Faster Internet isn’t just a luxury for watching movies, listening to music or getting a bargain on overstocked pillow cases.

“Broadband ... is not optional,” said David Barajas Jr., executive director of the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation. “In today’s society, we can’t be afraid to be better than better.”

We have to show businesses — both the ones here and the ones considering building here — that we have more to offer.

Broadband makes doing business possible via the Internet, but access has to be available locally. The “wires” that carry computer, phone or TV signals can handle more information through one line. The most obvious difference between a service like broadband and something slower, like “dial up” by telephone computer service, becomes clear when watching video.

Watching a video sent by U.S. military personnel in Iraq on dial up will show clunky, stop-and-go video, possibly missing pieces of information. The same video via broadband would be like watching TV.  

Matt Bauman, with the Area 15 Regional Planning Commission, was gathering data across the state of Iowa so Connect Iowa and state government could get an idea of where Iowa stands technologically. During his meeting in Wapello County, 10 people from the community, including Barajas, answered Bauman’s questions and asked some of their own.

Not all of the questions revolved around business.

Bauman and some attendees discussed the absence of full-time medical doctors practicing psychiatric medicine in Ottumwa — and the part-time psychiatrists and nurse practitioners are trying to serve thousands of patients.

But tele-medicine can help ease that burden. With a good Internet connection, a psychiatrist in New York has been able to meet “face to face” with clients in Ottumwa. With a clear connection, a doctor wanting to know how a medication is working (or not working) can observe the client’s movements and mannerisms. Side effects like grinding of teeth, agitation or twitches aren’t as noticeable in a regular phone call. Even mental health therapists are reluctant to give primary counseling over the phone.

But with good broadband, said one attendee, his therapist wife would be comfortable doing some face-to-face counseling using the Internet.

Businesses want quicker Internet so they can do the same quality of work from Ottumwa as a business from Des Moines or Chicago, Bauman said.

“This is an opportunity for us to lead in the fiber optic broadband initiative,” said Barajas. “We can not be afraid to lead if we want to be able to retain and attract good [jobs] for our citizens. We want to work with Connect Iowa, but at the same time, we’re going to make sure Wapello County is at the forefront.”

Bauman said the Ottumwa area has a good head start, with the Comprehensive Fiber Optic Infrastructure Plan. The plan Barajas told him about is so far the only organized plan he’s heard about to integrate broadband widely into a community.

Bauman said that the statewide initiative focuses, at first, on the “anchors” of a community, like schools, hospitals and places that employ large numbers of residents.

There’s a goal as well to provide Internet access for those without access and more public wireless “hot spots” in each community.

As for what comes next, Bauman said, that depends on the data gathered in meetings like the one at the Chamber of Commerce building in Ottumwa. Eventually, a report would be put together.

“Today is about gathering information [regarding] how the local area is tackling broadband issues,” Bauman said.

To that end, he asked a series of questions of participants, including: Who are the providers that service this area? Are there any digital literacy classes available in Ottumwa? Are there places the public can find a computer to use so they access the Internet? Are there farm and ag websites in this area? Where are the Wi-Fi access spots?

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