Wired in Wabasha: Internet brings swift current of change

WABASHA, Minn. - Karen Taylor remembers what it was like before high-speed Internet came to town.

Taylor, who runs a scrapbooking business from her home, said her old dial-up connection took eight hours to load 50 photos onto a server for processing.

“I’d sit there at the computer twiddling my thumbs,” Taylor said. “It was awful.”

A year later, she can load those photos in less than 30 minutes. The difference is the arrival in January of high-speed, fiber-optic Internet service in Wabasha.

Fiber-optic is the cheetah of the wild Internet kingdom, able to move information at the speed of light. Only about 1 million Americans currently have access to fiber-optic service directly to their homes - a group that now includes the 2,600 residents of Wabasha, a picturesque Mississippi River community that claims to be Minnesota’s oldest city.

One is Joel Mona, owner of the Riverboat Lanes. Mona has high-speed service at his downtown bowling alley and also at home, where he’s become an eBay fanatic. Earlier this year, the new Internet connection showed its power at Mona’s Great River Open bowling tournament.

“We had a Web site, and we got people from hundreds of miles away,” Mona said. “They were coming from Wisconsin, the Dakotas - all over. You can’t go back to dial-up once you’ve had high speed.”

The rest of Minnesota might have a longer wait for fiber-optic. While fiber is fast becoming the standard for high-speed Internet in Asia and Europe, its development in Minnesota is being led by about two dozen outstate communities that see the technology as their best bet to remain competitive in the Information Age.

In the Twin Cities area, fiber to the home is available only in a handful of subdivisions where individual developers have chosen to install it. Most of the major cable and Internet providers, such as Comcast and Qwest, use what’s called a hybrid fiber-coaxial service, in which the signal is carried on a fiber-optic trunk line, then routed down copper wires to homes or businesses.

In Wabasha, residents and civic boosters say that fiber-optic Internet service will help them avoid the economic decline of many rural Midwestern towns, while making Wabasha an attractive vacation and retirement destination for city folk who love its charm but aren’t willing to give up urban amenities.

“This is a system that a lot of big cities would love to have,” said City Council Member Joel Carlson. “As a rural town, you need every advantage you can get. This gives us a chance.”

Wabasha got its speedy Internet access thanks to a group of civic-minded investors in neighboring Winona. When the success of Winona-based Fastenal Inc. made the company founders wealthy, they decided to funnel some of their newfound riches into the community.

Beginning in the early `90s, the group started a nonprofit foundation that financed a high-speed communication network connecting Winona’s schools, colleges and government offices. That led to the creation of Hiawatha Broadband Communications, a for-profit company that began providing Internet, TV and phone service to Winona residents and businesses.

About two years ago, the group decided to build a dream system with fiber-optic cable running directly to every home and business. They chose to build it in Wabasha, 30 miles up the river, a town that until then was largely dependent on dial-up technology from the Internet’s infancy.

The system cost $3.5 million, a sum that the incumbent Internet providers hadn’t chosen to spend on such a tiny market.

Since Wabasha’s system began taking orders in January this year, more than 1,750 households have signed up for Internet, TV or phone service, said Gary Evans, Hiawatha’s president and chief executive officer.

The services are delivered over fiber-optic cable that can transmit data and video at speeds of a gigabit per second or faster. That’s about 18,000 times faster than dial-up and about 500 times faster than the copper cable widely used in the Twin Cities area.

In Wabasha, there are already some signs of the benefits high-speed communication could bring. Carlson, the council member, said the city is talking to a Canadian manufacturer of pellet stoves that’s considering Wabasha for a factory that would employ more than 100 people.

“It’s not the only reason they’re looking at us,” Carlson said, “but if we didn’t have the fiber-optic system, we wouldn’t even be in the game.”

Bill Davidson owns a company in Wabasha that designs and manufactures industrial electronics. Davidson couldn’t send his clients detailed designs and masses of technical information via dial-up. Instead, he had to burn it all onto CDs and mail them, a practice that was starting to hurt his business.

Now, “we are seamless to the world,” Davidson said. “We probably have as good a broadband access from our little town as you can get anywhere in the country. It allows someone to live here and have a professional presence on the Internet.”

There are subtler benefits, too, said Barry Hill, who goes to school at Winona State University and works part time in his family’s hardware store on Main Street in Wabasha.

“It really kind of opens up the world to you,” said Hill, who pays about $110 a month for Internet, TV and phone service. “Wabasha’s a pretty small and sheltered community. Now I read the New York Times online every day. If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t know about what’s happening in Darfur. I wouldn’t know about Bosnia.

“I don’t know how people did things without it.”

Joining the wider world has its price. Even as they praise their new connection, some residents wonder about the bad things that the Internet can bring, such as pornography and online predators.

“Of course, there’s a lot of bad stuff out there,” said Conn Walters, a local real estate agent. “You do worry about the kids.”

But in today’s world, communication is as important as highways, said John Wodele, a former three-term mayor of Wabasha who later served as Gov. Jesse Ventura’s chief spokesman.

“Will Wabasha suddenly grow to 10 times its size? No,” said Wodele, now a Twin Cities communications consultant. “But its economy will thrive. And in a time when towns of 2,500 people are going backward, Wabasha will go forward.”

From ContraCostaTimes.

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