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Milne: Internet Infrastructure and Iowa’s future

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.

113,000 Miles of Cable via Business Insider.

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.
InterTubes: A Study of the US Long-haul Fiber-optic Infrastructure

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
    Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    This article needs to be in the DesMoines Register. They have painted a highly incomplete and distorted picture of the Apple Project.

  • Lynn Hicks
    Posted September 8, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    Ben, I agree with George in part: would you consider allowing us to republish this?

    • Post Author
      Ben Milne
      Posted September 9, 2017 at 10:19 am

      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.

  • Lynn Hicks
    Posted September 15, 2017 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks! It’s running in print Sunday.

  • mtutty
    Posted September 21, 2017 at 7:16 am

    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?

    • mtutty
      Posted September 21, 2017 at 7:17 am
    • Post Author
      Ben Milne
      Posted September 21, 2017 at 5:28 pm

      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?

      • mtutty
        Posted September 22, 2017 at 7:13 am

        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 –

        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.

  • Pete Jones
    Posted September 22, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Also, the Aureon Fiber Optic Network runs more than 5,000 miles across Iowa although it is mainly used for business use.

    • Post Author
      Ben Milne
      Posted September 23, 2017 at 12:57 pm

      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.

      • Pete Jones
        Posted September 25, 2017 at 9:22 am

        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.

  • Dave Weis
    Posted September 22, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    It’s not that no one wanted to buy the ICN – the state made the terms untenable.

    • Post Author
      Ben Milne
      Posted September 23, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      Any chance you could shed some light on what those terms look like?

    • mtutty
      Posted September 25, 2017 at 4:51 pm

      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…

  • Lori Larsen
    Posted September 25, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    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.

Comments are closed.

Milne: Internet Infrastructure and Iowa's future | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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