The internet feels wireless, but it isn’t.
The Apple announcement last week brought out all kinds of arguments. Some of the more negative ones are rooted in the Return on Investment for Iowa taxpayers. Most of these arguments are mathematically sound but they ignore the impact to Iowa’s internet infrastructure that end up benefiting everyone who lives here.
The nervous system of the internet is a hard-wired set of cables that most of us never see. They manifest themselves in the form of a large roll of cables that sits by a road or construction site until they are laid to rest forever. Never to be seen by us but everything we do electronically will pass through those same cables.
Fiber, or said differently, an extremely fast way to pass data at the moment, is critical to the success of our local economy. That’s because it’s the thing that connects us to the world through the internet. When you look at it from a high level it looks a lot like a road or railway infrastructure.
This infrastructure connects us coast to coast and to the rest of the world in almost near real-time. As knowledge has largely shifted from atoms (books) to bits (computers) that connection is crucial. That connection carries more and more of our knowledge.
Knowledge moving at a higher rate of speed between people and computers, is now a fundamental advantage for populations and for companies. This means that software that powers everything can speak to other software faster and in higher volumes through these backbone connections.
The new experiences the internet give us requires more bandwidth. We’re not in a world that can reverse this trend.
In many ways, our futures are more closely tied to these cables we bury beneath us than we may realize. For those of us that think about that stuff all the time, it changes where we decide to build our business and raise our families.
This is a very personal subject for me.
As a child, my world completely changed the first time I got a 14.4kpbs connection. The first time I got the internet, the first time I used a computer, and the first time I got access to a cable connection are core memories for me. The theme for me was always the same… I could access more of the world from right where I was sitting without needing to get on a plane. When you’re young, that means the world opens up.
Every-time the connection got faster, the world opened up a little more. I could ask questions faster and the conversation could accelerate. If I could talk faster and type faster the limitations to what I could learn and create were mostly tied to the quality of my questions and how fast they were answered.
More answers beget more opportunities.
The rate at which I can learn has always been a direct corollary of how fast I can ask questions and understand the answers. To me, speed is knowledge. I have no shortage of questions.
This is one of the many reasons that when I saw the recent Apple announcement, I thought about it in the context of how this impacts our internet infrastructure and I’m fairly certain I’m a quiet beneficiary.
This does a few things for those of us in the Midwest:
- Increases the likelihood of our communities have access to some of the best connections on the internet, anywhere in the country.
- The wireless infrastructure most of us use for the internet is based on our access to a powerful broadcast point. With enough of these fiber connections, we end up with an area that’s ideal for an actual WiMax network would could result in wireless speeds that are higher on average than what most people in our state have access to.
- I wasn’t aware of this until recently but it looks like a larger percentage of our state is using sub 20mbps connections. Many businesses can’t operate with that type of connection. I know that Dwolla couldn’t.
- It means the cost to getting Google Fiber like speeds for everyone who lives in the metro goes down considerably.
- It means more tech first businesses are able to call Des Moines and surrounding areas home. While there are impactful benefits to attracting companies to our midwest homes, there are generational impacts from helping new companies build and scale here.
Our interstate infrastructure has set up us remarkably well. While it’s been said that the fiber is normally laid by roads, the best research on the subject of “where are the fiber lines?” has been the work by Paul Bradford and a team of researchers. The discovery was that the fiber in our country has largely been laid by our road infrastructure.
There’s a literal analogy to be made here. The physical road system that helped power the industrial revolution, is just as important as the fiber connections that’s going to be used to power the next technical revolution.
Facebook, Microsoft, and Google putting in critical data warehouses that serve their customers globally, right in our backyard, is a fantastic thing for the future of our internet infrastructure. Say what you will about Siren Servers but this will force upgrades and continued investment in a hidden set of connections that create the groundwork for a generation of companies, educational systems, and connect those of us who live here with the rest of the world.
I am aware the hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives for Apple is a lot of money and the jobs they create here aren’t going to blow anyone away.
Being somewhat contrarian, Iowa isn’t really struggling for jobs. Our unemployment rate is low as is our cost of living. What we need to be doing is planning for our futures which means working to ensure that prosperity and comfort remains. That prosperity is inextricably linked to the quality of our internet infrastructure and connection to the outside world.
The short or mid-term return on investment of that $200M does not make economic development sense if the goal is job creation. I’d be amazed if someone tried to hang their hat on that argument even though that’s what I keep hearing comments about.
If you’re thinking about the future, the only option is one where Iowa plays a critical role in delivering information and storing the world’s knowledge. I applaud the people who are helping to make that a reality. If knowledge and access to that knowledge is important to you, Iowa, and other midwest communities… We are all actually positioning ourselves and our children for the future pretty damn well.
Ben Milne is a co-founder of Clay & Milk and founder of payments company Dwolla.
George La Marca
This article needs to be in the DesMoines Register. They have painted a highly incomplete and distorted picture of the Apple Project.
Ben, I agree with George in part: would you consider allowing us to republish this?
Absolutely, Lynn! Feel free to use whatever parts are useful for yourself or the Des Moines Register. Grateful that the Register is inclusive of a number of different viewpoints.
Thanks! It’s running in print Sunday.
As a broad commentary about the catalytic effect of Internet access/speed, this is good work. Specific to Iowa, I remain mystified by the lack of discussion about our very own, State-owned ICN, which has well over 1,000 miles of (dark and lit) fiber. It connects every school, county courthouse and now (just about every) hospital in Iowa. The fiber runs are typically along county highways and other main roads. There is a fiber connection within a couple of miles of over 90% of Iowans.
Where is the discussion about making this resource available to Iowans? Google Fiber? Why not Iowa Fiber?
Sorry, meant to add a link for reference: https://icn.iowa.gov/about-icn/agency-information-icns-story/maps
This is really fantastic. Do you know if the map you posted is available anywhere with higher resolution and if other companies can tap into that line?
Short answers: Yes, No.
Slightly longer: Yes, the map has a PDF at that link, and the ICN creates that map from their operational management data, which tracks every cable they own to within centimeters of its ground location. And No, businesses are not currently eligible to buy services from ICN (see the Iowa Code that establishes its scope – https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/ico/chapter/8D.pdf)
Even longer: The State perenially tries to sell ICN, nobody wants to buy it. There’s a lot more to it. Pretty interesting but a longer discussion.
Also, the Aureon Fiber Optic Network runs more than 5,000 miles across Iowa although it is mainly used for business use. https://www.aureon.com/services/technology/data-network#FiberOptic
Is there a public map that shows more specifically where the Aureon fiber lines are run? The site has some nice ones but the maps that I see are zoomed out quite far.
Anything further is only available upon request. If you give us an address to check we can see how close our fiber is to that address and discuss options to create connections.
It’s not that no one wanted to buy the ICN – the state made the terms untenable.
Any chance you could shed some light on what those terms look like?
Lol Dave, I’m sure it looks that way from your point of view :) Buy me a drink sometime and I’d be glad to discuss…
Ben – I am a representative for the ICN. We would be glad to tell you our story of how our statewide broadband network is benefiting Iowa’s education, healthcare, public safety, and government sectors. Feel free to contact me with any questions that you may have about the ICN.
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