Interview: Cabletron founder Benson plugs into politics

The man who founded Cabletron Systems in a garage now has his eye on the New Hampshire governor's office.

When Craig Benson founded Cabletron in Ashland, Massachusetts almost 20 years ago, the onslaught of technological advances that have defined the last two decades were just beginning to take shape. At that time, the technology community seemed for the most part content to go it alone, unfettered by government involvement. Since then, however, the speed and complexity of the industry have called for politicians to take an active role in promoting and regulating technology, and several high-profile, high-tech players have decided to switch hats and bring their experience from the private sector into the public domain.

This is the path Benson hopes to follow with his stab for the governorship of New Hampshire. After riding out the success of Cabletron, which evolved from a cable company to a developer of business networks to a producer of software and hardware for the Internet, the former tech exec is hoping to lead his state under the banner of measured government and Internet for all.

Although Benson has not officially announced his candidacy yet, his campaign is already underway in the form of television spots and a Web site outlining his stance on issues such as education, state government and small business development. When the election heats up, Benson will be pitted against prominent opponents such as former New Hampshire Senator Gordon Humphrey, a Republican, and New Hampshire State Senators Beverly Hollingworth and Mark Fernald, both Democrats.

But modest beginnings haven't held Benson back before. After all, Cabletron had 17 employees in 1985, and a decade later the company boasted over 7,000 employees with offices in more than 130 countries.

While training for the campaign trail last week, Benson took some time out to field questions about his platform and the role he thinks politics should play in the development of technology. What follows is an edited interview.

Do you have any specific technology initiatives that you hope to spearhead as governor, and if so, what are they?I want to better direct New Hampshire's volunteer efforts by creating a Web site that links people geographically and by occupation with charities in need of specific help. For example, an accountant could easily find a homeless shelter that needed bookkeeping help. The same would also apply to excess goods that businesses or individuals were looking to donate.

I also want to deliver more state services online. Right now, New Hampshire is next to last when it comes to e-government, tied with Alabama. And on the receiving end, I think we need an Internet access point in every library in the state so that taxpayers will be able to access those services.

I will also focus on developing New Hampshire's education curriculum to reflect the skills that our children are going to need in the 21st century, and that will include the mastering of new technologies. Because technology is evolving so quickly, often teachers are less familiar with it than their students. And that's not a knock on teachers; my two teenaged daughters are more familiar with the latest technology than I am, and I used to run a high-tech company. I believe that the business community has a role in accomplishing this, both with helping teachers master this technology as well as developing a curriculum that teaches students the job skills they are going to need in the 21st century.

Considering your background, how do you see the role of government in promoting and regulating technology?The government is way behind where it should be in terms of understanding the applications of technology. The Internet is the greatest self-service initiative in the history of mankind; government can be the biggest beneficiary. Just like in e-commerce, customers input their own information. This increases speed, quality, and service. It also eliminates bureaucracy and the constant need to build more buildings. The state should be moving from bricks to clicks.

I know that you have worked to ensure that schools in your community are equipped with Internet access. Do you see the Internet as a basic utility or right that everyone should have access to? I see the Internet as a utility, like electricity, sewer and water.

Do you have any initiatives to address the digital divide in your state, specifically in regard to the rural poor?In New Hampshire, the digital divide is mostly regional and its most powerful impact is on economic development. Our northern tier lacks the infrastructure necessary to attract high-tech firms and create 21st century jobs. I have proposed creating 'E-zones' with broadband access and saturated cell phone coverage as well as other incentives to get firms to move to these areas of our state. I am also a proponent of business incubators to nurture small businesses. These incubators offer broadband access as well as conference rooms, phone lines, etc. to people starting off on their own. And in addition to offering legal and accounting advice, these incubators provide instruction on how to run a business, especially the mastering of new technologies.

What do you think are the most important assets that you bring from your private-sector background that will help you in the public sector?To start, I have an appreciation and understanding of the business community and what they need. I speak their language. That's valuable when the focus of the next governor is going to be on economic recovery. In addition, I have the real-world leadership skills it takes to actually get things done.

We need someone who can deliver results. I have the management and motivation skills it takes to run a large organization like our state government and get results, especially when it comes to implementing innovative ideas. Most politicians have never managed large organizations and they tend to be ineffective. In addition, I know how to manage large budgets and get the most out of every dollar.

What do you think you can do to attract high-tech business to New Hampshire? In addition to what I have mentioned already, I am confident that I can be effective in recruiting companies to New Hampshire. After all, who better than someone who moved his own business here when it had only 17 employees and ended up with 7,000? I know their concerns, I know what they need, and I know what they want. I've been in their shoes. I will make the state more responsive.

What role do you think former technology executives entering into politics will play? How will that change politics and what will it mean for technology?Technology executives are starting to retire and they are looking for ways to give back to society, ways in which they can continue to make a difference. They're innovative people who thrived in a competitive industry and they know how to deliver results. Believe me, government can use people like that to make it more efficient. They also understand and appreciate new technology and will help the government utilize it.