in Palo Alto -- if we take the initiative to do it ourselves. There are much bigger economic forces at play than the details being nitpicked by some critics of the city's fiber-utility proposal.

The biggest beneficiaries of the proposed (but currently stalled) Palo Alto Utilities fiber-to-the-home initiative will be home businesses, schools, libraries and community organizations. A business-class municipal-information utility connecting all of our homes and businesses would provide fantastic long-term economic and social benefits -- and I believe make money for the city Utilities.

It's not just good for local business; it is the future of local business, and jobs as we are increasingly faced with global competitors in communities that are rushing to fiber-speed connections. Think HP linking to its Palo Alto workers and me transmitting jobs from my home office to a print shop downtown.

As a home-business operator, I would pay extra -- a lot extra -- to have access to a municipal-information utility operated by the city. So would many of my colleagues.

How much extra? In a heartbeat, I would pay $2,000 to Palo Alto's Utilities for a fiber hookup. Compared to what we all spend for home-office computer equipment, this is a drop in the proverbial bucket and would bring me far more benefits than the costs involved.

Like many of you, I chose to live in Palo Alto because we are a leadership community -- socially, economically and environmentally. Our citizens have organized to make our city environmentally friendly, bicycle friendly, library friendly and much more. Now is the time for us to organize and make Palo Alto truly, proactively, home-business friendly.

If you agree, join me in making our voices heard.

Mark Heyer is a resident of the Midtown area of Palo Alto who has long been active in communications-technology and society matters. He provides customer service for the ongoing Palo Alto Utilities fiber to the home trial. Heyer can be e-mailed at or through the Web site,

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