Future Fibre: Cedar Falls Utilities

The current champion and holder of the title "fastest ISP"

A brief preface to today’s issue, check out the latest podcast episode from Municipal World, where I provide a general overview of the Future Fibre series (to date).

There’s certainly some special status that comes with being recognized as the fastest ISP, especially if you’re community owned and operated. We previously profiled EPB, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga Tennessee, who have been able to lay claim to the title in the past. However the Internet is an evolving and dynamic ecosystem in which speeds are constantly improving.

Yet it is also reassuring to learn that the title of fastest ISP is once again held by a community provider, in this case, CFU, or Cedar Falls Utilities of Cedar Falls Iowa.

We've long noted that community broadband networks are just an organic response to the broken, uncompetitive US broadband market. While you'll occasionally see some deployment duds if the business models aren't well crafted, studies have shown such networks (there are 750 and counting now in the States) offer cheaper, faster service than many incumbents. In short, these communities grew so frustrated with America's mediocre, patchy, and expensive broadband service, they built their own.
This direct threat to incumbent revenues is a major reason why ISP lobbyists have passed protectionist laws in more than 21 states trying to block your town's ability to even consider the option. It's also why you'll often see the telecom sector and its various, obedient tendrils routinely try to claim these networks are a vile menace to free speech (they're not) or a guaranteed waste of taxpayer funds (again, not true at all).
Here in reality, many of these networks are outperforming their private sector counterparts. Chattanooga's EPB, for example, was rated one of the best ISPs in America by Consumer Reports, despite Comcast's efforts to sue the effort out of existence. And this week, PC Magazine's ratings of the fastest and most popular ISPs showed that Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU), a locally-owned utility providing broadband out of Cedar Falls, Iowa, offers the fastest averaged speed ratings the magazine's researchers have ever seen:

The significance of the margin depicted above, is that it speaks to the well known myth of Internet connectivity, that you almost never receive the speeds that are advertised. When a company says they’re providing gigabit internet or 1,000Mbps, they usually end up with far less. For example, CFU is the only provider on the list above that even comes close to 1,000, and they shoot way past it!

CFU is another solid example of municipally own Internet infrastructure that is run by a municipal utility. Much like EPB in Tennessee, there seems to be a definite advantage for municipalities that have their own utility arms.

The utility had it’s start in the 1880s as the municipal waterworks. Managing the community’s water supply is obviously high stakes, and yet when done successfully, it also provides a strong basis for institutional trust. As a result, CFU went on to manage the electricity, natural gas, and later telecom.

The telecom aspect of the utility didn’t begin until the mid-90s, and was in response to residents who wanted cheaper prices (and better quality) and recognized that their public utility was in a position to deliver. Initially this focused on telephone and cable television but quickly included digital services as well.

Starting in 2010, CFU started to convert their telecom network to fibre optic, however rather than do so in a piece meal fashion, they recognized the opportunity to invest in the future and extend their fibre network throughout their community so that all residents and businesses could get the fastest speeds possible.

As a result, Cedar Falls was one of the first cities in the US to have gigabit Internet connectivity, which was initially available in 2013. CFU now offers up to 10 gigabits per second, speeds that helped them win the fastest ISP title.

Like many other small cities and communities, Cedar Falls has invested in their Internet infrastructure as a means of encouraging economic development. They recently launched a new website that touts this connectivity:

Cedar Falls, Iowa is a thriving city that will surprise you in so many ways. We’re an incubator for growing companies and the source of a remarkable amount of innovation. As one of the nation’s first gigabit cities, we’ve created an infrastructure for future-focused companies that are eager to thrive, including lightning-fast broadband (up to 10 gigabits) for every business, home, and school. Cedar Falls has become a hotbed for visionaries and entrepreneurs who are combining big ideas and new technologies to improve business and enhance life.

These are bold claims but are not much of a stretch when you consider how advanced their infrastructure is, and that it is poised to maintain this lead.

I should also mention, that the current price for 10gig service in Cedar Falls, for residential customers, is U$117. That’s almost as much as I currently pay for my service, but I get speeds that are roughly 500 times slower. Their lowest tier costs $30 and is still faster than what I get. Although I shouldn’t complain as it is faster than what the vast majority of North American users get.

In response to the success of CFU, and what they’ve done for Cedar Falls, former President Obama visited the community in 2015 both to celebrate their accomplishment, but also use it as an example for how the digital divide across the US could be addressed.

While we do know that Obama was not able to bridge the digital divide before he left office, CFU remains a stellar example of what is possible when municipalities invest in their future by creating reliable and high speed fibre optic Internet infrastructure.

Although it comes as no surprise that it would be a small mid-west community like Cedar Falls that would do this. It offers them the kind of competitive advantage they need when trying to attract new businesses and residents to their community.

Certainly a major impact of this pandemic has been to renew interest in smaller communities, especially those with reliable Internet infrastructure as more professionals embrace remote work and remote learning.

It will be interesting to see if other municipalities and small or rural communities follow this example.

Finally here’s a bit more background on CFU, how they work, and how they serve their customers:

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh