Chanute aims to provide speedy Internet service to all homes, businesses in town

05/24/2014 6:25 PM

08/06/2014 11:35 AM

At ground level, Chanute looks pretty much like most small Kansas towns – historic brick City Hall, antique shops downtown, beans and ham at the Grain Bin diner and pickup trucks everywhere.

To see what makes Chanute different, look overhead.

Encircling and crisscrossing this town of 9,100 people is more than 30 miles of some of the fastest Internet fiber cable in the nation.

The system has already brought state-of-the-art broadband speeds to government buildings, the town library, the community college, the hospital and some local businesses. Every park and green space and most of the outdoor areas downtown are covered by free Wi-Fi.

And now, these hardy pioneers of the digital age are embarking on an ambitious project to become the first community in Kansas to offer publicly run ultra-high-speed broadband service to every home and business.

The new system will be 100 times as fast as the national average Internet connection and cost $40 a month for city residents. No installation charge.

This southeast Kansas town is taking the digital revolution into its own hands after years of pleading with commercial providers who have little interest in bringing state-of-the-art broadband to small towns.

This year, the town beat back a bill in the state Legislature – written by a cable TV industry group – that would have outlawed community broadband systems anywhere in Kansas.

Chanute stepped into the role as an Internet service provider in 2005, after years of complaints of slow and balky service from the city’s two commercial Internet providers.

Residents say their download speeds are glacially slow and that trying to watch a movie on Netflix is primarily an exercise in buffering.

Count among the dissatisfied customers City Commissioner Martha McCoy.

She has Internet service at home from the local cable provider, Cable One. She has phone-based service from AT&T at her downtown antique and home-decor business, Comforts of Home, where she can’t get on the city system yet.

She said they both work poorly and she was astonished to see how much better, cheaper and faster the city can provide Internet service.

“What I have today (at home), I can hardly ever get on,” she said. “And then I watch the ads they have on TV: Oh, we have super streaming and everything. It just isn’t happening here.”

The service at her business is “better, but it’s still not good,” she said. “It still knocks me off, so I still get upset with that. I have a lot of work to do and I don’t have time to wait.”

High speed, low cost

When complete, the city system will offer service at a speed of one gigabit per second.

City residents will pay $40 a month; it will cost $50 outside the city limits and $75 for businesses.

To put that in perspective, Chanute will offer the same ultra-fast connection speed as the Google Fiber system being rolled out across the Kansas City metropolitan area, but 42 percent cheaper than Google’s $70-a-month charge.

Or, to use another comparison, Chanute’s fiber-to-home system will be 14 times faster and cost 60 percent less than the best Internet service the town’s residents can get today.

Larry Gates, the public works director in Chanute, said the city exhausted every option to get companies interested in providing that level of service.

But he said the commercial companies told city officials they will only install digital fiber if they can recover the cost in two years – and Chanute’s way too small for that kind of investment to pay off that quickly.

At one point, Chanute hoped it could persuade Google to put in the same kind of system it’s installing in Kansas City, he said.

Ties between Google and Chanute have been so cordial over the years that the city’s main downtown intersection is decorated with a 30-foot-diameter, colored-brick street mosaic of the Google Earth logo. It’s a municipal tribute to the company and to Dan Webb, a Chanute native and one of the software engineers who developed Google Earth.

Webb set it up so any Mac user who zooms in far enough from the starting point on Google Earth will go straight to the satellite view of the mosaic at the corner of Main Street and Lincoln Avenue. (For Microsoft Windows users, Lawrence is the starting point for Google Earth, thanks to software engineer Brian McClendon, a University of Kansas grad and Lawrence native.)

But despite that history, Google declined to bring fiber to Chanute. And that set the city firmly on the path of “If we’re going to do it, we have to do it ourselves,” Gates said.

The fiber-to-home project was the sole subject of a City Commission study session Tuesday, where most members expressed their support for moving forward. A formal vote is scheduled for June 9.

The city is exploring options for Internet grants and low-interest loans that could reduce the cost from the current estimate, Gates said. In addition, the $13.5 million price tag includes a converter box, called an Optical Network Terminal, for every home, while the city actually will only install boxes at homes that subscribe to the service, he said.

When customers order service, workers will mount the converter box outside the home and install a standard Ethernet jack inside. The homeowner will have the option of using wired connections or setting up a wireless router for whole-home connectivity, Gates said.

Bucking rural decline

Greg Woodyard, Chanute’s 31-year-old mayor, said he sees state-of-the-art Internet as a key factor in preventing the brain drain that has devastated other Kansas towns.

Woodyard is Exhibit A for the young professional returning to small-town America. He graduated from Chanute High School, went to college at Emporia State University and returned to Chanute after two years of working for an accounting firm in Wichita.

He said good Internet access is something he got used to in college and in Wichita.

“I’m a younger person,” he said. “I’m a bandwidth hog; I’m always doing stuff on the Internet.”

Chanute is one of the few communities in rural Kansas that has bucked the trend of declining population and has actually grown in recent years. Local officials say providing ultrafast Internet to businesses is a big part of that success because it facilitates job growth.

An online search by the KansasWorks office at Neosho County Community College turned up 138 job openings in Chanute, many of them in the manufacturing and health care industries.

But young workers won’t stay in a small town if they can’t get access to the kind of Internet-based business, education and entertainment opportunities they have in big cities, Woodyard said.

“That’s the days they grew up in,” Woodyard said. “If we want to attract people back into the community, it’s something we need to do.”

Another thing Woodyard likes about the do-it-yourself approach is that it will keep Chanute’s Internet subscription dollars in Chanute.

Cable One closed its local office and moved to Parsons, 35 miles away. When the city deals with AT&T, it’s primarily through phone calls to Dallas, he said.

In contrast, municipal broadband “rolls money back into the community,” he said. “It provides IT jobs in the community and it provides a higher level of service to the community.”

The existing municipal fiber system and the expansion will continue to be run through the city’s electric utility department to keep the costs isolated from the city’s taxpayer funds, said Russ Pratt, the city’s chief financial officer.

He said it will cost about $13.5 million to expand fiber to homes.

Assuming that 30 percent of residents sign up – a conservative estimate that officials see as their worst case – the system should pay for itself in about 10 years, he said.

After that, the income from Internet subscriptions can go to support other city services.

“It’s just a huge value there that’s going to be enjoyed by the people of Chanute,” Pratt said.

The system will be a boon to the city’s economic development efforts to attract and retain businesses, he predicted.

Just about every business relies on the Internet for communication with customers and suppliers, ordering materials and making sales. Being able to offer “superfast, no-excuses access” is something other small towns just can’t match, Pratt said.

“I’ve never heard of it before,” he said. “To me it smacks of being near brilliant.”

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