Courier Staff Writer
The best broadband option in Ottumwa is likely a community nonprofit installing dark fiber and smaller telecompanies providing the broadband access, a broadband expert said.
Broadband expert Craig Settles said what a person wants to accomplish on the Internet determines the speed of broadband he or she will need.
“Research universities want to use the Internet to move gigabits of data per second,” Settles said. “They’re basically sending the Library of Congress through a little pipe.”
But broadband isn’t just for mammoth corporations, he said. Smaller businesses want in on the action, too. And with more and more people working from home, broadband is becoming a necessity.
The Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation, which operates as a nonprofit organization outside of the city of Ottumwa, has led the charge on the broadband/fiber optic initiative.
“We’re getting to the point where now we need to take some action,” said OEDC executive director David Barajas Jr. “There’s a chance to do something here. This could help bring Ottumwa and Wapello County to life with broadband and fiber optics.”
There’s speed and then there’s capacity, Settles said.
“You can increase the speed, and a single person or stream of data would work through there,” he said. “Capacity is how many people are going through the door at once.”
Even though Ottumwa may be a relatively small community, he said a substantial broadband network is a must in order to serve the increasing technological aspects in education and in order to attract businesses to the area to serve Indian Hills graduates in laser technology and robotics.
“If you had 300 businesses and they all needed 100 megs, and at the same time you have 4,700 students in the K-12 system ... if half get on at the same time, a third are downloading Netflix movies, concurrent with business people working late, the capacity and ability to have all these folks working at the same time is dependent on the speed of the network,” he said.
The discussion then turns to wired versus wireless access.
“Fiber is very expensive, so build it where there's a concentration of people so you get your money back,” he said.
In the last couple of years, wireless technology has become much faster. In Kansas City, residents can snag wireless speeds up to a gigabit.
There are three types of wireless, he said. Cell phone networks were made for voice calls, not for data. WiFi has the capability to transmit data but not voice. The last type, which exists in Kansas City, is “point-to-point” or “line of sight,” where two towers in different parts of a town are able to connect and send data faster over a wireless connection.
When the broadband discussion began in Ottumwa a year ago, the sole focus was on fiber. Now, Settles said high-speed point-to-point wireless could be a viable option.
“The bottom line is unlike the religious wars about wireless and wired, the group here driving the project [OEDC] has no bias,” he said. “It’s really about the speed.”
Through perception, the average person on the street may be skeptical about broadband, he said. But the business owner who wants 100 megs is only concerned about reliable speed and capacity.
The next step is to examine whether to implement dark or lit fiber.
“Dark is if I sell you the electrical cord but don't sell you the electrical services,” he said. “You have the cord but you can’t run the hair dryer or microwave.”
But you can order those electrical services, and once they’re ordered, that cord is “ready to go.”
For the builder, it’s cheaper to sell a community dark fiber, as was done in Steuben County, Ind., where the community used its existing community foundation to build its $3 million, 75-mile dark fiber network.
“Their model is the one that seems to be probably the best one for Ottumwa,” he said.
With this option, the builder isn’t worried about providing the electrical services and therefore doesn’t have to worry about management.
“But a lit fiber network means you’re not only giving the person the electrical cord, you’re giving them the thing in the wall,” he said. “This costs more money.”
If OEDC were to lead the charge in installing dark fiber, they would then need to turn to local providers, such as Lisco or Mediacom, to sell the broadband service to the customers.
The school district's three-year plan includes a huge boost in technology implementation, which means students will need high-speed Internet access at home in order to support the devices they’re issued.
“The most we can hope for is the incumbent telecom providers partner with whatever the community decides to do and create some sort of joint venture to go after broadband, as opposed to doing everything on your own as a community,” he said.
Large telecom providers tend to say that unless a community has a certain number of potential subscribers per square mile, they won’t expand their network in those areas, he said.
“Smaller providers are more inclined to want to bring services, but they can’t afford to build the infrastructure or they can only build it in segments,” he said.
The next step is to “put more meat on the skeleton” in terms of getting more feedback from Ottumwans and conducting more in-depth research and analysis, Settles said.