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VALLEY AND VENTURA COUNTY | VENTURA COUNTY REVIEW

County's 'Silicon Freeway' Is Making Inroads in High-Tech

January 06, 1998|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Northern California's Silicon Valley is synonymous with state-of-the-art technology. Southern California's "Silicon Freeway" is not--yet.

But the growing cluster of high-tech firms located along the U.S. 101 corridor between Calabasas and Camarillo is quickly garnering respect in the industry, and that bodes well for Ventura County's economy.

The potential for a continued upswing in the local economy is reflected in the "1998/1999 Economic Forecast & Industry Outlook for the Los Angeles Five-County Area," a report issued by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. The nonprofit group works to attract and retain jobs in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Ventura counties.

"People are starting to pay attention to the Silicon Freeway area," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the group. "Traditionally, when you talk about new technology, people flash to the Silicon Valley, but now there is recognition that we have new technology here."

The Silicon Freeway is home to such companies as Xircom, a Thousand Oaks computer communications firm; Vitesse Semiconductor Corp., a Camarillo manufacturer of integrated circuits; and ACT Networks, a telecommunications firm, also of Camarillo.

"There's a broad array of advanced technology and telecommunications," Kyser said. "And Ventura County is going to get the Cal State campus, and in a way that is going to be a great location for technology--businesses and the campus working together."

Taking into consideration high-tech companies as well as retail, service, government and other segments of the county's work force, the LAEDC report estimated that Ventura County nonfarm employment will increase from about 251,000 in 1998 to 257,000 in 1999. The unemployment level, the report said, should decline to 6.3% by 1999 from its current 6.6%.

Overall, the report predicted a slow-growth period for the county in 1998 and '99, as it did for the rest of the five-county region.

One of the major unknowns during the early part of this year, the report said, will be the impact of the instability of the Asian economy. Imports into the Port of Hueneme should continue strong, but exports could be adversely affected by troubles in the Far East.

"The Asian crisis has mixed implications for Ventura County," Kyser said.

"The county does have agricultural output that it exports to Asia and is going to be facing both reduced demand and a continuing very, very strong dollar," he said. "On the other side, fruits and vegetables and imported cars are going through the Port of Hueneme and we think there is going to be a flood of imports. We think Asia is going to try to recharge its economy through [exports]."

Along with agricultural business, Ventura County technology firms could be hurt by financial troubles in Asia, Kyser said.

"The outlook is mixed on technology--if you were going to sell technology into Asia, that market doesn't look too good anymore," he said. "But we really won't know until probably about the second quarter of 1998."

Mitch Kahn, president of the Ventura County Economic Development Corp., agreed with the assessment of the high-tech corridor but wasn't too worried about the long-term effects of Asia's economic situation.

"All the way through history, there have been ripples through both sides of the Pacific--in the '80s, Korea was suffering and a lot of money dried up in purchases of buildings and land, but then it came back," he said. "It's cyclical. [Asia] is suffering a problem and it's going to have some impact. Whether it's going to be a significant impact, I don't know. I doubt it."

Kahn expressed optimism about Ventura County's economic forecast for the coming years.

"I think the business climate in areas like Thousand Oaks is very desirable . . . and if it continues to be strong, it will be good for the whole county," he said. "I hope the economy continues to roll the way it is, where communities suffering more than most can turn themselves around."

It's hard to imagine not being able to make a telephone call to Los Angeles. But in many parts of the world, telecommunications systems are so outdated that calling someone in another city remains a farfetched notion.

ACT Networks, however, is helping to remedy that.

The Camarillo-based manufacturer of network-access products has been working with India Telephone Industries to create a satellite system that links large rural cities in India to national and international communications networks.

Since 1994, India Telephone Industries has linked about 300 cities to the country's central telephone systems, with another 400 cities expected to be hooked up by the end of 1998.

As part of the project, the company has purchased ACT Networks' voice multiplexers, which carry transmissions from one switching center to another. ACT Networks has received an additional $1.1-million order for a project that will help to hook up another 120 cities.

"The department of telecommunications in India got a mandate from the government to wire rural cities," said Martin Shum, chief executive of ACT Networks. "They wanted these cities to have access to the national telephone system and they wanted to do it quickly. The best way is a satellite system."

ACT Networks won the bid for the job and Shum anticipates competition for the remainder of the Indian project.

"We would like to be involved," Shum said. "[Considering] it's a government project, when it is a certain amount they have to go out for bids. But we hope the fact that we have been India Telephone Industries' sole system integrator will help."

ACT Networks has played a role in connecting rural villages throughout the world. The company's system integration products are used in telecommunications networks in Russia, Indonesia, Argentina and Mexico.

"It's not the bulk of our business," Shum said. "But it's part of the business that I'm particularly interested in."

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