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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Online banking is convenient, but make sure you also play it safe

Despite this being the age of identity theft and online scams, more brick-and-mortar banks are offering their customers products and services for banking on the Web.

Plus, Internet banks, which have no physical branches, are gaining popularity, since they often pass along their lower overhead costs to consumers in the form of high interest rates on deposits.

The number of Americans banking online grew to 40 million in the fourth quarter of 2005, a 27% increase over the previous year, according to comScore Networks, a research organization that studies consumer Internet behavior.
Consumers have good reason to bank online — online transactions can often save you money, and their convenience can’t be beat. But it’s wise to be extra cautious when handling your money over the Web. Follow these tips to ensure online safety:

  • When handling money online, make sure you only deal with secure Web sites. You’ll know a site is secure if you can see the padlock symbol in the bottom right corner of your Web browser. Click the padlock for security details.
  • Ensure that your computer is secure–always use the “password protect” feature to make sure only you can access the information stored there.
  • Many banks and shopping sites offer to “remember your password”–ignore those offers to prevent other computer users from accessing your information.
  • Avoid accessing your account from a public computer, but if you must, when you’re done banking clear the computer’s “history” and delete its “temporary Internet files” (usually available under “Internet options” in Internet Explorer), to prevent the next computer user from possibly seeing your sensitive data.
  • Change your passwords regularly.
  • Never send credit card or account details by e-mail. Be aware of “phishing” scams, as well: If you receive an e-mail asking you to follow a link to a Web site where you must input your information, it’s probably a scam. Banks will not ask you via e-mail to update your account information.
  • Always print your transaction receipts and file them with your bank records until you receive confirmation in your bank statement.
  • Be aware that not all virtual banks are insured by the FDIC — some may be chartered overseas. To check whether your Internet bank is insured, visit the FDIC’s Bank Find Web site.

From MarketWatch.

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Broadband use in China to overtake the US within a year

China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest broadband market in less than a year, according to new research released today from analyst firm Ovum.

China’s broadband sector has been growing dramatically at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 79 percent over the last three years. The strong growth will continue to boost the broadband market, which will reach 79 million subscribers by 2007, the Ovum report said.

Ovum’s senior analyst Kevin Lee said with a penetration rate of only 3.4 percent of the population now, the potential for growth is huge.

“Broadband penetration in China is well behind many countries in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “We believe China’s broadband development will continue to benefit from a booming economy, growing incomes, expanding PC penetration and new applications such as VoIP and IPTV. The Olympics will provide another boost.”

Ovum forecasts for China’s broadband will grow by a CAGR of 75 percent to reach 139 million subscribers by 2010.

China Telecom and China Netcom are the dominant providers of broadband access services in China, with a combined broadband market share of 87 percent of subscribers. China Tietong, China Unicom, cable and miscellaneous other operators account for the remainder.

Lee said DSL dominates with a growing market share of 71 percent and 32 million subscribers by June 2006.

It is followed by Ethernet-based LAN access in high-density areas, which has a substantial market share of 26 percent.

“DSL technology will be the key force for broadband growth; operators are progressively upgrading the network using higher speed technology such as ADSL2+ and VDSL to meet increasing bandwidth demands,” Lee said, adding that cable modem, wireless technologies and others will make a much smaller contribution.

DSL speed and prices vary widely across China and between the two main DSL providers. Broadband prices (where China Telecom offers higher rates) are normally highest in major cities, but are more affordable in second- and third-tier cities.

Despite widespread cable coverage and 128 million cable TV service subscribers in China, Lee said cable operators have made few inroads into the growing broadband market.

Ovum believes that regulatory barriers, fragmented ownership structure and a lack of expertise have seriously undermined cable operators’ competitiveness against DSL providers. This is in stark contrast to the North American market.

As for wireless broadband, Lee says that it is still at an immature stage, but the emergence of VoIP is giving operators new hope for seeing returns on their WLANs.

He said growing IPTV deployment is expected to encourage broadband uptake in China.

“The two DSL operators rolled out extensive IPTV trials over 2005 in collaboration with the IPTV licensees Shanghai Media Group and CCTV. Following Harbin, Shanghai will be the second city to begin commercial service by the end of September 2006,” Lee said.

