WATERLOO — Virtual meetings during COVID-19 catapulted Zoom and other forms of electronic communication to the forefront of local government. Black Hawk County is now exploring ways to improve its broadband connection.
County employees complained at a Tuesday work session of a sluggish internet connection and muffled audio issues. Supervisor Craig White said residents told him they struggled to listen and watch the meeting on video, which is offered to officials and residents live on Zoom or afterwards on YouTube.
A representative from computer consultant ACES said the Zoom connection problems could be the county’s firewall — or network security system — that monitors people who enter and exit calls. He said the county’s broadband infrastructure, which consists of copper cables about 15 years old, could be contributing to slower connection speeds. New cables could handle higher internet speeds being offered by broadband companies.
ACES said the county previously asked to turn off firewall protection to improve Zoom meeting quality. Kim Veeder, information technology director, said she would request that action again if it meant improving Zoom quality.
James Nehring, chief information officer at Marshall County, said part of the Zoom issues seem to come from microphones and the setup of the second-floor conference room at the Black Hawk County Courthouse. He said a microphone meant to capture sound from public speakers catches sound from the county supervisors, who are speaking from the opposite direction.
Supervisor Linda Laylin was especially difficult to hear. Officials did not say whether her microphone was encountering separate issues.
Supervisor Chris Schwartz questioned whether the audio could be wired directly into the laptop hosting the Zoom meeting. Tom Little said he felt lavalier microphones — which typically clip onto clothing — could enhance audio quality.
Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, health department director, said the county’s Zoom calls for weekly COVID-19 vaccine planning meetings are interrupted by frozen screens caused by poor connection.
James Perry, county finance director, said he experiences pop-ups on his computer saying the internet connection is unstable. T.J. Koenigsfeld, county assessor, said his office encounters the same messages even though they got new broadband cables more recently than other departments.
Grant Veeder, county auditor, asked whether people using their phone for audio and computer for video would improve connection to Zoom calls. The ACES representative said it could work by giving more bandwidth for users to have video and audio coming from different devices.
Nehring said he would bring equipment to Black Hawk County next week that could improve the tech issues. He said he would allow the IT department to test the equipment for free.
Black Hawk County currently gets internet services from Cedar Falls Utilities, a city owned utility provider. Waterloo is exploring the possibility of creating its own municipal utility to offer broadband services, and it expects to release a study on the matter in May at the earliest.