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Rural Internet Access: Easier in Some Areas Than Others

As connection to broadband becomes an increasingly important part of daily life, those living in rural areas are finding that connecting is not always a simple process.

(TNS) — Nate Oswald works for a local fiber-optic network company. Even for him, though, it wasn't easy to get internet service to his rural Reno County home.

He first had to convince two dozen neighbors to commit to contracting with his employer, IdeaTek, before the small but growing independent company agreed to string lines to the rural cluster of houses north of Hutchinson at the end of last year.

"It's 8 miles from here to Hutchinson, and there is a black hole in there for internet service," said Oswald, who lives 4 miles from Hutchinson and was speaking from IdeaTek's downtown Buhler offices. "It is extremely underserved. ... My wife, Terra, works from home. The best we could get was a Verizon hotspot that many times drops service. This will enable her to continue to work from home."

Before getting a connection, Oswald was among the nearly two-thirds of rural Reno County residents without internet access except through high-cost cellular data services.

Figures from a national organization called Broadband Now show some 12,000 Reno County residents, or 63 percent of the county outside of population centers, have no broadband access other than potentially by phone.

For urban areas in the county, just 5 percent, or about 2,500 people, don't have access, though, truth be told, even in urban areas, available service falls well below state and national averages.

That same source rates Hutchinson – the 11th largest city in Kansas by population – as the 79th most connected city in the state, with an average broadband download speed of just 25.33 megabytes per second (Mbps).

That's nearly a third slower than the average speed across Kansas – which itself is ranked a lowly 40th in the nation for broadband service – and more than 67 percent lower than the national average.

The Federal Communication Commission's "benchmark speed" to consider a community served by broadband requires minimum download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. The average internet download speed in Kansas is 32.24 Mbps, and for the nation, the average is 42.5 Mbps, according to data compiled by Rick Neese of Broadband Now.

Fiber optic expansion?

IdeaTek was building an extension of its fiber lines relatively close to his home, extending the overhead cables along 30th Avenue nearly to Hutchinson, so Oswald, who is engineering coordinator for the company, was able to convince his employer to tap that line, extending a branch up Willison Road to 69th Avenue.

The company is open to extending service to other rural housing clusters in the county without access to internet service if it pencils out, said Daniel Friesen, chief innovation officer at IdeaTek. They're now looking, for example, at extending a line at their 30th Avenue terminus farther north to the Rice County line.

"We have what we call our 'Champions of the build,'" Friesen said. "They are typically the ones who reach out first, and we say, 'If you can get a neighborhood together.' We enable them with marketing materials to gather interest. If they meet an interest-level requirement, we'll do an initial build cost analysis and determine how many customers in an area we have to sign up to make a business case. As soon as it hits that trigger point, we'll start the investment."

"WIFCO Steel is a perfect example, where we found an anchor entity to start the process," Friesen said. "Josh Stubbs at WIFCO said 'We rely on good internet service for our business and we need you out here.' We said 'It's going to be tough, but if you can sign up some residential customers, then we'll have the synergy to benefit both sides. It took about six months for the process."

Sorry, Hutchinson

They will look at extending service to any businesses in Hutchinson, Friesen said, but Hutchinson residents watching the service coming ever-so-close are out of luck.

The 15-year-old company, which has focused on fiber optics for the past decade, has residential customers primarily in Buhler, Inman, Haven, Moundridge, Mount Hope, Andale, most of Yoder and Bentley. It also provides high-speed internet for school districts in Nickerson and Fairfield and has commercial customers in Hutchinson, Newton, McPherson and as far west as Stafford.

"We've been focusing a lot lately on underserved," Friesen said. "Not formal communities, but underserved groups of rural neighborhoods. We've been very successful outside of Andale, with bedroom developments, and in the Wichita area."

"A lot of times, when we have public forum meetings in areas where we're deploying, we get a lot of contact from the outskirts where we hadn't intended to go, but where it might make sense to hop over there," said Jade Piros de Carvalho, director of marketing for IdeaTek. "It made better sense, with a higher subscription rate."

Where they are located, said IdeaTek CEO Jerrod Reimer, "we see a 70 percent or 80 percent take rate, which is very high for the industry. That tells us everyone likes our product, and we think they're going to be loyal, long-term customers."

The company is not interested, however, Friesen said, in going into larger metro areas like Hutchinson "to get in a nickel and dime fight."

"You see in metro areas where customers will switch between AT&T and Cox over 10 bucks," he said. "We want long-term relationships with our customers. We don't really want in that fight. They don't even know who their customers are; they don't care who they are. That's not our mission."

