OTTUMWA — Des Moines and Iowa City may deserve fast Internet service. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says not to forget smaller towns and rural areas.
A computer consultant says there are a dozen ways to make that happen. And a private company says their recent investment shows they should be part of the conversation.
“Broadband” (see below for definition) is important enough that Ottumwa Economic Development Director David Barajas recently described it like an old west town getting the railroad. It can boost economic development — and businesses would rather move to a town that has high-speed Internet in place.
The FCC’s 2012 Broadband Progress Report found that “nearly 19 million [Americans] remain without fixed broadband service. The data also indicates that people living in rural and on Tribal lands are disproportionately lacking such access.”
Mediacom spokeswoman Phyllis Peters suggested using the company as a way to increase access to high-speed Internet for everyone — considering the fiber network the company has put in place in Ottumwa and surrounding areas.
The FCC says municipalities and industry are teaming up to increase broadband access across the country, something the FCC wants to see at 100 percent.
“Like any other business that is capital intensive, we only succeed when the community succeeds,” said Peters. “We’re a technology company [that started] as a cable TV company. We’ve deployed a robust fiber network [around Ottumwa], and it’s available. We build it, want it to be used and for communities to do well. If the communities wither, so do we.”
Could calling on private industry be part of Ottumwa’s solution to having broadband? Maybe, said one expert.
“I feel there are probably 10 to 12 clearly defined options for how to both pay for and run broadband networks,” said Craig Settles, a broadband and fiber optic community assessment consultant working with the OEDC in Ottumwa. “On one end of the spectrum, the city itself ... hires people to build it, then ... run the network. On the other end, communities create a wish list where they go to the private sector.”
Settles said there are dozens of American communities engaged in a public-private partnership and many communities that own their own network.
He said he and the supporters of broadband in Ottumwa haven’t forgotten the companies that are established. But it’s not as simple as calling one company and asking them to install broadband.
The task is to develop a picture of what people want to do with their Internet connection. Based on that, Settles can determine what type of broadband Ottumwa needs.
In a separate survey, he and the OEDC team asked providers what they have in place.
“My goal is to give the city a set of options,” he said. “When we know what the people want, I can then go to the providers and say, ‘This is what we want. But this is what you have. How do we bridge that gap?’”
Just don’t forget about us, Peters insists.
“We want to keep the lines of communication open with city leaders and economic development leaders to reach the best solutions to help the city and local businesses — current and future — succeed,” she said.
Even small towns, she said, now have access to 105 mbps speeds in the Wapello County area.
“You have to keep adding to the technology and investing to stay out front. The kind of infrastructure we have — it doesn’t stay still,” Peters said. “Our fiber network is already here. We’re willing to build more miles of fiber if needed. And why wouldn’t we? When more business comes to Ottumwa, and the community does well, private businesses do better, too.”
At the Ottumwa Public Library, where her company put in 105 mbps Internet on the public computers for the next 60 days, employees are impressed.
Assistant Library Director Ron Houk, who oversees technology for the library, said he can see how a business that had 50 computer terminals working could benefit from such an arrangement.
It used to be, he said, the more people downloaded, the slower the system would go.
But now, said Houk, with 105 mbps each second, that doesn’t happen anymore.
“Everybody could be watching high-definition video at once,” he said.
What is broadband?
The FCC is working on an “official” definition of “broadband.” Their current, unofficial definition keeps changing.
Though there are more factors than speed to determine what broadband is, it generally has to do with how fast you can get stuff to come from the Internet to your computer
Using a dialup service — the kind you can hear dialing, buzzing and clicking when you first get on the Internet, “downloading” a TV show so you can watch it later might take 28 minutes.
According to providers, downloading the same show onto your computer using broadband takes 30 seconds.
By the numbers: Dialup may have a “speed” of 0.2 megabytes of information per second. Over the past year or two, the FCC has defined “broadband” as a download speed exceeding 4 megabytes of information per second. A locally hired consultant says 10 mbps is the new definition for broadband.
If you do have broadband, the FCC says, you should also be able to send information, like messages, photos or videos, to other computer users by “uploading” at 1 megabyte per second.
At one time, half a megabyte per second was considered blazingly fast. Now, the FCC says, 4 mbps is “fast.” In Ottumwa, Mediacom recently started offering 105 mbps.
In general, the FCC states, broadband is a “high-speed telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics and video telecommunications.”