REC launches Skyways in Fayette County

Paul Foxwell, Allamakee-Clayton Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) general manager and vice president, holds an antenna that is placed on vertical properties as part of the Skyways fixed-wireless Internet service the company recently launched in Fayette County. One such antenna is located on the water tower in downtown West Union. (Chris DeBack photo)

 

 

 

 

REC launches Skyways in Fayette County

 

Chris DeBack
Contributing Writer

 

Rural Americans typically get the short end of the stick with technology. 

Here in rural northeast Iowa, it always seems as though this area is playing catch-up when it comes to the latest and greatest technological breakthrough. It’s especially true for people who live out “in the country” on gravel roads with the Internet. Those Fayette County citizens have few options when it comes to getting broadband Internet service. 

The options that are available, like satellite Internet, can’t keep up with the high bandwidth requirements most people are looking for when selecting an Internet provider. While speed may be an issue, so, too, are data caps that severely limit what someone can do on the Internet. In today’s day and age, 10 gigabytes doesn’t go very far when utilizing all that the Internet has to offer. 

Allamakee-Clayton Rural Electric Cooperative (REC) is trying to change that with the introduction of Skyways, a fixed-wireless Internet service that can reach up to 25MB download speeds and won’t have a data limit. 

“[REC] gets bandwidth [for the fixed-wireless system] from a [fiber-optic network backbone] and then we distribute that over a network of wireless equipment that then goes to the subscriber at his or her home,” said Paul Foxwell, REC executive vice president and general manager. “We have found pretty early on that it is a good technology. It is line of sight so there are limitations with terrain and things like that, but we are able to deliver a product without some of the constraints we saw from the satellite business.”

This isn’t the first time the rural electric cooperative has diversified its brand. When DIRECTV first took off, REC became a DIRECTV provider and installer through a national affiliate organization. At its height, the company had 4,000 DIRECTV subscribers until the satellite TV company saw how successful the program was and bought REC out. Foxwell noted that customers still call REC to sign up for DIRECTV.  

Through its dealing with the national affiliate organization, REC also got involved in providing satellite Internet. Foxwell noted that satellite Internet service has always had limitations. The first satellite that was launched into space to provide the service only allowed for basic Web functions such as checking email. As the Internet began to grow and the need for higher bandwidth grew with it, so, too, did the satellite technology. Today, satellite Internet is capable of providing connections that will allow for streaming applications such as Netflix, but a major limitation has always been data limits. A customer gets a set amount of bandwidth to use per month — for instance 10 gigabytes — and once he or she has reached that allotment, the customer will either be charged overage fees or have speeds throttled back until the next month’s billing cycle.  

 

 

That is the nature of satellite and is what got us interested in other options,” Foxwell said. “We knew from our satellite-subscriber network that there was a need [for other options for rural Internet service] and a demonstrated interest.

“There are some areas in rural northeast Iowa like Hawkeye Telephone Company’s exchange that are served quite well when it comes to broadband Internet,” Foxwell said. “However, there are a lot of areas that are served by national carriers that simply aren’t providing the broadband options that are cost-effective and that deliver the kind of product that people are looking for. We knew where those markets were, so we started looking at options for that and had a pilot project.” 

Foxwell stated that in 2014 rural broadband Internet service was a hot topic with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), because it knew there was quite a large hole in rural broadband service across the country. 

“The national carriers were getting money from the universal service fund to expand their rural broadband networks but weren’t following through very well,” he said. 

FCC created the Rural Broadband Experiment to entice nontraditional Internet carriers, such as electric cooperatives, to try to provide better service to underserved areas like Fayette County. In 2014, REC applied for and was awarded a $1.4 million grant that will be paid out over 10 years to help with infrastructure costs for a fixed-wireless Internet system in deprived parts of Fayette County.

“We made application to the FCC under this program for areas in Fayette County that are surrounding the Hawkeye Telephone [Company] exchange, because that exchange area wasn’t eligible,” the executive vice president said. “The FCC goes by census blocks, and it was only the census blocks that are served by the national carriers that were eligible. If you looked at a map of where we applied, it was in areas kind of surrounding the Hawkeye Telephone exchange. The towns of West Union and Fayette weren’t eligible for this funding; it was only really the very rural areas.”

Since 2014, the local electric cooperative has been working to expand its fixed-wireless system. A fiber optic cable runs to a core transmitting site, which is typically a vertical property such as a water tower, and connects to a transmitter. That transmitter can then send the signal directly to a subscriber in line of sight of the transmitter, or send the signal to a repeater station, which relays it to the customer. In layman’s terms, it’s basically the same as when a smartphone connects to the Internet through the nearest cell phone tower. 

“To say it is a fixed-wireless network is kind of a misnomer, because it is really a hybrid network that has a fiber optic backbone, where we have a combination of fixed-wireless repeaters and core sites that provide this wireless-broadcasting network to subscribers,” Foxwell explained. 

REC currently has approximately nine core transmitting sites around Fayette County, including Waucoma, Maynard, and Sumner. It recently put a transmitter on the water tower in downtown West Union, so anyone in the town can now sign up for the service. Those interested should know that the service can reach up to 25MB download speed and won’t include a monthly data limit.

“We have a pretty good network established in Fayette and Allamakee counties and are now looking to expand that network throughout our electric service area and beyond,” Foxwell closed. “Mostly, we are concentrating on our electric-service area, which gives us some other motivation in doing this as an electric-distribution company. There’s a lot of technology we are using in the management of the electric system, and we know one of our objectives is to be able to tie into all of our substations through a fiber network. We can get real-time communication from the substations, so we know what's going on at any given moment for things like outage restoration and reporting.”

Whatever REC’s motivation for expanding its fixed-wireless system, rural Internet customers will just be happy with another reliable choice. 

 

 

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