Gabe Sheppard was having a problem at work. Actually, it was at home. Okay, it was both. Sheppard, a logistics engineer for a downstate transportation company, is one of the increasing percentage of Americans — up from 19 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — who either work partially or entirely from home.
His Internet connection through Spectrum Charter wasn’t always very reliable. He’d be in the middle of presentations and lose his connection, requiring that he log back in to continue.
Sheppard and his family moved to the area about a year ago for the quality of life, and although he still makes occasional trips to Novi for face-to-face meetings does about 90 percent of his work remotely.
One night while coaching Little League, Sheppard chatted with Jeremy Sheets, who owns CMS Internet, a local Internet Service Provider, about his problems. CMS had run fiber optic Internet through Sheppard’s Union Township neighborhood pretty recently. After the conversation, Sheppard decided to ditch Spectrum’s cable connection for CMS Internet’s high-speed fiber optic Internet, which was pitched as more stable and consistent.
“The stability and consistency really drove me to do it,” Sheppard said. Since the switch, the problems with his Internet access have stopped. Both he and his wife, who Sheppard said works as an educational consultant who has to sometimes use chat applications to talk to clients half a world away, have had no interruptions or slowdowns because they’ve maxed out on their bandwidth.
The reason lies in how both approach the same issue, embedding packages of information — files, Web page queries, real-time communications — on different kinds of signals. Cable uses an electromagnetic signal sent down copper wires. Fiber optic Internet embeds information on light and sends them down hair-thin strands of flexible glass wire.
Light allows the transmission of more information with faster delivery. The result is much faster download speeds, and just as important faster upload speeds. Because it also uses pulses of light to move information instead of an electronic signal that needs to be fed electricity, it’s much less susceptible to power outages.
If a power outage takes place between point of transmission and a customer, it can cut access to the Internet, Sheets said in an interview. Fiber Internet uses electronics to convert an electronic signal at the transmission point and again at the destination. Everything in between is light. Where a typical cable signal uses a cable splitter to send signal to multiple destinations, fiber uses mirrors and prisms.
Fiber has an additional advantage. It’s more secure, said Vishal Shah, an assistant professor of information technology at Central Michigan University. To break into an electronic signal sent over copper wire, you just need to hack into the wire. Doing that to a fiber signal breaks the cable, which causes the entire signal to be lost.
It’s also much more secure than wireless, said Susan Helser, a member of CMU’s Business Information Systems’ faculty. Shah, Helser and their colleagues Steven Tracy, a Business Information Systems instructor, and Gustav Verhulsdonck, an assistant professor of applied business communication, sat to discuss high-speed Internet earlier this month.
Right now, for a typical home user, this kind of Internet access is an assurance that if you want access to high-speed Internet that it’s available. It also offers a lot of potential for growth in home-based applications.
“If you build it, they will come,” Tracy said. His reference to the 1989 film Field of Dreams references that fiber Internet offers great potential for growth in non-user connected devices — the so-called Internet of Things — that help manage a household. Those devices will eventually augment home entertainment and computing use to exceed bandwidths now in common use.
All of those devices create a river of data that require high-capacity Internet signals to manage. In fact, he said, businesses already rely on them.
When you go into a Meijer and buy something, the checkout scanner already knows about your purchase history at every other Meijer, he said. Because you’re at the purchase point, that scanner has to access your history before you pay to provide you with coupons or in come cases in-store deals.
This makes access to high-speed Internet a particularly attractive tool in economic development, Shah said. In Oklahoma, for example, a company went to a small town and invested millions of dollars in building out high-speed Internet access. When marketed to other businesses, Shah said, it transformed the town practically overnight.
The initial investment brought in companies with needs for high-speed Internet but who didn’t want to pay to build out the infrastructure, he said.
CMS has offered fiber Internet to businesses for about 15 years, Sheets said.
The City of Mount Pleasant doesn’t currently use that in marketing the city, and hasn’t explored what local ISPs have to offer. Last month, the city released an Economic Development Action Plan that didn’t mention high-speed Internet anywhere.
“Thank you for the question—we did not really consider high speed Internet as a separate focus area in the Economic Development Action Plan,” wrote Community Services & Economic Development Director William Mrdeza in response to an email query. “I agree that high speed Internet is vital to businesses in today’s economy and an important marketing tool for attraction opportunities. Frankly, during our retention calls with manufacturers, issues with connectivity, speed, capacity, and other attributes associated with the use of Internet for business needs has not been flagged as being problematic in the City. As such, it was not on our radar to be addressed in the Action Plan and was therefore taken for granted that we, as a community, were adequately served in this regard.
“I know that connectivity issues in the more rural counties has been a big issue and a major focus of their efforts to find providers and to get connected. With the presence of the University and their data needs, as well as the previous provision of fiber in the City, we seem to have been better positioned than most rural communities in this regard.”
Helser, the CMU Business Information Systems faculty member, said that development of high-speed Internet in rural communities faces a steep challenge.
“It’s got to be economically feasible for businesses,” she said.
That was echoed by Sheets, who said that with the city’s main business corridors now wired, that he is engaged in a multi-year plan to offer fiber Internet to residences. It’s less a matter of what demand calls for right now, he said, but of projecting future demand.
That would be the reference CMU Business Information Systems faculty Steven Tracy made about Field of Dreams, but that would also mean meeting demand of the growing work-from-home demographic, who need reliable high-speed Internet at home for their jobs.
Currently, those people have two options. Move to a part of the city where fiber is available, or pay to have the infrastructure built to bring it to their homes.
Winn Telecomm, another local company whose Website markets fiber Internet, didn’t respond to an email inquiry for this story.