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Iowa Communities Continue to Work for Better Internet

An online survey conducted by Ames, Iowa, found that 70 percent of participants graded their Internet service as "fair" or "poor," with comments detailing wide-scale dissatisfaction with lack of speed and unreliability.

(TNS) — Before David Martin won the Ward Three seat on Ames, Iowa, City Council in 2018, one of his central campaign goals was a push for top-flight internet service in the city of Ames.

Equipped with a background in computer science and software analysis, Martin's rise to Ames City Council was timely, coinciding with residential frustration over internet service in Ames and criticism of existing internet service providers.

In a September 2017 online survey conducted by the city, over 70 percent of participants graded their internet service as "fair" or "poor," with comments detailing wide-scale dissatisfaction with lack of speed and unreliability.

The survey noted that 54 percent reported to be Mediacom subscribers, 35 percent from Century Link, with the remaining 11 percent selecting other providers.

Additionally, participants expressed a 65 percent disapproval rating of service provider's customer service.

Attempts to reach Century Link for comment were unsuccessful.

"It was a recognition that (internet service in Ames) doesn't have to be this way," Martin said. "It proved that there's experiences and problems weren't just anecdotal, they were more systemic than that."

In response to the survey's results, Ames, Iowa, City Council set a goal to make improvements to it's existing internet infrastructure with a focus on six key objectives— availability, reliability, cost, speed, customer service, and net neutrality and broadband privacy policies.

Since then, the competitive landscape of Ames' internet is changing, with Evansville, Ind.-based company MetroNet finalizing plans to make Ames a "Gig-a-bit City" in a reported $25 to $30 million buildout.

"We're very excited to come to Ames, and we have proven to do very well in municipalities that have a college," said Kathy Scheller, MetroNet's government affairs director. "Typically, when we come to communities with a university or college, we realize the impact that bandwidth has there, and realize the role we can play in data streaming and connection."

MetroNet serves 80 communities in seven states, encompassing 112,000 subscribers with a fiber-optic infrastructure that serves both businesses and homes.

Scheller said a central goal of the MetroNet's infrastructural buildout, fiber-to-home and address "underserved broadband speeds" in nearly all residential areas of Ames.

"We look at communities that we have an impact in, and will support us in our efforts to provide future high-end technologies," Scheller said.

Scheller told the Tribune that MetroNet's plans to enter Ames is an "immediate investment" and would start construction in the spring of 2020, embarking on a "two-year, weather permitting process" to build out its system.

For Martin, entertaining all options has been key to the conversation, including city efforts to identify the feasibility of a municipally-owned-and-operated internet utility.

"It costs a lot to deploy a new system widely, and there's barriers to entering into the market," Martin said. "I think that explains why competition doesn't quickly solve the problems. It can solve some problems in the long-term, but not all of them."

Iowa has more municipal broadband utilities than many other states, with municipal broadband deployment banned or restricted in 26 states.

For the city, from recommendations through city staff, exploratory talks include a feasibility study, its relationship with existing internet providers and how service is provided and the subdivision requirements for the installation of internet infrastructure.

In September, Ames City Council directed staff to explore service gaps in the city, a potential framework for next-level discussions on if Ames will be the next Iowa city to conduct their own internet utility.

But at the heart of the discussion, for Martin, is the city's ability to expand its capability of internet service to its constituents.

"If we explored, and took a hard look, we could see how other cities are able to successfully implement a municipal internet, it becomes a situation of — why not us?" said Martin.

Mediacom representatives said they aren't concerned with competition, but rather the scope of the conversation when it comes.

Mediacom's broadband-based foothold in Ames began in 2001, when executive Rocco Commisso expanded the company to Ames, along with other Midwest cities.

Mediacom has emerged as Ames' biggest internet service provider in terms of scope of service and longevity. However, the company had received negative comments and backlash from customers in the online service.

Hicks said most internet experiences are often unrelated to the service provider, and are rather, chiefly, residential areas with exclusive purchase agreements that prevent a company from providing service to a particular area.

"So if you're only in this housing unit you can only get this service, and so the complaint becomes 'internet is awful,'" Hicks said. "To which the complains given to the city get translated into 'Mediacom is awful.' We're willing to put ourselves out there and accept criticism, but we've also taken that criticism to heart and addressed those concerns."

In 2019, Hicks said the company scrubbed nearly 30,000 physical Ames addresses to re-examine and identify their coverage area.

According to Mediacom, the company nearly halved their unservicable areas within city limits, in half from 4 percent to 2.5 percent — a direct response to the results of the survey.

"We committed to this, looking at what is this city hearing about where we're not available?" Hicks said. "We found that there were 2,281 of those 30,000 addresses that were in exclusive bulk contracts with another provider, meaning there are legal barriers to us servicing those areas."

Ultimately, Mediacom executives said they want the conversations about internet at city hall to be informative and educational for Ames customers.

"So to align a consumer with the right kind of pricing, speed and data allowance, it comes back to customer education. Most of our Mediacom business focuses on broadband service – that's the main reason people choose Mediacom," said Phyllis Peters, Mediacom's senior director of communications.

With 2020 approaching, MetroNet has made an online portal available to the Ames residents, which allowed them to review and interact with MetroNet and get live updates on potential service areas as they build out.

Mediacom said that it will continue to be a leader in the broadband community in Ames.

And when it comes to the city, Martin said, whatever the choice and competition, he wants Ames residents to receive the best possible internet service.

"I would say to anyone who is planning to build out in Ames or continues to service Ames; there's a mixed bag of customers," Martin said. "But truly, we have users who ultimately will pay for service that is efficient, reliable and available."

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