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Editorial: At CFU, it’s high speed ahead

Editorial: At CFU, it’s high speed ahead

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Steve Bernard is general manager of Cedar Falls Utilities.

Not only is Cedar Falls Utilities first in the nation for Internet service provider speed, it runs circles around all competitors, corporate or municipal.

In PCMag’s 10th annual speed test, CFU’s 1,350 megabits per second speed easily tripled the second-place finisher at 426.6. “There doesn’t seem much point in talking about second or third place when the first-place winner has numbers like CFU,” the magazine stated.

The PCMag Speed Index incorporates 80% of download speed with 20% of upload speed to compare broadband providers. A minimum of 100 tests is required.

The difference, according to Steve Bernard, CFU general manager, is that CFU has more fiber in its diet.

In 1995, when people used landline phones for dial-up internet connections, Cedar Falls voters approved a referendum to get into telecommunications. It was a gutsy move, considering the internet was in its infancy, allowing advertising only two years earlier.

CFU constructed a hybrid system — a fiber backbone with slower copper-wire coaxial cable as the final link from street to home. The speed was 4 megabits.

The coaxial-cable leg was replaced with fiber from 2010 to 2013. Speed took off.

“We were able to do that because around 90% of the residents had our services,” Bernard said. “So there was revenue to support the investment. Once we put the fiber in, it has nearly limitless capacity for speed. Our initial upgrade was for 1 GB per second” — a first in Iowa.

Once they built it, the accolades came.

In 2014, Google presented Cedar Falls with its “eCity Award,” which goes to the single strongest online business community in each state.

In 2015, in a preview to his State of the Union initiative, President Barack Obama visited CFU, calling it a “guinea pig” for cutting red tape to get more municipalities involved — 22 states ban public systems at the behest of corporations.

CFU’s internet ventures coincided with the growth of the Cedar Falls Industrial Park.

“While it’s clearly had an impact,” Bernard said, “it’s hard to pinpoint a dollar amount. There’s been great work by the city to develop land, the highway system, the available work force, the education systems. We’re a piece of that. We think we’re a selling point.”

Realtors take note: PCMag thinks so, too.

“(CFU) … has the fastest average PCMag Speed Index we’ve seen,” it gushed. “Even individual towns with fast speeds were never capable of this. … Pick your jaw off the floor so you can start searching Zillow for house listings there.”

It added, “If you’re looking to relocate to work from home and want the best internet you may ever experience, consider becoming an Iowan.”

As another selling point, it added, “Working from home due to COVID-19 is more important than ever.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of appreciation from our customers that they can work from home and be productive — not just for the speed, but for really, really reliable internet connections,” Bernard said.

With University of Northern Iowa classes going online during spring semester because of COVID-19, the CFU system was a great asset. “Professors, students and staff were able to do a lot of work from home because our system is so solid, stable and fast for them,” Bernard said.

CFU’s accomplishments are noteworthy because it lacks the deep pockets of telecommunications companies.

“This not a tax-subsidized system. These are fee-based services paid by the subscriber fees,” Bernard said, citing a 90% residential share with 85% of its internet revenues generated by households, not businesses.

Come PCMag’s next survey, CFU literally may be off the charts. It recently announced a new 10 GB top speed — 400 times faster than what the Federal Communications Commission officially classifies as broadband.

It’s not for everyone. Bernard said, “It has to be unique circumstances where someone would want that bandwidth, even for a business.” Those buying into it include gamers and hobbyists.

The cost is $440 per month for businesses and $117 for residences. Most residential users get 250 MB speed at $45.50 per month.

Older routers may blunt performance, so CFU rents routers to optimize it.

The key to CFU’s success, Bernard said, is “community support.” But that’s happened in concert with a succession of visionary CFU leaders and employees.

“We’ve made a point of staying ahead of our customers,” Bernard said. “Think of all the connective devices that are in your home now — the high-definition TVs, iPads, phones, laptops, watches; even refrigerators, thermostats and security systems are connected. There’s so much more bandwidth taken up with all that. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Objectively, being first in the nation by such an astonishing margin with current-edge technological performance is pretty phenomenal, too.

Cedar Falls residents had a vision 25 years ago. CFU implemented it. It’s been a boon for the Cedar Valley ever since.


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