Courier Staff Writer
In Ottumwa’s never-ending quest to further economic development in the city, broadband access will play a key role in attracting businesses.
Amy Kuhlers, Connect Iowa state program manager, spoke to members of Ottumwa Rotary Club Monday afternoon.
Connect Iowa is a state broadband initiative with a goal of increasing broadband access across the state.
“A year ago we started talking about fiber optics in the community,” said Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation Executive Director David Barajas Jr.
Barajas related the highway and rail system that brought economic development to Ottumwa in the past with the availability of broadband today.
While Kuhlers agreed that the highways and rail lines that brought economic opportunities to cities in the past can be related to broadband coming to communities today, the funding is completely different.
Road and rail infrastructure is funded on the federal, state and local level, whereas broadband is mostly privately funded.
Connect Iowa’s parent organization, Connected Nation, originally came to the state to do broadband mapping for fiber. Now, updated maps of statewide access are published biannually.
Each color on the maps represents the community’s broadband access, which can include fiber, cable, DSL, fixed wireless or mobile.
In Iowa, almost 100 percent of the state is covered by mobile, the lowest form of broadband.
“It’s not a divide between urban and rural, as many people think,” Kuhlers said.
Often, in fact, it’s the county seats that do not have fiber broadband, while surrounding rural areas do, such as Fort Dodge.
Ottumwa boasts a large amount of cable broadband, with a “squiggle” of fiber broadband in the middle of the city, Kuhlers said.
On Connect Iowa’s website, an interactive map allows those interested to examine specific addresses or businesses within a community to determine its broadband access.
For example, Kuhlers showed Al-jon Manufacturing, which has mostly DSL broadband access.
“It’s not necessarily the best coverage,” she said. “In an industrial park, most think there would be higher speeds. But there might be ‘dark fiber’ live at Al-jon that they’ve put in on their own.”
Dark fiber, or individually owned fiber broadband, is not recorded by Connect Iowa since it is proprietary information.
“It would be like asking Col. Sanders to give up his chicken recipe,” she said.
Many businesses are now installing their own fiber to boost economic development, Kuhlers said.
Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation President and CEO Brad Little was concerned how multiple providers, such as those in Ottumwa, can work together and make broadband access a viable financial option.
“You’re lucky you have competition,” Kuhlers said, as it presents options. “Money on the table is always good. Providers are more apt to pay attention and build synergy with what you have.”
Kuhlers said the maps are useful for people or businesses who are considering moving to an area who want high-speed broadband access.
According to Connect Iowa’s 2011 Residential Technology Assessment, 63 percent of Iowans subscribe to a home broadband service.
“Most who don’t adopt broadband don’t because of relevance,” Kuhlers said. “They don’t see what it could do for their lives.”
One of the reasons for this is age, Kuhlers said, as older generations do not see the need for broadband access in their homes since it’s not something they grew up with.
Other barriers include digital literacy and cost, as many don’t have the skills necessary to use a computer or they simply cannot afford a computer.
“There’s a learning curve they need to go through,” she said.
Soon, Connect Iowa will be responding to OEDC with what steps Ottumwa needs to take, Kuhlers said.
“Lots of communities would be envious of what you already have here,” Kuhlers said.
For more information about Connect Iowa or to look at broadband access maps specific to each county, go to www.connectiowa.org.