Cooperative Fiber: Bringing Broadband to Rural Illinois

When you hear the word “fiber” you probably think about your last doctor’s visit, but these days there’s another meaning for the word. In the world of broadband Internet, fiber optics is king. Members of telephone cooperatives are quickly becoming aware of what fiber can do for them.

Telephone cooperatives have always prided themselves on staying innovative in their approach to technology. After all, technology is what drives the telecommunications industry. It’s no surprise then that Wabash Telephone Cooperative in Louisville has embraced the opportunity to build a fiber to the home infrastructure within its service territory, even though that means they have to start from the ground up.

“Our industry is becoming more complex with the convergence of multiple services” said Jeff Williams, General Manager/Executive Vice President at Wabash. “Each service has its own set of technical requirements and issues that make deploying new services very challenging. Some examples of use are HD, 3D television and teleconferencing. Each service has its own set of
technical requirements and issues that make deploying new services very challenging.”

Installing a fiber infrastructure brings with it many other advantages as well. By building a high-speed broadband backbone, the cooperative is investing in the economic development of the region.

According to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, “Broadband can be the great enabler that restores America’s economic well-being and opens doors of opportunity for all Americans to pass through, no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives.”

Adding broadband services to rural areas brings those areas into the modern age, allowing rural residents the same opportunities for business development as those in cities. It’s all about flexibility instead of location.

“Farmers and ranchers would have up-to-the-minute commodity and weather information; schools could expand limited course offerings through distance learning; and first responders would have information they need to keep their communities safer,” says Colleen Callahan, state Director for USDA Rural Development.

“We are very excited about this project and the opportunities it will provide for our members,” says Carol Oestreich, Commercial Office and Marketing Supervisor for Wabash Telephone. “Fiber can carry a high bandwidth signal great distances.”

That means members of the cooperative, even though they are in rural areas, can still have the same access to services they would have in higher populated cities. Services such as television, business marketing, sales, education and medical services through telemedicine are becoming increasingly more universally available via Internet technologies. Bringing broadband to rural areas ensures that residents of those areas don’t fall behind the technological curve.

“The real value of extra bandwidth is that it lets us do entirely new things with computers, cameras and televisions on our network. The growth of content, applications and various other products will place greater demands and the use of fiber will soon be a necessity,” says Williams. “Fiber is what’s going to let small-town residents have more say over what services they want, giving them choices of the latest services and technology. Fiber to the home is actually doing a lot to keep Wabash Telephone what it’s always been about. Wabash Telephone is strong and on the leading edge. We continue to bring our members the latest in services and technology.”

Just how fast is fiber? In areas where consumers are limited to dial-up Internet services they currently experience speeds of 56kbs (56,000 bits per second.) Places that have satellite Internet available can expect speeds of 512kbs to 1.5mbs (512,000 to 1,500,000 bits per second)—a significant increase to be sure. However, fiber connections are a whole other world. Recently, the city of Chattanooga, TN installed a fiber optic network that makes available to its residents speeds of 1Gbps. That’s a whopping 1,000,000,000 bits per second!

Of course, there are obstacles to a project this size, not the least of which is cost. Historically, fiber optic cable has been prohibitively expensive, but in recent years the price has continued to drop. Now, the price of fiber cable has even dipped lower than the price of traditional copper wire. There is the added cost of building a completely new infrastructure, but cooperatives are familiar with such challenges.

Before 1935, less than one American farm in five had electricity. So many conveniences taken for granted in American cities, which had been electrified since the turn of the century, were unknown to rural families. Power companies believed farm families couldn’t afford electricity and really had no need for it. They believed there was no profit in building power lines to farmers. Likewise telephone service in rural areas suffered from the same misconception. It wasn’t until the 1949 REA loan program that rural telephone service began to improve. It was that cooperative spirit that brought both electricity and telephone services to members located outside of investor-owned territories.

Now rural consumers are faced with yet another shortage of services– the lack of broadband access available to nearly every American citizen living in a city. And once again, cooperatives like Wabash Telephone are stepping up to offer those services.

“Broadband, much like education, is the great equalizer. Until we complete the initiative to bring high-speed Internet to our rural communities, rural Illinois will continue to be at a disadvantage in receiving quality health care, improved educational opportunities, and potential business advantages.”

In the early 1940’s a farmer in Tennessee said, “The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house,” Says Callahan.

Maybe now we can add to that statement: “The next greatest thing is to have electricity in our houses providing the power to run our businesses, keep us in touch with our neighbors, educate our children, keep the doctor down the street informed and engaged and build jobs for our communities.”

In early September, Governor Quinn announced that Illinois had received a federal grant to begin construction of a high-speed fiber optic broadband infrastructure in 55 Illinois counties. The new high-tech infrastructure is projected to serve more than 285,000 businesses and nearly four million households.

“This expansion of Illinois’ information infrastructure will bring new jobs, education, health and public safety opportunities to underserved areas throughout our state,” said Governor Quinn.

This project is one of 13 broadband expansion awards secured for Illinois since February. These awards represent more than $250 million of investment in the Illinois economy, including $174 million in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. Together, the projects are expected to create or retain more than 2,000 Illinois jobs.

Upon completion, the fiber-optic broadband network will connect 3,138 anchor institutions, including 21 community colleges across 55 counties in Illinois. Residential broadband service providers will be able to affordably extend their services into unserved or underserved communities by partnering with the Illinois Department of Central Management to connect to the new infrastructure. By doing so, service providers could potentially reach an additional 3,931,875 households.

“These public-private partnerships are imperative for successful community development and economic growth,” said Governor Quinn.

Forty-seven of the 55 counties in the proposed service area are underserved with residential broadband subscription rates of less than 40 percent. Thirteen of the counties are economically distressed with above-average unemployment rates and low median incomes.


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Partnership for a Connected Illinois 1337 Wabash Ave. Springfield, IL 62704 Phone: (217) 886-4228 Fax: (217) 718-4546