Still, only about 6 percent of Reno County residents and less than 2 percent of connections in Hutchinson, the Broadband Now data shows, have access to fiber.

IdeaTek has approached rural electric providers about allowing it to share the electric lines under a franchise agreement, which would allow wider and more economical expansion, but so far has been unsuccessful, Friesen said.

"If you draw a line around Buhler, our 5- to 10-year plan is serving more communities within that 60-mile radius," he said.

Gold standard

Fiber optic is the "gold standard" for broadband service. It works by lasers shooting pulses of light across thin strands of glass. The technology offers nearly unlimited expansion and has fewer points of failure than copper wire and cable networks.

"Nothing is faster than the speed of light," notes IdeaTek's Reimer.

"It's very future-proof," Friesen said. "And it's very scalable. When we started in Buhler 10 years ago, those same lines will be scalable (allowing expansion) for decades to come."

Fiber optic signals can travel farther than signals over copper lines or cables because it doesn't have electromagnetic interference from the lines degrading it. Also, IdeaTek's lines aren't delivering multiple signals, like telephone and television, along with the internet.

"It's a non-shared, dedicated connection to the customer," Friesen said. "We can deliver the same product in front of our central office as 20 to 30 kilometers away. Because we have a pristine transmission medium, the effort it takes to upgrade the technology is less. We're so far ahead with gigabyte services vs. cable modem."

Most of their customers can receive gigabyte service, Friesen said, which is 1,000 megabytes of data – or 1 billion bits – per second. With 1 Gbps, a high definition movie can be downloaded in about 10 seconds.

The next step up, Friesen said, is 10 Gbps, which a few of their commercial connections are already delivering.

The cost of installing fiber optics, however, is substantially higher than traditional DSL (digital line service) and cable. That's because most of those services use the existing copper telephone or coaxial cable lines installed decades ago.

Companies providing those services have been able to boost signals over time, but that's accomplished primarily by installing new technology at the sending and receiving ends and sometimes in-between.

Other upgrades

While residential fiber optics aren't coming to Hutchinson, for those unsatisfied by the speed of services in town, there are a couple of upgrades in progress by the two primary providers.

Also, for unserved or underserved rural residents, a couple of other technologies that could reach them at a more moderate cost are in pilot studies, though it appears fixed wireless through phone and satellite service remain the primary options for the foreseeable future.

According to Broadband Now, there are nine residential provider networks in Hutchinson or Reno County. The two primary providers are Cox Communications and AT&T.

"We definitely have plans for fiber across the state as we look through 2018 and early 2019 that would include Reno County," stated Mandy Wilbert, senior manager of public affairs at Cox Communications in Wichita.

The system is not true fiber-optics but uses a technology called DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) to send higher speeds over hybrid fiber-coaxial cable.

First released in October 2013, and updated several times since, DOCSIS 3.1 technology supports broadband capacities of at least 10 Gbps downstream and 1 Gbps upstream.

Cox began offering 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps to residential customers in this area earlier this year, with nearly 40 percent of its customer base having access to it by the end of the year, Wilbert stated.

"We are on track to reach 99 percent by the end of 2019," Wilbert stated in an email. "Our commitment is to provide gigabit options to all homes and businesses, not just chosen neighborhoods."

AT&T launched U-verse, its newest technology, in Hutchinson in 2013, offering speeds of up to 75 Mbps in limited areas.

Data shows its average residential speed in Hutchinson is 19.6 Mbps; however, for many customers speeds of just 3- to 6-Mbps are the norm.

"We would like to provide high-speed internet to as many customers as possible," Chris Lester, lead public relations manager/mid-states market, stated in an email exchange with The News. "At this time, we do offer our 100 percent fiber network powered by AT&T Fiber service to parts of south-central Kansas, in addition to non-Fiber High-Speed Internet Access (HSIA) in and around Reno County. We will share more updates about additional locations as we expand access to service."

Fiber service in the region, however, the company later confirmed, was limited to Wichita, with no immediate plans to expand it into Hutchinson.

"We're committed to using multiple technologies to expand internet access to more locations," Lester stated. "In September we launched our innovative Fixed Wireless Internet service in parts of Kansas. By 2020 we plan to connect over 1.1 million locations across the U.S."

The company also announced last week it has started testing new technology in Georgia on "Project AirGig," which uses low-cost plastic devices attached to power poles to deliver "last mile access" through 4G and 5G wireless technology.

There was no public timeline, however, for how the long testing will proceed and when the technology might be released.

©2018 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.