Opening Day at The Gardens signals the start of patio season for St. James Winery and Public House Brewing Company. Join them for a full...
In 1999 when Scott Wendling was 16, an online music file sharing service called Napster was in vogue. A friend of his persuaded her parents to get a high-speed Internet connection so she could start downloading free songs. Wendling saw how cool it was and persuaded his parents to do the same.
When Google announced plans to build a lightning-fast Internet network using fiber-optic cables at a few test markets and solicited applications from cities, Wendling didn’t just jump on the broadband bandwagon. He helped build the wagon by co-founding a group called CoMo Fiber.
The excitement generated by the effort to persuade Google to bring 1-gigabit-per-second Internet speed to every household in Columbia also inspired Mike Brooks, the city’s economic development director and head of Regional Economic Development Inc. REDI’s board at its April meeting formed a telecommunications task force to develop a strategy for creating faster Internet connectivity.
But telecommunications executives who joined Brooks, Wendling and others for a CBT Power Lunch on Boosting Columbia’s Broadband questioned whether residents are really ready — and willing to pay for — ultra-fast Internet.
Wendling has a quick answer for skeptics akin to his Napster experience: “Once the public gets it in their hands, they’ll figure out things to do with it.”
Bryan Gann, operations director for Mediacom in Columbia, said during the Power Lunch that the cable company’s new 50-megabits-per-second Internet service has been slow to catch on locally and nationally.
“We built it, and they haven’t come — at least to the extent we expected,” Gann said.
The speed is more than 50 times faster than a standard DSL connection (available for 98 percent of Columbia households), but it costs $99 per month for the first year and $124 thereafter.
Gann also talked about how creative people get once they start using ultra-fast Internet. Six college kids living together in Columbia shared a broadband connection used to surf the Internet, play games and watch videos and movies. They were frustrated by the capacity of their 10 mgps connection and signed on to Mediacom’s Ultra 50 mgps service.
“Once they got 50 meg through the door, they started eating all they could get really quickly,” Gann said.
Wendling, a commercial real estate broker who started a social media consulting company, said he ran into the demand question when he was trying to rally support for the Google application.
“They said, ‘OK, this means I get faster Internet, but it’s fast enough now; I get my Hulu, my YouTube,”’ he recounted. “They didn’t really understand the applications, the educational, medical possibilities, what you could do in your home on a daily basis.”
Keith Politte, manager of the Technology Testing Center at Reynolds Journalism Institute, said applications for greater broadband capacity are growing exponentially.
One example is emerging technology that will allow consumers to cut and paste and share video clips the same way they cut and paste text, Politte said. “We may not have it here now, but we have to anticipate what’s going to happen.”
J. Scott Christianson, owner of Kaleidoscope Videoconferencing, said televisions with built-in high-definition cameras and Skype phone software are already in the market for about $70 extra.
“Grandmother knows the applications she wants but can’t figure out the computer,” Christianson said. “Now she can use the TV remote to not only watch Netflix movies but to talk with the grandkids.”
Christianson said his company is starting to deploy more high-definition videoconferencing systems, which require at least 5 mgps connections. Teachers and students, executives and employees “can see and hear each other as if they were in the same room.”
Christianson said there are problems caused by the limited amount of bandwidth available and the quality of the connections, such as five-second delays while buffering.
But he said the greater use of video conferencing is inevitable because of the savings and the eventual improvements in technology.
“Video conferencing can offer alternatives to travel — a reduction of direct costs,” he said. Education, he predicted, “is going to be transformed by the ubiquity of high bandwidth connections. Students will be able to take classes in different locations regardless of location or even of time.”
Joe Dames, CEO of Bright Tree, helped develop software for a start-up company that uses two-way video conferencing for psychiatrist and patients.
“This is a great application for broadband because it’s absolutely reliant on a certain level of service,” Dames said. The technology can save “a tremendous amount of money” when used by psychiatrists from urban areas with patients in rural areas.
The savings in health care expense allowed by using such innovative, Internet-based applications should be considered when calculating the costs and benefits of improving broadband connectivity, he said.
Another innovative local company that’s highly dependent on robust Internet capacity is Newsy.com, a multi-source video news service that recently built an application for the iPad that allows users to browse and share videos quickly.
