Allamakee-Clayton Electric Cooperative doing its part to help provide faster internet with West Waukon and northern Allamakee fiber projects

by Stephanie Kelley

Fiber optic internet is fast. Really fast. Using a download speed calculator, it means that what takes dial-up internet over 331 days, downloads with fiber in 34 seconds. That’s one movie in HD (high-definition). That’s 4.0 GB (gigabytes) of data. It’s easy to get confused when talking about the internet. Isn’t it all just WiFi? Actually, it’s not. WiFi, or wireless internet, is simply another type of internet, like dial-up, like fiber optics. Except that wireless travels through air with high energy radio waves, dial-up sends electrons through copper wire, and fiber optic internet is light traveling through glass.

There also needs to be a way to measure all of this. Broadband measures the speed (331 days or 34 seconds, for example) and bandwidth measures the amount of data (one HD movie/4 GB). The higher the speed and the greater the data load, the more bandwidth is needed. And that’s where Allamakee Clayton Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) has been making strides with a project in the local area.

“The amount of bandwidth that people are now using is 10-15 times more than they were probably using even five years ago,” said REC General Manager Hollee McCormick. “So that connection that was suitable five years ago, it isn’t anymore because we have so many devices connected and utilizing bandwidth.” Those devices could include smart phones, computers, home security systems, appliances, deer cameras, etc.

REC recently completed the West Waukon Project that was part of OCIO-5, a broadband grant through the Iowa Office of the Chief Information Officer that awarded REC with $2.2 million in State funding. They’re hopeful to start hooking up those subscribers along the western edge of the town of Waukon in mid-November of this year.

“We’re probably about halfway through deploying the northern project in Allamakee. We hope to be hooking up subscribers there by Spring 2022. This (northern project) has over 600 passings.” According to McCormick, that’s 600 more families in hard to reach rural areas that will have access to internet that travels at almost the speed of light.

For families that have been using dial-up (copper cables), their internet has been traveling using electrons (electricity) that travels at less than one percent the speed of light. Which means that HD movie they wanted to watch is going to take them approximately 331 days to download. Thanks to the new fiber optics REC is deploying, they’ll be able to download that movie in approximately 34 seconds.

For families using wireless (electromagnetic waves), things can get interesting. While, in theory, these waves could travel as fast or faster through air than light can through fiber optic cables, the waves need to travel in a straight line. They can’t do that and still curve around the globe, so wireless internet requires towers to connect the signals, kind of like connect-the-dots artwork.

Unfortunately, these waves often run into interference like masonry, other networks, or bluffs as they travel through the air. In some areas, there isn’t even a tower. Thanks to the beautiful Driftless area, Allamakee County has plenty of interference for these wireless waves and that’s just part of why McCormick calls fiber optics the “gold standard” in internet service.

“There are varying speeds and levels of service when it comes to internet connectivity, and we all truly have different needs. You can have a dripping faucet, a weak pressure shower, or you can have Niagara Falls,” she explained. And there are more Niagara Falls coming. According to BroadbandNow.com, Iowa currently sits in the 45th position in the nation for broadband access and holds the title for second-slowest state in the nation for internet speed, but if Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds can accomplish what she hopes to with her latest initiatives, by 2025, every Iowan will have broadband access; every Iowan will have access to high speed internet.

In a press release October 11 of this year, Gov. Reynolds said, “I continue to hear from Iowans who still lack access to the broadband speeds necessary to start a business, telework, or connect with a healthcare provider.” October 25, Governor Reynolds made an additional $200 million (OCIO-7) in funding available and REC isn’t planning on missing out.

“When I first started with REC in 2014,” said McCormick, “we were just up and coming with wireless. Our state has really put these opportunities out there for people like us who want to be crazy enough to jump in and make fiber work for our corner of the state.” McCormick also noted that REC’s goal was to bring fiber optics to underserved areas. “(We want) to be good partners with our neighboring providers. We’re not going to go deploy fiber where we know they already have plans. That doesn’t make any sense. We’re truly looking for these areas where people aren’t served by anyone. Electricity is our core business. We’re just trying to fill a need for our members (and) fill a need for our communities.”

In regards to the additional two million dollars in grant money, and whether REC will be awarded any, “We’ll know December 31,” McCormick said.

Engineering this move to providing fiber optic internet hasn’t always been easy, but for McCormick, her support staff, the fiber optics engineer, and the three – sometimes seven – contractors currently working every day to make it happen, she said this, “To know that we’re making a difference is exciting. Even on the most stressful day for me… that is why we’re going to continue what we’re doing because we know the reward will be worth the work”.

To date, REC has laid 140 miles of fiber optic cable and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. The contractors have buried as much of the fiber network underground as possible, but when venturing into particularly rocky or other challenging terrain, the contractors often utilize REC’s existing electric infrastructure to run aerial fiber overhead.

Current and potential subscribers benefiting from REC’s western Waukon and northern Allamakee fiber optic projects have already been notified by mail. Existing wireless or satellite subscribers will be able to switch to fiber without any installation fees and REC will be offering a six-month no installation fee period for any new fiber subscriber.

For those wondering if their area will be receiving fiber optic internet, REC will know December 31 of this year how much and if any of the two million dollars in grant money will be awarded to them. For more information, visit https://www.acrec.com/ or call the Allamakee Clayton Electric Cooperative.

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