The Ottumwa Courier

August 29, 2013

Fast isn't good enough

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Without the right level of broadband Internet access, it's going to be tough to bring new employers to town.

Industry consultant Craig Settles was in Ottumwa from his home in Oakland, Calif., Thursday. He said businesses looking to build — or expand — want to know more about access to the Internet than how fast the system is.

Settles is working with Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation, said Executive Director David Barajas, to map out what businesses in town are looking for right now, as well as what they believe they'll need one, two or three years from now. Barajas and staff take the lead on "economic development" efforts, which includes finding companies that want to come to town. That job is easier when he can point to an improving school system, decent medical care, good transportation access via a new highway, a train and an airport.

"If we are going to attract new companies, that infrastructure has to be in place," Barajas said.

They and the current businesses of Ottumwa want to know there will be enough Internet "capacity" for their needs "today and tomorrow," he added.

What that means is, their development staff will be looking for more detail than is provided in advertising flyers to the public.

"When a provider lists a speed ... they're nearly always talking about download speed," Settles said.

That's the speed your home computer might download a YouTube video or photos emailed by the grandkids. What many home users don't concern themselves with is upload speed. How fast can a business here transmit blueprints or a patient's MRI? Can they have a teleconference with potential clients?

"There's a difference between broadband and Internet access," Settles said.

Some industry insiders say it's tough to trust government labels saying broadband is one certain speed, Settles said. For one thing, speed available and speed that is needed changes regularly. For another thing, some providers are reluctant to share what their limits are on the number of users who can get a particular speed at the same time. If you offer 100 megabyte speed, does that mean 25 people can get that at one time? Can 25,000 get that at the same time? Somewhere in between? Not only that, but there is not currently an industrywide measurement for capacity. We can see our computer in Ottumwa gets 100 megabyte of speed, but what is the "capacity" in our neighborhood? If all of us get on the 'net at 6 p.m., maybe we won't each get 100 megabytes of speed.

Settles said what ends up happening is at the end of the business day, for example, a whole bunch of companies need to send a lot of information at once. Without enough capacity, everyone slows down.

"... a good way to put it ... is gridlock," said Barajas.

"The question becomes, 'Will I [always] have enough speed to meet my [business] needs?'" Settles said.

Businesses don't want to meet clients on a teleconference "face to face" and constantly have their video stream freezing up. School districts don't want to have dozens of visiting educators come in for a live lecture by video and have the speaker come across as choppy ... or not come across at all.

That's the reason, both Barajas and Settles said, for the extensive study of area businesses and residents as well as a willingness to work with incumbent providers of Internet service: let's see what we have, what people need and what they think they'll need one day right here in Ottumwa.

Barajas and his team have made visits to other communities that have successfully added broadband to the amenities available in their area. The theory is, let's learn how this has been done well and see what mistakes were made. He's already learned rushing things is not a good idea. One successful county developed their network over the course of 12 years.

"Whatever [development] model we employ ... as best for us ... have some success, take another step," Barajas said. "As we build, we're making sure of ourselves every step of the way."

As Settles helps Ottumwans meet leaders in other towns, networking becomes easier for people like Barajas. Some of these new friends could observe the lay of the land in Ottumwa, perhaps helping to avoid costly mistakes.

Another question answered by visiting successful communities is what local businesses do when they have as much speed and capacity as they need. That's a question Settles actually has been asking in Ottumwa. What would you do if, tech-wise, you could have it all?

Barajas believes there would be growth, especially since studies show 80 percent of new jobs come from existing businesses. Taking care of them is one of an economic development official's most important jobs, he added.

One of the ways to do that, he said, is make sure we're meeting their current needs as well as their future capacity and speed needs. Settles said it's hard to assign some sort of exact number to that need right now. But one thing is certain, Barajas said. As more and more of the region's companies start to grow and increase their business with organizations around the world, they are going to need more and more bandwidth as time goes by — not less.

"We don't want gridlock, now or in the future," Barajas said.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark