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South Florida tech industry boosters aren’t happy about proposed state rules that try to protect delicate coral reefs by prodding undersea cable companies to string their telecommunications wires through natural gaps in the coral wall. And now they may have nothing to worry about. The coral reef rules proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were off the agenda Tuesday when state regulators met with Gov. Jeb Bush. Deputy DEP Secretary Bob Ballard removed them last week, saying the department needed more time to analyze information about certain reefs in Palm Beach County, Fla. That has hopes up at the InternetCoast, an alliance of Internet businesses and organizations in South Florida. “I think the whole thing will be ‘back-burnered’ and forgotten,” said Scott Lehman, a member of the InternetCoast. He is vice president of LightSpeed Infrastructure in Miami. LightSpeed is a division of Swerdlow Real Estate Group that provides networked office properties in South Florida. At least that’s what the industry hopes will happen. They bristle at the notion of government regulation, saying the proposed rules would drive the cables to more Internet friendly states. The move to impose restrictions could halt undersea cable landings altogether in South Florida, the InternetCoast says. “Initially they wanted to preclude any cables from landing in South Florida,” said Richard Paul-Hus, chairman of InternetCoast’s committee on infrastructure. Paul-Hus is vice president of business development at Hypower Inc. in Fort Lauderdale. Hypower builds fiber-optic cable networks. “It may not kill the telecom industry,” he says, “but it’s not sending the right message out to those companies we’re trying to attract to do their business here.” Four companies, including AT&T, a subsidiary of Spain’s Telefonica S.A., Global Crossings Ltd. and Canada’s 360 Networks (which is in bankruptcy court), have already landed undersea cables in South Florida. Despite talk about over-capacity, other projects are in the permitting stages. According to the North America Submerged Cable Association, the proposed regulations may add to construction costs. The state’s concerns about coral reefs date back to a different era. Just two years ago, at the height of the Internet bubble, it seemed as if dozens of new undersea cables would land in South Florida soon. But construction plans have slowed down considerably since. The cables carry voice and data from around the world. They hit land below beaches and burrow under streets to U.S. telecom centers such as the NAP of the Americas in Miami. The InternetCoast has promoted the cables’ presence in South Florida as a way to inspire technology companies to open offices here and possibly relocate their entire operations. The DEP developed the rules to protect delicate reefs, home to a variety of sea critters, from damage that environmentalists attribute to submerged fiber optic cables. The proposed regulations mark reef gaps in the coastal waters off Palm Beach and Broward counties as the most appropriate avenues for telecom cables making landfall. Miami-Dade County south of Sunny Isles Beach and Monroe County are already off-limits to submerged cable landings because coral reefs in those waters are much denser. Beyond added cost, the North America Submerged Cable Association is concerned about added complexity of regulations. “The DEP should keep it simple and better track the direction it has received from the governor and cabinet to make Florida cable friendly while protecting the environment,” the trade association wrote in an Oct. 9 letter to the DEP. Other gripes are unstable reef gaps and the fact that some of the gaps, such as one near the town of Palm Beach, are near landing points where municipalities object to the construction of a landing station. The DEP postponed the rules presentation to Gov. Bush and the Cabinet because a new reef gap in Boynton Beach was just identified by Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management. They need some time to send divers down to investigate and to map the new information, a job that won’t take long, says Eric Bush, chief of the DEP’s Bureau of Submerged Lands and Environmental Resources. Eric Bush figures the DEP could get back on the governor’s agenda for the Nov. 27 or the Dec. 18 Cabinet meeting. “We’re ready to go, and it’s my personal opinion that if we got this before the governor and the Cabinet it would probably be approved,” he said. The measures would expedite permitting for companies willing to adhere to them, a significant leg up in the highly competitive telecom industry. At the direction of Gov. Bush, the proposed rules were hammered out by the submerged lands bureau in hopes of making Florida a leader in network access points. South Florida’s geography makes it a natural gateway for Internet communications into the U.S. from Latin America and Europe. There are 16 gaps identified in Palm Beach County, including the Boynton Beach gap, and five in Broward County. The DEP selected only the southernmost gap in Broward and four in Palm Beach County as corridors because those gaps are the widest. The DEP wants offshore cables to be placed through those corridors to prevent or at least mitigate damage to the reefs. The cables are actually very small, measuring less than three inches in diameter, the conduits measuring maybe six inches. The North America Submerged Cable Association has been lobbying DEP to back off. Its lobbyists have targeted a permitting provision in the proposed rules that would require a company to demonstrate a need for the cable or conduit. The DEP says the rules provide incentives to submerged cable landings that stay within the established reef corridors. The big draw is the permitting process would be quicker and simpler. “The economic benefits are huge and that’s exactly why the governor directed us to streamline the process for fiber optics that have little or no environmental impact,” said bureau chief Bush. But the DEP should provide more proof about reef damage before it imposes the rules, say InternetCoast executives. “We haven’t seen anything other than anecdotal evidence from dive-shop operators,” said Paul-Hus. It isn’t that the InternetCoast is saying the state should cater to the telecom industry at the expense of the environment, Paul-Hus added. “But we want to make sure the decisions are well-thought out.” The controversy that pits state environmental protection goals against business is rooted in the dot-com boom years. “In the telecom frenzy there was a lot of hype,” Lehman said, and the DEP estimated there would be about 30 cable landings in South Florida over the next decade. “Now the estimates are closer to eight over the next 10 years,” Lehman said. “To the DEP’s credit,” he said, “if you land within the corridors, they gave you processing expediency. If you landed outside the corridors, there would be no procedural efficiency, and the fee structure was astronomical.”

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