Ames, Iowa, Could Go Its Own Way in Search for ISP

Unreliable Internet access started a local conversation and search for better service that could drive the city toward municipally owned network.

by Michael Crumb, Ames Tribune / November 29, 2018
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(TNS) — The city of Ames, Iowa, will begin exploring options for improving Internet service to its residents, including a possible jump into the Internet business itself.

During its meeting Tuesday, the City Council heard from several residents who expressed concerns about unreliable Internet service in the community, and from some who supported efforts by the city to explore it's options.

Iddo Friedberg of Ames said he believed a city-owned and operated service would pay for itself because Ames is a well educated community and the presence of Iowa State University. He said Ames residents would be willing to pay for good Internet service.

"The Internet is the economic engine of the 21st Century as the roads were for every other century," Friedberg said.

Caleb Keller, of Ames, also spoke in favor of what was described as a "retail model," where the city would build the infrastructure and operate the service as a municipal utility.

"It's not a luxury, it's a necessity of modern life, it's in every facet of our lives," Keller said of the need for reliable Internet service.

The comments came after Assistant City Manager Brian Phillips outlined the various options and possible challenges the city would face when dealing with the Internet issue.

Phillips said an online survey in 2017 generated 700 responses which showed there were "not a lot of results showing people are happy with their service."

Phillips said a recent focus group generated similar responses.

"This information, survey results and focus group, are not a random sample of Ames businesses and residents," he said. "These were self-selected and highly interested individuals."

Phillips also said city staff reached out to Internet providers Mediacom and CenturyLink for information about what has worked in other communities and where impediments remain in providing reliable service to customers.

He said a meeting was held with Mediacom officials last summer, but that CenturyLink did not respond to a request for a meeting. Phillips said despite the meeting with Mediacom, the city didn't receive the information it requested.

Phillips said a general lack of data as to differences between services and gaps in service creates a challenge for the city as it moves forward. Another challenge is that problems are being experienced citywide, he said.

"There's not a silver bullet we can implement to fix the problems people are experiencing," he said.

Phillips said another challenge is the city can't tell providers what to do.

"Another limitation is our hands are constrained in terms of ability to regulate current providers," he said. "We don't have the ability to tell providers who to serve and how to serve them."

Phillips said the city does have "the option to enter the marketplace as a provider or to influence providers in a way that doesn't amount to regulation."

He outlined four options, which included the "retail option," in which the city would own and operate the infrastructure, allowing it to give it the most direct control over Internet speeds quality and prices.

The second option is a "wholesale" model, where the city would install infrastructure and lease it to providers to address gaps in service in the community. The third model is a "franchise model" and the fourth model would involve the city partnering with other entities in the community to provide Internet service.

Phillips said depending on which model the council pursues, the city would have to conduct a feasibility study to determine the costs of building the infrastructure and operation, as well as a fee structures that would be needed for a service to be viable.

Creating a separate municipal utility would also require a referendum, where voters would have to approve its creation, he said.

Another hurdle would be determining where financing would come from, Phillips said.

"There's a lot of questions that need to be answered before we enter that market," Phillips said.

City Manager Steve Schainker told council members a feasibility study would likely cost in excess of $100,000, although he acknowledged that was only a rough estimate, and that would only be for the "retail model," which he said would likely required the greatest level of analysis.

Schainker said if the city would pursue the creation of a municipal utility, it would require a significant investment.

"This is not something you do with existing staff," he said. "If you're going to commit to this, I hope you give us first-class equipment and first-class staff. We're not going to give it to one department and say do it with existing staff. It will be complex."

The council approved motions directing staff to bring back an agenda item at a future meeting on costs of a feasibility study, and a staff report on potential partners for the community model; to direct staff to work with existing private sector companies to explore ways to improve the quality and scope of Internet service in Ames and investigate what was called the Davenport-Bettendorf model, where incentives were provided to providers to improve service; and on possible modifications to the city's subdivision code to have new construction be Internet ready.

Resident Carolyn Myers said she believes the city needs to conduct a feasibility study.

"Until we do ... we don't know anything," said Myers.

©2018 the Ames Tribune, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.