Courier Staff Writer
As Ottumwa vies for a fiber optic network, the public will need to understand broadband because to most, it’s an unknown and often misunderstood concept.
“We need to educate the constituents,” said Craig Settles, broadband and fiber optic community assessment consultant. “It’s like magic to people. They don’t fully understand it. There’s fear, there’s misunderstanding. Sometimes there’s too much positive hype and then there’s a disconnect because they don’t fully grasp what we’re talking about.”
The Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation spoke with Settles Monday morning before the consultant comes to Ottumwa next week for a series of workshops and town hall meetings to begin his broadband and fiber optic infrastructure needs analysis.
Settles said there are more than 120 communities across the nation that own their own broadband infrastructure, dozens who are engaged in a public-private partnership and an unknown number of co-ops built specifically to deliver broadband.
“My role is to help people assign value,” he said. “Dollars earned, people’s health care, the ability to stay in their homes longer and be independent. It becomes clear what the benefits are.”
Settles compared broadband access to a railroad. There’s the option of a bullet train, a steam locomotive or Amtrak, he said. High-speed broadband is described as anything more than 10 megabytes per second, he said.
Another way to look at it is filling a pool, he said. The speed at which data moves through the “digital pipe” is akin to using a garden hose versus a fire hose to fill a pool.
The average person likely uses the Internet for general use, such as email, social media and basic research, so they don’t need a “super fast” connection, he said.
“For the average person on the street, it’s understanding the fire hose vs. garden hose analogy,” he said.
They need the garden hose approach, he said, since they’re just filling the hypothetical kids’ pool in the backyard and don’t want the kids to drown by blasting it with too much water at once.
Businesses who want to work video conferencing with potential customers into their work will need a faster connection, something more like a fire hose, he said. Those with a 50-meter pool are going to need something a lot faster to fill it up.
“We’ll look at what your needs analysis is and then what type of broadband makes sense,” he said.
Though the average person would use broadband for basic usage, OEDC executive director David Barajas Jr. said the improvements made to local health care, education and business would benefit the “average Joe” in the long run.
“The Advanced Technology program at Indian Hills uses such advanced technology, but those students are getting jobs on the coasts,” said OEDC initiative manager Megan Framke. “We need to bring those companies here so those students will stay here. In a roundabout way, it would improve the lives of people here.”
To attract businesses, communities generally need at least 100 to 120 megabytes per second, Settles said, whereas most home-based businesses require 25 to 50 megabytes per second.
The task is to develop a picture of what people want to do, and based on that, he can determine what type of broadband they need.
“The biggest problem I see is communities get into the process and realize it’s a lot of money,” he said. “Then the project doesn’t look as enticing. They want the Maserati, but they can’t afford it so they just walk.”
Ottumwa has to look at what it needs first, then they can look at what type of broadband to choose before diving in, he said.
“What we need to be careful of as a community is ... that we don’t do anything to sell ourselves short,” Barajas said. “Obviously technology is always changing and improving. With technology, it’s hard to fathom the long-term. But we also need to impress upon people to dream, to not be afraid to dream.”
Barajas said it will be important to establish a fiber optic system that the community can add onto at some point.
There’s no way to foresee the future, Settles said, but it’s important for businesses to start thinking about what broadband can do for them a few years down the road.
“If you build a network infrastructure of 100 megabyte core cables, you don’t want those to have to be replaced,” Settles said.
Ottumwa would want to establish a fiber optic system where the city could change the electronics at the end of the cable rather than digging up the entire system and replacing it, he said.
“You only want to do this exercise once,” Settles said. “You don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel, because the wheel gets pricey.”
There are several ways in which communities have paid for broadband access, he said. Some do bond measures, some create nonprofit organizations and others have created public-private partnerships.
“In the end, the community will make the decision,” he said of which option they will go with and how they will partner with different organizations to move forward. “It’s all an involved process. It’s designed to be exhaustive in the people it reaches out to and touches.”
Ottumwa is lucky enough to have a community foundation, the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, Barajas said. And they have showed their support of the broadband and fiber optic network initiative.
“I know that broadband improvement is definitely one of their strategic goals,” Barajas said.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to broadband, Settles said. Ottumwa will need to figure out which specific things will be the most beneficial for the community.
“It won’t be a technology discussion, per se,” he said of next week’s meetings. “It’s not about the technology, it’s the things you can do when the right technology is put in place.”
Town hall meetings
Settles will hold two public town hall meetings next week. Anyone is welcome to attend to share their ideas or ask questions about the process. Both will be held in City Council chambers at City Hall.
6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28
9:30-11 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 29