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Iowa City Fears Broadband Study Could Hurt Competition

City officials in Waterloo, Iowa, worry that publicly releasing the city’s recent broadband study could hurt the city's ability to compete with Mediacom, a major Internet provider in the area.

by Sydney Czyzon, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier / November 10, 2020
Waterloo, Iowa Shutterstock

(TNS) — Waterloo, Iowa, city officials worry publicly releasing Waterloo's broadband study could hurt the city's ability to compete with Mediacom, a major internet provider in the area.

The concern was outlined in a response to an Iowa Public Information Board complaint filed by The Courier. Attorney Chris Wendland, who works for the city's legal department, said disclosing marketing and pricing strategies for a city-owned utility "would harm the competitive position of the municipal telecommunications utility before it could even get off the ground."

"One can reasonably expect that if such information is put in the public domain, then the information would put the nascent utility at a competitive disadvantage," Wendland wrote.

The complaint to the IPIB was made after the city declined to release a copy of the broadband study, citing parts of Iowa code that protect "draft" materials.

The telecommunications utility board of trustees then met privately to review the study, again stating they were protected by Iowa code that allows executive sessions to look over confidential documents. The city also referenced part of the code that protects utility records that include private customer information.

Wendland noted Mediacom is not under legal obligation to release its pricing and cost data or marketing strategies.

"As a nongovernmental entity, Mediacom is a profit-seeking business that is permitted to develop its marketing and pricing strategies and related proprietary information behind closed doors," Wendland wrote.

The city referred to the study as material that is "preliminary only and not intended as a basis for official action."

The city commissioned the study about a year ago to be completed by Magellan Advisors, a consultant company based in Denver, Colorado. In 2019, City Council members unanimously voted to reallocate about $110,000 in unspent general obligation bonds to cover the cost of the study.

"The utility will not have a fair chance to succeed if it must show its hand to a private competitor before the utility even has an opportunity to decide the essential steps to begin organizing an operational plan," Wendland wrote.

The city argued its decision to keep the study private is allowed under Iowa law. The IPIB will review the open records and open meetings law complaint as early as Nov. 19 to decide whether it will take further action regarding Waterloo's decisions about the broadband study.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, previously told The Courier that Waterloo residents "are entitled to know what the consultant has said about the viability of such a broadband network."

Evans said the study should not be considered a draft since it is in the hands of officials who can recommend approval of the broadband utility. He said the city's claim of protecting private customer information would not apply to potential utilities, only existing ones.

Iowa public records law and attorney general guidance does not allow entire documents to be kept confidential because there is some confidential material in the documents, Evans said.

(c)2020 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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