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Ames, Iowa, Works to Increase Internet Providers in Area

The Ames City Council directed city staff to extend an invitation to an undisclosed private Home-To-The-Premises provider that plans to invest $30 million in Internet infrastructure into the Ames market.

(TNS) — The prospect of a municipally owned and operated Internet utility in Ames, Iowa, is on the back burner, at least for now.

On Tuesday, the Ames City Council directed city staff to extend an invitation to an undisclosed private Home-To-The-Premises (HTTP) provider that plans to invest $30 million in Internet infrastructure into the Ames market, to present its plan to council no later than August.

This decision places a temporary hold on the option to pursue a feasibility study for a municipal Internet utility.

According to city staff, the provider has a history of providing Internet service to under served communities, and plans to provide coverage to most of Ames.

Based on a meeting last October, the council identified improvements to Internet service in the areas of availability, reliability, cost, speed, customer service and policy.

The provider, who the city has agreed to keep anonymous until the company is ready to disclose plans to the public, informed city staff that they would forgo talks with the city if they pursued a feasibility study exploring a municipally-owned Internet utility.

At first, council member Tim Gartin and some residents took exception to the provider's terms and conditions as a bullying tactic.

"I received probably 30 emails from constituents who also had a similar sort of push-back," Gartin said. "I think you've clarified that wasn't really their intent, but if there are people who still feel a bit put-off by the notion that they would hold us hostage to having a feasibility study."

However, Assistant City Manager Brian Phillips said city staff did not interpret the provider's language as a threat, and that the provider's intent is rooted in their best-case business strategy.

"I didn't take their comment to be intimidating or threatening," Phillips said. "It's really just how our choices align with the business model that they operate with. They have to fulfill obligations to their investors, because they want this money in the ground right away — and they aren't in a position to delay."

Phillips said the provider values the Ames market due to its status as a college town, and its reliability on Internet infrastructure.

The decision to put the feasibility study on hold may have not been a popular one, as many residents voiced their support for a study.

"The municipal Internet has the strong potential to not cost us anything," Ryan Worth said. "The decision-point for a municipal Internet isn't the study itself, it's after (the study). Why don't we kick the tires on the feasibility study?"

David Brenner shared similar sentiments, saying, "I'm in favor of municipal broadband, I think it keeps money in the community as compared to supporting investor somewhere else."

Two of the city's current Internet service providers, Mediacom and ICS Advanced Technologies, both had representatives speak on behalf of their companies, in response to public frustrations with their service and the ramifications of a new provider entering the market.

"It's kind of like Coca-Cola, do you want it out of the bottle or do you want it out of the can?" said Phyllis Peters, senior director of communications for Mediacom. "You care about the product, so you ought to be agnostic to how it's being delivered if you're getting faster speeds, and I believe Mediacom has consistently offered the fastest speed."

Council member David Martin initially made a motion for council to invite the provider for a presentation and simultaneously conduct the feasibility study.

"I don't think what we've heard really gives us leave to suspend our investigation altogether," Martin said. "I think we do have a responsibility to take this communications infrastructure seriously. We have an opportunity now to investigate what it will take to do, whether it's in our reach or not (to pursue municipal Internet utility)."

The motion died due to a lack of a second, with other council members wanting to avoid a "poison pill" that would drive away a potential $30 million investment before it was even presented to the city.

"What we hear about the time-line is that the city will not be able to have any kind of municipal Internet available before say two-and-a-half or three years, at least, and people are clamoring for this now,"council member Gloria Betcher said. "We have someone who's interested, and they're talking about having the entire city (covered) or some areas complete in two and-half to three years, so can we afford to not take two months to hear what they have to say?"

Betcher also added, "And, let's admit, we have not had other providers knocking down the doors to come to Ames."

According to city documents and Phillips, the results of a feasibility would not be available until Spring 2020, with a groundbreaking for infrastructure in 2021. Contrasted to the provider's plans, that estimate a two-and-half to three year build-out in Ames.

In anticipation for a future presentation to the public, council directed staff to have the provider identify which areas in Ames would be serviced, how the provider changed the competitive landscape in the communities they expanded in to, and potential complaints on their service from residents of those communities.

©2019 the Ames Tribune, Iowa. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.