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Decorah, Iowa is moving forward on a long-percolating plan to expand the city’s core fiber ring to provide affordable broadband access to long-neglected residents and businesses.
While the project has been discussed for years, local officials tell ISLR the project gained renewed momentum during peak COVID, and is creeping closer to launch.
Contracts are still being finalized as the city hopes to spend somewhere around $12 to $15 million to deliver fiber to all 3,000 potential subscriber locations. The full project would take about three years to deliver fiber to all 7,740 city residents, with the first subscribers potentially coming online this fall.
“Decorah has been in pursuit of fiber to the premises for the last 8 to 9 plus years and we finally have broken through some of our challenges on how to get to the finish line,” Chopper Albert, Decorah IT Director told ISLR.
According to Albert, Decorah’s recent progress is thanks in part to new City Manager Travis Goedken, who has long advocated for expanding the city’s existing fiber network to drive affordable fiber access citywide.
New City Management Team Pushes Forward
Since 2013 the city has owned an 11-mile core fiber network, dubbed the Decorah MetroNet. MetroNet was born out of frustration after a major flood in 2008 across much of Iowa resulted in prolonged communications network outages.
MetroNet (not to be confused with the Indiana-based ISP that goes by the same name) currently provides access to Luther College and 18 additional government buildings and anchor institutions.
After years of strategizing, Waterloo, Iowa officials announced in February that they were moving forward with their plan to create a new utility aimed at delivering affordable fiber to every last city resident. While the resulting network is still very much in the planning and construction phase, officials this month released a new website for the project revealing service pricing.
According to the Waterloo telecommunications board, locals will have access to symmetrical 300 megabit per second (Mbps) service, symmetrical 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) service, and symmetrical 10 Gbps service for $50 a month, $70 a month, and $110 a month, respectively. The offerings will see no long-term contracts or usage caps.
Unlike many municipalities, Waterloo is also offering both phone and television bundles. Phone and TV service bundled with 1 Gbps service will cost locals $180 per month, while phone and TV service bundled with 10 Gbps service will be $224 per month.
Andy Van Fleet, chairperson of the board of trustees, tells the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier that the pricing is notably lower than the prices charged by regional cable monopoly Mediacom. Van Fleet told the paper that Mediacom currently charges him $129 a month for 300 Mbps service, plus the added costs incurred by technically unnecessary usage caps and overage fees.
Developments in Iowa and a Fresh New Look for CommunityNets.org - Episode 541 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the show, Christopher, Sean, and Ry sit down to catch up on a handful of community broadband projects in Baltimore and Iowa. Waterloo had a recent vote to embark on a citywide fiber network, and it's garnering some attention from national providers. Equally exciting is that West Des Moines has taken great strides in the construction of its citywide conduit network, with plans to be done by the end of the year. Christopher, Sean, and Ry end the show by talking about the new CommunityNets.org, and putting a fresh coat of paint on the digital home of the Community Broadband Networks initiative.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
West Des Moines, Iowa is making steady progress on a $60 million open access fiber-optic conduit system to expedite the delivery of affordable fiber citywide. And they’re doing it with the help of Google Fiber, which has slowly started to reverse course after the company’s 2016 decision to lay off hundreds of staff and freeze most meaningful expansion.
West Des Moines is a suburb of Des Moines with a population of 67,000 residents. Like so many U.S. communities, locals have long complained of high broadband prices, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service by the area’s entrenched local monopolies. Iowa studies routinely identify substandard broadband access as a top regional complaint.
So, as in many communities across the U.S., West Des Moines leaders decided to do something about it, in the form of a new public-private partnership with Google. The $60 million bond-funded project will result in citywide fiber conduit, which will be made available to any Internet service provider (ISP) interested in serving the city in a bid to dramatically boost local broadband competition.
The city is hopeful that ISP access costs ultimately cover the full build cost of the fledgling network. Google Fiber has already committed to pay the city an estimated $16 million to access the city’s new open access conduit system. Other ISPs that have never served the city before, including locally owned and operated Mi-Fiber, have also stated they’ll pay to access the conduit.
Generate City Revenue and Meet Growing Need of Residents
West Des Moines first announced the project in the summer of 2020, noting that it would lay more than a 1,000 miles of conduit alongside city streets, after which Google would come in and deploy its own fiber network to every last city address. In preparation, Google Fiber opened a brick and mortar retail location in West Des Moines in 2021.
After years of consideration and planning, Waterloo, Iowa is finally moving quickly forward with its plan to build a citywide municipal fiber network. Once complete, the network aims to provide the city’s 67,695 residents with an affordable, fiber-based alternative to local monopolized broadband options that have long left regional locals frustrated and disappointed.
Waterloo expects that it will cost somewhere around $115 million to build the necessary fiber backbone and connect all Waterloo residents and businesses to the fledgling network. City officials expect the first customers to go live sometime later this year at up to gigabit speeds, though it will take roughly three years for the entire network to be built.
