Local News

Rural broadband network coming on line

SEBRING - By the end of 2013, a new broadband network will come on line. The broadband signal won't be available directly to the general public. "We are negotiating a contract with someone who will come in and run the network for us and sell the broadband signal to Internet service providers and target customers like governments, schools and medical facilities," said Gina Reynolds, executive director of Florida's Heartland Regional Economic Development Initiative. "We are trying to have that wrapped up by the end of this month," she said.
FHREDI and Opportunity Florida formed the Florida Rural Broadband Alliance in 2010 to apply for an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package, and to their surprise, FRBA won a $23.6 million grant. Reynolds, who was hired in 2011 to replace Lynn Topel, congratulated the executive director and the board "for having the vision to apply for the grant." FHREDI includes Highlands, Hardee, Hendry, DeSoto, Glades and Okeechobee counties, plus the Pahokee, Belle Glades, and Immokalee communities. Opportunity Florida includes Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties. The broadband network has finished construction for the six southcentral six counties, and it will be completed later this year in the eight Panhandle counties. What is broadband? It's a high level of Internet service. It is the technical capacity to simultaneously transmit large and small email, songs, streaming video, medical files and other information with a range of DSL, cable modem, fiber, wire, wireless or satellite frequencies. "We can transmit at whatever level they need: five megabytes per second, 10, 100, 200, 500. The sky is the limit," Reynolds said. Broadband speed becomes important, for instance, while downloading and watching a Netflix movie. The film becomes a frustration if it stops every few minutes. If the computer indicates the connection is "buffering," it may mean the broadband network can't handle the movie data quickly enough. The movie pauses while the computer's memory buffer collects more data to continue. Thomas Haralson Jr. oversees 500 computers for Highlands County, the clerk of courts, elections and the tax collector's office. All 500 may be online the same time with other computers on the other side of the Internet. For example, a citizen on his computer in Sebring may be watching a county commission meeting while another computer on the other side of the earth is filing a legal document. "So much of our services are now cloud based," Haralson said. Instead of connecting to computer servers in the same building, the county's computers are wirelessly connected, for instance, to the State of Florida in Tallahassee. Haralson just increased the broadband capacity through CenturyLink from 27 MBps to 50 MBps. The county also has two 50 MBps Comcast cable modems. "If their services are reduced or slowed down, and we're moving data back and forth between us and the state, it cripples them." The speed of the Internet connection will determine whether it is even possible to run effectively. Reynolds said prior to broadband becoming generally available, communities "lost a lot of economic development prospects because they didn't have broadband capabilities." "Economic development is about speed to market. Infrastructure doesn't just mean roads, it also means broadband and being able to reach the market. The physical network starts with fiber cable in Okeechobee, but broadband is broadcast with microwave towers constructed in seven rings - the same sort of wide circles used to distribute electricity. That provides redundancy, so that if one tower in the circle goes down, the signal flow is reversed and the network continues to operate. During a thunderstorm, digital satellite signals are interrupted, sometimes for several minutes. "The system is designed to that these issues are eliminated," Reynolds said. "The capacity moves in the other direction. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828