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Falls City gets wired: Fiber optic network nearly complete

(From the Lincoln Journal-Star, February 20, 2011)

FALLS CITY -- "Ride the light." Southeast Nebraska Communications uses that phrase in its advertising to encourage people to take advantage of its new fiber optic network.

Officially called Fiber To The Home, or FTTH, the system uses hair-thin strands of glass, arranged in bundles or cables, instead of copper wires to carry massive amounts of digital information over long distances. Signals are transmitted by light instead of electricity.

The result: faster Internet, streaming video and movie downloads.

Keith Deweese, an installer for Telcom Construction of Clearwater, Minn., checks the amount of light that is coming through the fiber optic wire hooked up to a Falls City home. (ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star)

The communications company, owned by the Towle family since 1906, is almost finished with the project which began about two years ago. Workers buried 98 miles of cable in Falls City to connect 2,366 homes and businesses -- basically the entire town -- to the company's central office at 110 W. 17th St.

"The construction phase is 100 percent complete," said Ray Joy, the company's operations manager. Now workers are busy doing "cutovers" or hooking up each home and business to the network. That job is about 75 percent complete and should be finished in about two months.

Over the next two years, workers will move into the rural areas, burying cable to serve farms and the villages of Stella, Shubert, Salem, Rulo, Verdon and surrounding areas in the eastern two-thirds of Richardson County. That means burying 518 miles of cable to serve 1,453 homes and businesses.

"It's been a whirlwind year," said Beth Sickel, Southeast Nebraska Communications' vice president and general manager.

At first people didn't know what to expect, she said, so the company had to raise awareness and inform residents of what a fiber optic system can do for them and the community. Falls City, population of 3,933, also has wireless service but on a spotty basis.

Here's how fiber optic makes a difference: Remember the 54K dial up modem? Using that system, it would take you more than two and a half days to download a high-definition movie. A copper wire system using electricity would take about one hour. With a fiber optic network, that same movie can be downloaded in 32 minutes or faster with an upgraded service.

Don Ferguson, owner of Ram Exterminators Inc., got hooked up to the fiber optic network last Wednesday.

"I'm all ready for the upgrade. I think this is a great thing that is happening," Ferguson said. "We're blessed down here to have our little phone company."

Ray Joy, operations manager for Southeast Nebraska Communications, and Beth Sickel, vice president and general manager, stand in front of a bank of fiber optic wires. Each yellow wire connects a home or business to the company's central office. (ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star)

"Falls City is the largest community in the state of Nebraska that is 100 percent fiber optic, which is kind of impressive when you think about it," Sickel said.

An $11 million loan from the USDA Rural Utilities Service helped the company build the fiber optic network. The company also received an $11.3 million grant and loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to expand the system into rural areas.

Karissa Watson, owner of a home-based web and graphic design business called Kissa's Kreations, got hooked up to the network last summer.

"Oh, I love it! It's had a pretty good impact for me -- not having to wait," she said. "It makes it seamless."

Watson said her husband, Stephen, likes the new system even better because he plays World of Warcraft online and can download in minutes, whereas the same downloads take hours for his friends -- who are naturally jealous.

Customers' bills did not increase because of the fiber optic network project, Sickel said. Internet customers pay about $32 a month for six megabytes per second -- the standard service. Other packages including higher speeds are available.

Southeast Nebraska Communications is working with Falls City EDGE (Economic Development and Growth Enterprise) to help attract more home-based businesses and telecommuters -- people who can work from their homes -- to the community.

Recently, the economic development agency sent out about 3,000 mailings to graduates of Falls City High School and Sacred Heart High School to tell them about the new FTTH technology and encourage them to move back home.

Falls City EDGE director Beckie Cromer said so far two people have done so; one person works for a company in Lincoln and another serves as a booking agent for a Los Angeles-based company that works with such stars as Larry the Cable Guy.

"I think what it (the fiber optic network) has done for our community is it has given us something else to say to people -- this is another thing that is great about Falls City," Sickel said.

Falls City's fiber optic network has sparked interest from other communities which have contacted the company and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development for information, she said.

But most of all, Sickel said, the people of Falls City feel energized and proud.

"They are very pleased that a local company is willing to invest these types of dollars in the community, which is huge," she said.

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