New wireless internet service expands to Lawrence, with TV to come; Baldwin City company gearing up for Lawrence gigabit launch

photo by: Nick Krug

Dark skies roll over a North Lawrence grain elevator on Thursday, June 16, 2016.

The two tallest things in small towns across Kansas are the grain elevators and the tales the farmers tell at the grain elevators. The benefit of a big city is you can get lied to at so many more places. But Lawrence residents soon may find living near a grain elevator still has its advantages. If you live near a Lawrence grain elevator, you likely have a new option for internet service, and soon for cable TV too.

An internet service company based in the small town of Iola has recently expanded into Lawrence. Kwikom Communications earlier this month installed wireless internet equipment on two sets of Ottawa Co-op grain elevators in Lawrence — the elevators in North Lawrence and the elevators in southeast Lawrence near 19th and Haskell.

The equipment atop the grain towers is equipped to serve thousands of homes with wireless internet service currently, and the company hopes to add cable television service by early next year.

“The simple rule of thumb is if a person can see the tower from their house, they can usually get our service,” said Zachery Peres, vice president with Kwikom Communications.

photo by: Nick Krug

Dark skies roll over a North Lawrence grain elevator on Thursday, June 16, 2016.

The company doesn’t limit itself to grain elevators. Peres said it has a deal with the city of Lawrence to locate on a water tower near Rock Chalk Park. He said that will make service available to large parts of west Lawrence, likely by the end of January. Once that project is complete, he estimates about two-thirds of Lawrence will be able to access the service, with the southwest part of Lawrence being the area least served.

The company offers several internet packages starting at $55 per month for download speeds of up to 5mbps all the way to $105 per month for download speeds up to 25 mbps. The company also touts that it has no data caps. Peres said the company has the ability to offer super-fast gigabit service to businesses — that is the speed that Google Fiber brought to Kansas City — although I don’t have pricing details on that service.

Kwikom’s system, though, is different than Google Fiber or other providers you may be familiar with. It doesn’t involve burying fiber optic cable to your home. Instead it uses the equipment atop the grain towers to send your signal over a wireless connection. Peres said that causes many people to equate the company’s system to internet service provided by satellite television providers, like Dish Network or DirecTV. Those services, at times, have reliability problems when the weather turns bad. Peres, predictably, says that is not a problem with Kwikom.

“The biggest difference is you are connecting to a tower that is usually no more than 12 miles away,” Peres said. “In the city, it is usually no more than a mile or two. With a satellite, you are thousands of miles away. The signal with our system is just a lot stronger.”

photo by: Nick Krug

A group of riders head east along a straightaway parallel with 23rd Street during the Tour of Lawrence Haskell Criterium on Saturday, June 27, 2015 at Haskell Indian Nations University.

I’ll leave it to all of you to sort through all the technical differences between satellites, fiber optics and other such systems. What is interesting to me is that internet competition seems to be increasing in Lawrence.

Peres said he and his partners have found an efficient way to spread internet availability. The company — which was formed through the merger of two smaller companies in 2010 — has deals with grain elevators across eastern Kansas, and its service territory now includes about 8,500 square miles.

The company is using several of its smaller markets to beta-test its television service. Kwikom has a deal in place that allows it to provide most of the popular cable networks — the ESPN family, HGTV, Food Network and others — but it is still testing the technology needed to deliver the channels to the home. Peres said he hopes to have the service available in Lawrence by the middle of 2018.

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There is at least one other new development on the internet front in Lawrence. Baldwin City-based RG Fiber has begun burying fiber optic cable in eastern and central Lawrence as part of a plan to offer gigabit service next year.

RG has had plans in the works for a couple of years, but it first focused on providing gigabit service to Baker University in Baldwin City. That project is now complete, and about 80 percent of Baldwin City now has access to RG Fiber’s gigabit service, Mike Bosch of RG told me. Not only that, the incumbent internet and cable TV provider in Baldwin City has made new investments that allow it to offer gigabit service, meaning there are parts of little Baldwin City where residents have a choice of gigabit internet providers.

“It has worked the way we have wanted it to,” Bosch said. “I had a person just the other day tell me they moved to Baldwin City because it has gigabit fiber. That was probably the ninth or tenth person in small Baldwin that has told me that.”

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Chad Meyers, operations field manager for RG Fiber of Baldwin City, installs gigabit-capacity cable to the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity just off the Baker University campus in January 2016.

Now Bosch wants to get into the Lawrence market. Crews currently are burying conduit and fiber in the areas near 11th and New Hampshire streets, 11th and Haskell, and southward toward 23rd Street. As part of a license agreement, the city of Lawrence will get use of some of the fiber that is being installed, which can be used for everything from connecting city buildings to synchronizing traffic signals.

RG Fiber already has a major stretch of fiber that connects to a national distribution network near Venture Park in eastern Lawrence and runs south all the way to Baldwin City. The fiber that is being installed now will broaden that network. The final piece of the puzzle will be the “last mile” fiber that actually involves bringing the fiber optic cables to people’s homes and businesses.

Bosch said he is going to decide where to install that fiber based on demand from potential customers. The company through its RG Fiber website is allowing people to sign up for service currently, but it will launch a campaign in January, he said.

“We have said we want to build where people want us to go,” Bosch said. “But certainly I’ve said we would like to build our first project in East Lawrence. This work we’re doing now will allow us to put as much as fiber in East Lawrence as we would ever want.”

Unlike the Kwikom model, RG’s service won’t be wireless, which — predictably — Bosch said is an advantage. Again, I’ll let you sort out the technical pros and cons.

RG Fiber offers plans beginning at $60 a month with speeds of 50 mbps for both downloads and uploads. Residential plans that offer gigabit speed for both downloads and uploads are about $120 month. Bosch said the company recently has reached a deal with Nokia that will allow for speeds of up to 10 gigabits. That service is expected to debut next year.

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One last piece of news related to Lawrence internet providers. Midco, the largest of the internet and cable TV companies in town, announced Wednesday morning that it has opened its new Lawrence office. It has moved from the former Riverfront Mall in downtown and is now located at 2000 W. 31st Street, which is in the shopping center with Home Depot and Best Buy.

Importantly, the company’s press release confirmed that Midco is still on track to offer gigabit internet service to residential customers in 2018.

All of this is quite a turnaround from a couple of years ago when there was concern among several Lawrence leaders that the city was going to get left behind in the gigabit age. There were companies requesting incentives from the city to build gigabit fiber, and there was even talk about the city building and operating its own internet utility.

None of that happened, but development in the private sector has continued. It will be interesting to see where we are in another year. There are questions in both directions — private sector development is significant in Lawrence, yet Google’s experience in Kansas City raises questions about how the gigabit fiber model works.

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