Ovum forecasts that prospects for further broadband development in China are bright, but significant uncertainties remain.

“China needs to restructure the telecomms industry and it needs to reform the regulatory policy for broadband and IPTV; there is also the possible entry of foreign players in line with world trade commitments,” Lee said.

From ComputerWorld

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St. Petersburg wants citywide wireless Internet

Heading to the park? Don’t forget your laptop.

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the city plans to offer wireless Internet access to all residents for a fee. That means anyone with a wireless card in their computer could tap into e-mail or search Google, both indoors and out.

“That’s really where the world is heading,” said Mayor Rick Baker. “Soon, every city is going to need to offer wireless service in order to be competitive.”

The city plans to solicit bids for companies to set up a wireless network in the next few months. How the system works and the cost to residents will be determined by who bids on the contract, said Muslim Gadiwalla, the city’s chief information officer.

Wireless access has been popping up in communities across the country. It works with transmitters that beam radio signals on unregulated frequencies short distances to devices such as notebook computers, cellular phones and personal digital assistants. Monthly service fees can range anywhere from $30 to $70.

It’s increasingly common to see wireless hot spots at coffee shops, hotels and restaurants, including Starbucks and McDonald’s. But citywide networks are still relatively uncommon.

Dunedin was one of the first Florida cities to move towards a citywide Wi-Fi network. They hired St. Petersburg-based Citi WiFi to provide subscriber-only wireless Internet service last May.

James Guerin, Dunedin’s information technology director, said about 20 percent of the city is now covered by the network. Another 60 percent will be added by July, with the remaining 20 percent by October.

Guerin said a dispute with Progress Energy delayed the network. The power company initially refused to allow Citi WiFi to place transmitters on their utility poles but relented after state legislators intervened, Guerin said.

There are now 127 subscribers to Dunedin’s service, which costs $24.95 a month for residents. Business subscriptions start at $49.95.

The reception has been enthusiastic so far, Guerin said.

“The people at the marina absolutely love it,” he said. “Now they have broadband access right on their boats.”

Not every locality charges residents for the service. Last month, St. Cloud became the first Florida municipality to actually create a citywide wireless network and offer the service for free. However, residents of the Orlando suburb have complained about dead spots and weak signals, forcing engineers to retool the system.

Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are teaming up to build a wireless network for San Francisco. EarthLink’s faster offering would cost $20 per month, while Google would provide a slower, free service financed by advertising.

Baker said he’s been considering the creation of a wireless network for the past two years but purposefully held back to see how other cities fared. “We wanted to see the deals that other cities got to make sure we could get the best deal for our city,” Baker said.

City officials hope to receive bids for the contract by June or July. If everything goes according to plan, a network could be in place by late this year or early 2007.

City Council member Rick Kriseman said he hopes the city moves quickly. As technology improves, a wireless network becomes an increasingly important tool to lure businesses.

“I think it would put us on the map,” Kriseman said. “From an economic development standpoint, it really makes us competitive.”

By Carrie Weimar.

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Broadband what the doctor ordered

Business-focused telco Pacific Internet has retained the business of around 90 general practitioners (GPs) as part of the government’s subsidised AU$35 million Broadband for Health (BFH) program.
The telco today announced it would also deliver managed security services to the group of doctors, known as the Hunter Urban Division of General Practice (HUDGP).

“Pacific Internet has provided broadband to HUDGP — a representative group for GPs in the Newcastle and Hunter area — since November 2004,” a joint e-mailed statement from the two organisations said today.

In the statement, HUDGP chief information officer Chris Scott said: “This approved BFH plan bundles business-grade connectivity with Cisco hardware that has intrusion detection and prevention capabilities, and will be fully monitored and managed by Pacific Internet.”

Scott added HUDGP had a three-year plan to create a community-managed health network utilising funding from the government’s Managed Health Network program.

“The network would link different health sectors in the area, including aged-care services, GPs, specialists, and the Hunter New England Area Health Service,” the statement said.

From zdnet.com.au.

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