Jonathan Sessions, Newsy’s technology consultant, said upload speeds are limiting the amount of video content Newsy is able to distribute.
“They could put out a lot more video, but when they’re having to upload a video, and they’re just watching the kettle boil, it really slows down the product,” Sessions said.
Ken McMahon, CenturyLink’s general manager for mid-Missouri, said his company already is delivering Internet to commercial customers at speeds of 50 to 60 mgps. CenturyLink even has a few customers getting 1-gigabit-per-second service, such as Carfax, which provides reports of vehicle records across the country.
“If demand is there, we will build the technology to meet that need,” McMahon said. “So it’s really about, how do you leverage the technology you have to be more price competitive?”
McMahon said CenturyLink will continue to improve its technology, but he added: “It might not be at the price that everyone likes, but I also have a commitment to a large number of shareholders that do demand a return on their investment. So it’s a constant challenge.”
Socket Vice President Carson Coffman agreed that they “don’t see a lot of clamoring” for ultra-high-speed Internet now, but he believes the demand is coming, particularly in the areas of telemedicine, distance learning and home security monitoring.
“We think that’s going to happen, but for us to provide the Internet connection today, no one is going to buy it because there’s no way to go out and use that type of connection.”
Coffman said it’s extremely expensive to bring optical fiber directly to residential and commercial buildings. Estimates range from $600 to $2,000. If it turns out that the average cost is $1,000 for each of Columbia’s 40,000 households, that’s $40 million.
Coffman said the city could help by putting fiber optic installation projects on a “fast track” and make it easier to get easements and permits.
“One of my great concerns is the digital divide,” Coffman said. “We don’t want it to be just for people who live in $300,000 houses. It needs to be for everyone. For us, that’s paramount. We need to drive down these construction costs to get these new cutting-edge technologies like fiber.”
Brooks and Mayor Bob McDavid were enthusiastic about the possibility of boosting broadband connectivity and then being able to market Columbia as an epicenter for data-intensive companies.
Brooks said telecommunications “is critically important” to driving commercial development.
McDavid said, “In high school, I was a slide-rule, pocket-protector geek, so I understand the importance of bandwidth.”
The new mayor said the government “can’t get in the way of the free market,” but he added that he’s interested in finding ways for the government to help with infrastructure improvements.
“I’m interested in doing everything I can do to make Columbia the forefront of telecommunications,” McDavid said. “If we can differentiate our community from others, let’s go for it.”
Although the odds of winning the Google competition are about as long as “buying a Powerball ticket,” Brooks said he wants to build on the grassroots effort with the telecommunications task force.
Gann of Mediacom said that despite the reality check of Internet pricing, it was exciting to watch the Google application process and CoMo Fiber “get off the ground.”
“We had all these people going, ‘Yeah, what could we develop to take advantage of this gig we would have sitting there?’” he said.
John Gillispie, executive director of the Missouri Research and Education Network, or MORE.net, said: “Broadband has changed the economy in ways we can’t even imagine. We’re just now beginning to see the creativity.”
Columbia-based MORE.net has applied for a federal grant to install 2,750 miles of fiber cable in 58 counties, a $100 million project.
“The Internet levels the playing field for all participants in the economy,” he said. “In education, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, in Columbia or New York City; on the Internet everyone is created equal.”
“To see how broadband is transforming American life, walk down a busy street or pay a visit to any school, business or airport. Parents on business trips use their smartphones to check e-mail or watch short videos of their children playing soccer, hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.
Americans work together in real time on complex documents from different desks in the same office, and workers in different offices around the world collaborate via video-conferencing technology. Sales and field maintenance personnel use mobile devices to access inventory information in their businesses, place orders and update records, which increases efficiency and productivity. Students draw on the richness of the Internet to research historical events or watch simulations of challenging math problems.
People are using broadband in ways they could not imagine even a few years ago.”
The plan unveiled in March recommends that the country set six goals for 2020 to serve as a compass during the next decade. Here are the first four:
The first meeting of the group appointed by the Regional Economic Development Inc.’s board of directors will be held May 7 at Boone Electric Cooperative.