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.