COMMUNICATION: Group tackles tricky technology issues

TRAVERSE CITY – Is there anything more exciting than new technology? Or more daunting? That’s exactly what the Northwestern Michigan Telecommunications Association (NMTA) is all about: showcasing the latest advances in telecommunications and tackling the biggest questions that come with them.

“The idea of the group is to let people know what technology is in the area,” said Tony Ruskowski, NMTA president and plant manager at Ace Communications Group in Mesick. “It’s informative, and it’s a place to help each other.”

NMTA focuses on voice, data and video telecommunications and includes people from both sides of the desk–from vendors to end-users.

“It’s a non-confrontational, non-selling atmosphere,” assured Christine Blackledge, NMTA treasurer. “We all know who bought what, but it’s never been a problem. It’s all about learning. It gets you thinking about how a product works, and then how you can get yours to do that.”

The result is an informal sounding board of ideas and questions. Members gather for monthly lunch meetings and presentations by guest speakers.

Just last month, for example, Charter Communications was invited to dissect the topic of cable modems. Another recent speaker was from Wireless First, who took the 40 members down the path of new Internet connections.

“When the group first started in 1987, we were talking about switchboards,” Blackledge said with a laugh. “Now, it’s voice, data and video integration.”

This constant and quick change has made the group essential for Blackledge on a professional level, but in a different way than many other members. As a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in Traverse City, she doesn’t use the technology as much as she uses the information for decisions on tech stocks.

Some people don’t know what’s old technology and what’s new,” she explained. “I do, because I follow what’s going on through NMTA.”

The majority of NMTA members, though, are first-hand users or providers of the technology. The lunch meetings often turn into a problem-solving session, Blackledge said.

“The vendors and end-users get together about working a glitch out, or another end-user might say they had the same problem, and solved it this way or used this software to do it,” she explained.

The meetings also give people the chance to ask questions before taking any huge steps or acquiring new equipment.

“People get to ask if they qualify for the product, what its cost is and the timeframe for implementation,” she said.

“Even for individuals, it’s a great opportunity to update their house or look at how they will be doing business two years from now.”

Members come from all over the region, from Boyne Mountain to Crystal Mountain, and pay a $50 annual membership fee, which includes lunch. (Lunch is $10 for non-members who are welcome to participate any time.)

The group meets on the second Thursday of each month, usually at the Oleson Center at Northwestern Michigan College. But they do take a break in June and July for the busy summer months.

They will reconvene in the fall, with just a few months to prepare for their annual trade show, held Oct. 20 this year at Crown Plaza in Grand Rapids. NMTA partners with the Western Michigan Telecommunications Association, based in Grand Rapids, for the event.

“The fall trade show is a chance for members to look at subjects further in depth,” Ruskowski said, adding that booth space is free for members.

Those looking for more information about the group, can call the NMTA voice mailbox at (231) 492-6781. BIZNEWS