COLUMBUS – At a time when many communities in Southeast Kansas are struggling economically, things are going well in Columbus. With a population around 3,200 in its immediate area located in Cherokee County, Columbus is home to a new Wal-Mart store, a bustling downtown with no empty or vacant storefronts, and the main headquarters of one of the biggest heavy contractor firms in the region – Crossland Construction.
For this recent increase in economic development in the community, Trish Carroll credits the effort to bring high-speed Internet to businesses and homes. Carroll is the general manager of the Columbus Telephone Company, a private-sector cooperative that has been meeting the communication needs of people in that city since 1905. She said that if it weren’t for fiber connectivity, a company like Crossland would not be able to send architectural drawings around the country in the timely fashion necessary for a business that size.
While efforts by the City of Chanute to bring high-speed Internet to homes proved politically controversial and are currently at a stalemate, Carroll’s company launched an effort to bring one gigabyte Internet service directly to all homes and businesses in Columbus in 2004. The project was self-funded through the cooperative, eventually costing approximately $6 million.
“Today, I don’t know that the build would have cost what it cost back then,” Carroll said. “More and more people are putting fiber in, so its cost is coming down. It’s the cost of installation – the labor side of it – that’s the expensive part of it. We’re fortunate that we’re working with a really good contractor here.”
Even spending this kind of money, Carroll said that the fiber network didn’t stay in the red for very long.
“With that kind of investment, you can imagine the depreciation expense,” Carroll said. “So from a cash-flow perspective, we were doing really well. That’s to be expected when you make that kind of investment, and now our customers here in Columbus just expect this kind of speed. If we were to go back to the days of dial-up or DSL, we would have an uproar.”
History of Columbus’ fiber plan
Carroll said that there wasn’t much of a reaction from consumers when fiber was initially hooked up to homes in the community, even though the high-speed Internet it would provide was a foreign concept to a lot of people back then.
“Previous to that, all of our system was aerial, all of our telephone lines were aerial,” she said. “We did everything buried underground, and had to tear up a few yards.”
This presented some challenges when it came to issues like utilities and caused the initial installation take about a year longer than expected.
“It’s a decision that we’ve never regretted though because now that everything’s underground, when we had an ice storm back in 2007, we were sitting pretty,” Carroll said. “Once we had commercial power at the office, our network was back in business.”
She said that doing the network underground made it much less vulnerable to weather or wildlife that can to do to wires that deliver services to homes.
Before fiber was installed in 2004, the City of Columbus owned the cable television system that was available to local consumers. This had been in service for more than 15 years back then, and Carroll said it was a very antiquated aerial coaxial system.
“The city decided that it wasn’t worth the headache,” Carroll said. “We kind of did fiber initially as a preventative measure, in case a competitor wanted to come in and maybe utilize the overhead lines to do DSL.”
To prevent this, Columbus Telephone acquired the city-owned cable TV system.
“They were thrilled with offloading that burden off of their staff,” Carroll said. “We reached an agreement with them. They’re happy and we’ve been able to step it up over the years.”
Columbus Telephone now offers cable customers whole-home DVR services and other top of the line home entertainment choices.
The company’s fiber to the home network ran until about 2013, when the Optical Network Terminal devices used to actually connect the fiber to homes went out of warranty. The ONT has three ports to control video service, Internet and phone service.
“Basically what we had to do was look at a new electronic device,” Carroll said. “So after seven years, we were back at the drawing board, replacing devices on the outside of the home.”
These new devices from Calix include a battery back-up unit. If a customer loses commercial power, battery backup can power fiber and keep service going. Customers with a generator could watch TV and surf the Internet, even with a major power outage with this device.
Carroll said things are going very well for both the company and the community as a result of this replacement and continuation of the Fiber to the Home plan. There is currently a 75 percent take-rate for these services among Columbus residents, who pay anywhere from $49.99 per month for basic service at 10 megabytes per second to $119.99 for ultra-service at 100 megabytes per second. The higher prices and range of services give more options to those who engage in home-based businesses, taking online classes, or participating in activities like gaming.
She estimated that the cost to run service to just one home – with the service drop, the electronics, the connection, and the equipment – averages about $800-$900. It takes a couple of years for the company to earn its initial investment back for most customers, although the tiered service levels do speed up this process.