Much like the rest of the country, Waterloo leaders and residents received a crash course in the importance of affordable broadband during the Covid crisis, when the country’s spotty, sluggish, and expensive broadband networks were on full display due to a massive rise in telecommuting and home education.
Voters Declare GO Time on Muni Broadband
Fueled by frustration, Waterloo voters in September overwhelmingly approved the city issuing general obligation bonds to fund the start of construction for a city-wide municipal fiber network.
Kicking off the new year, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced $234 million of the state’s Capital Projects Fund (CPF) will be used to deploy new high-speed Internet infrastructure in the Peach State, courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act.
The lion’s share of those federal funds, being administered by the state’s broadband office, will be gobbled up by the four national telecom giants operating in the state. The rest of the grant money will be shared by a half dozen electric cooperatives for smaller projects.
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.
Because its downtown buildings were made to resemble Windy City architecture, Fort Dodge was once nicknamed “Little Chicago.” But now, this north-central Iowa city with a population of just under 25,000 is building something the real Chicago, 360 miles east of Fort Dodge, does not have: a municipal fiber-to-the-home (ftth) network.
Having secured up to $36.8 million in loans from a consortium of local banks, the Cedar Rapids-based engineering firm HR Green has been hired by the city to put together a final engineering and design plan for a city-wide fiber network.
The RFP to do the construction work will go out to bid in late spring 2022, with actual network construction slated to begin in the summer of 2022. City officials say the new utility will likely begin offering high-speed Internet service to Fort Dodgers as soon as the summer of 2023, though the network won’t be fully built-out city-wide until 2024.
Unserved, Underserved and Poorly Served
In many rural communities, local governments, cooperatives, public entities, or nonprofit organizations will sometimes build the infrastructure necessary to deliver high-speed Internet service to the unserved and underserved because incumbent providers don’t see enough short-term ROI to justify the expense. But in more densely populated locales, municipal broadband is often pursued because the existing service from private providers simply isn’t up to par. The market has failed rural, suburban, and urban communities - just in different ways.
And that’s why in cities like Fort Dodge, the feasibility study commissioned by the city hits on a familiar refrain found in feasibility studies across the nation:
“Despite being the largest city in the region and key commercial hub, Fort Dodge telecommunications infrastructure is less advanced than in surrounding rural areas and small towns like Lehigh, Dayton, and Badger.”
Vinton, Iowa’s municipal communications utility, iVinton, connected its 1,000th subscriber with high-speed fiber optic Internet service this week.
Demand for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity across the 4.74-square-mile Iowa community (est. pop. 5,100) is so substantial that iVinton, governed by the Vinton Municipal Electric Utility (VMEU), is having to schedule installations a month out as requests for residential service have surpassed the manpower available to complete them as quickly as they had hoped.
As the telecommunications utility transitions out of its start-up phase – from working with external consultants to bringing all operations in house and limiting outside vendors – the biggest challenge iVinton has had to overcome is not having enough employees to take on the necessary roles, Matt Storm, iVinton’s Municipal Communications Manager, told ILSR in a recent interview.
Still, the utility is plugging away to keep up with requests for residential installations as iVinton is eager to meet the surge in demand. “We’re supplying a service that’s needed for the community, and the community has responded,” Storm told ILSR.
Just over a year into the municipal fiber network being operational, 1,000 of 2,450 residential and business premises, or 41 percent of the available premises in Vinton have made the switch. They've been lured by increased bandwidth, a higher quality of service, and the benefit of iVinton being a local provider with service technicians in town. Today, iVinton offers three symmetrical speed tiers to residents: 100 Megabit per second (Mbps), 250 Mbps, and 1000 Mbps connections for $70, $90, and $120 per month respectively.
In a new report, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showcases the diverse range of approaches communities and local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have taken to expand affordable, high-quality Internet access in Minnesota. It includes a series of case studies that detail how communities are meeting the connectivity challenges of a broken marketplace shaped by large monopoly service providers.
Download Minnesota Broadband: Land of 10,000 Connectivity Solutions [pdf] here.
The profiled projects include municipal networks, public-private partnerships, cooperatives, and private investment. They run from the most rural areas of the state to Minneapolis. Some examples include:
- RS Fiber Cooperative, in south central Minnesota, which has brought fiber to local businesses and town residents. Rural residents benefit from RS Air, a fast wireless service available at affordable prices.
- Arrowhead Electric Cooperative’s fiber network in Cook County, which succeeded beyond original projections. It provides fast and affordable Internet access to one of the most far-flung parts of the state.
- St. Louis Park’s partnerships with both ISPs and the builders of large condominium complexes. One of the providers working with St. Louis Park is better known as the fastest ISP in Minneapolis, USI Fiber.
- Christensen Communications, a 100+ year-old telephone company in south central Minnesota. The company demonstrated a strong commitment to its communities when the pandemic hit, and is now going above and beyond to build fiber with federal subsidies.
- The Fond du Lac Band, in northern Minnesota, which built a fiber-to-the-home network that is rare in Indian Country.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, co-author of the report and Senior Researcher with ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, said of the report’s findings: