Waterloo Set to Vote on Funding for Municipal Fiber Network

The City of Waterloo, Iowa has been flirting with the idea of building a municipal fiber network since 2005 when voters approved the creation of a municipal utility service. Voters said yes to the concept then but were not asked to put any money behind it.

"We were so excited we passed it, and then nothing happened. (The plan had) been gathering dust for 16 years," at-large Councilor Sharon Juon, a member of the city’s broadband committee in 2005, told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier when the city council unanimously approved a $2.5 million contract with Magellan Advisors to design and engineer a fiber network last fall.

This is something our city needs so desperately. We've lost businesses because we don't have the broadband needed.

Now, officials in this northeast Iowa city of 68,000 residents (the eighth-largest city in the state) are ready to take the next step, going back to voters with a ballot question that seeks approval for the city to borrow $20 million to build the network backbone.

Voters will head to the polls to decide the question on September 13. It will need 60 percent approval at the ballot box for the measure to pass.

The ‘Time is Here’

Characterizing the effort to build future-proof fiber infrastructure as “good for the long-range interest of this community,” Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart told The Courier:

For the past 15 to 20 years, the city has done a lot of talking of needing to do this and to work for our own fiber network, and the time is here.

Should the ballot measure pass, the funds would be used to build a 100-mile fiber backbone to support the city’s sewer, storm water, traffic, and water systems. Consultants to the city have said that general obligation bonds are not required, but would be used to lower the cost of financing the overall project.

Building the backbone would set the table for a city-wide fiber-to-the-home network to compete with the incumbent cable provider Mediacom and CenturyLink. The estimated price tag for a citywide fiber network is $86 million though it’s not clear how the city would fund a full build-out. 

Unfortunately, for city-dwellers in Iowa the state’s broadband grant program – known as the Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grants Program – is focused on helping rural communities build infrastructure even though the digital divide persists in cities everywhere. Yet, despite the fact that cities are often poorly served by monopoly providers with little or no incentive to improve or expand service, in January, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced $210 million in funding to build new broadband infrastructure focused on rural Iowa, explicitly noting that the program is designed to expand “access to broadband in unserved and rural areas across Iowa.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped other Iowa cities from finding way to finance the building and operation of their own networks. Fort Dodge, for example, was able to secure private financing to fund its fiber build, as we reported here.

We will follow the developments in Waterloo as city officials look to bring competition and affordable, ubiquitous high-speed Internet connectivity to its residents and businesses. 

Inline image of Waterloo courtesy of Flickr user David Wilson, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)