Ring around the county
With a lot of changes in state regulation and with the FCC, Carroll said that her company realized that the two-square-mile radius that they served for so many years would not be sufficient to support this business model in the future.
“It seemed as though there were a lot of areas surrounding us that were wanting what Columbus had,” Carroll said.
For instance, neighboring community Galena is the home of the multi-million dollar Ortho 4 States complex, a renovated downtown, and a new hospital.
“We felt from a strategy standpoint, that community is on the right track and growing,” Carroll said. “So we made the decision to build out about 20 miles of fiber from Columbus to Galena and started deploying our services there.”
She said that in the business community and in the city government, this effort has been very well received. The residential take-rate in the Galena community has been a little slow, which Carroll attributed to residents there not being familiar with the company yet. She believes it will eventually come along and be embraced by that community.
Baxter Springs is just a few miles from Galena and residents there were dealing with city-owned cable and Internet service providers that weren’t able to provide the speed that many needed. The decision was made by Columbus Telephone to extend fiber to create a ring around the entire county. This provided the company with redundancy, which Carroll feels is really important when providing this type of service to law enforcement and medical facilities. It also created connectivity options for businesses like a bank in the area that has branches in each of these towns. Connecting their services helped all of these branches keep in better touch, providing some enterprise services for the county as a whole.
“Right now, we’re in the final stages of completing that ring,” Carroll said. “We’ve got just a few miles left to build, and we have little mini-offices in each of these communities that are satellites.”
Columbus Telephone does have backhaul for this service from two different bigger providers, using 10 gigabit circuits from both Level Three and AT&T. If one of these carriers has a cut in fiber service, it can roll over to another provider.
“We felt like while we were doing this and looking at the importance of network reliability, we wanted to have that redundancy as well,” Carroll said.
With this Cherokee County process not complete yet, Carroll does not yet have the final tallies on total cost. She did say that the company feels like it will be well worth the investment, especially since the county is competing to be the location of a casino to be built in the region.
One of these proposed casinos would be located a half mile from the proposed fiber ring that Columbus Telephone is putting together, and the company would be well equipped to meet such a facility’s communication needs.
Future of fiber
With technology changing so quickly, Carroll is not worried about something coming along that proves to be a more effective way of receiving high speed Internet than fiber.
“Glass will never be replaced,” Carroll said. “The number of telephone conversations that can go over one strand of glass is in the hundreds of thousands. There’s just unlimited potential there with fiber. It’s the only way to do it.”
For other Southeast Kansas communities that see the economic benefits fiber to the home is bringing to Cherokee County, Carroll advises that technology is just going to advance.
“If you cannot provide that connectivity for businesses especially and to the residential community, I think you’re going to be left behind,” Carroll said. “I really do, because I see more and more telephone companies that if they haven’t already done fiber to the home, they’re in the process of doing it now.”
She pointed to Kansas Fiber Network with which Columbus Telephone Company is involved. This group is aiming to create a statewide network, a backbone that would use locally created fiber networks to link all anchor institutions in the state together. It is hoped that eventually items like hospital records can be immediately shared over a fiber network statewide.
Project 17, the economic development group of 17 counties in Southeast Kansas has really been encouraging the Kansas Fiber Network to seriously look at the lack of broadband connectivity in much of this region.
“What they’ve found is that AT&T and Century Link and other tier-one carriers are not interested in investing in smaller markets,” Carroll said. “It’s going to be up to either a municipality or some other provider to step up and bring that connectivity into these communities.”
To Carroll, a constant challenge in Cherokee County and in communities like Chanute is to promote digital literacy. She recognizes that many people are apprehensive about technology.
“But we all know that it’s coming to the point where you can’t even sign up for Obamacare and other government programs without having some kind of Internet connectivity,” Carroll said.
She invited City Commissioners and civic leaders who had questions about the effectiveness of Fiber to the Home as an economic engine for a city to come to Columbus and talk to her. She said she would be glad to show them around the community, show them equipment, and let them talk to some of the technicians.
“They should learn about what our experience was because this was a decision we never regretted,” Carroll said. “We’ve never looked back. This is definitely the way of the future.”