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Waterloo, Iowa, Contemplates Its Broadband Choices

For more than a decade, broadband expansion in Waterloo, Iowa, has been a relatively stagnant issue. But recent support for a feasibility study to evaluate the possibility of a municipal broadband option has put the city in the spotlight.

Fostering broadband availability is a unique challenge nationwide, one that invites public and private interests to both collide and cross-pollinate, whether the setting is Tacoma, Wash., or Columbus, Miss

Battles over the matter can be lengthy and involved, with local government officials, members of the community, Internet service providers and other stakeholders debating issues that range from costs to infrastructure requirements. These questions have certainly been raised as of late in Waterloo, Iowa, a city of roughly 68,000 located northwest of Cedar Rapids. 

Last week, the Waterloo City Council voted unanimously to use $84,500 in general obligation bond money for a broadband feasibility study conducted by Magellan Advisors. The study’s goal is to help Waterloo determine the practicality of a city-owned broadband system versus other options, such as a service based on a public-private partnership model. As this and other arguments over how best to make broadband available in Waterloo continues, there may be lessons emerging from the situation for connectivity efforts in communities nationwide.

The Value of Research

About the broadband situation in town, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said citizens and businesses there have been asking for better availability for years. 

The mayor, however, does not have a preferred means for how to accomplish this, at least not yet. 

“I don’t know yet,” Hart said. “We will take a look. Do I think there’s a value in our city owning its own future? Of course. But you know, some of these projects are higher risk, and it can be minimal or large reward. But I think we owe it to our citizens, we owe it to our future, to take a look at all of those particular options.” 

By owning the future, Hart is referring to the concept of a municipal-owned broadband network, which is one of the options the newly commissioned study aims to explore, along with the aforementioned public-private partnership. Hart is not alone in withholding judgment on the best route for Waterloo to go. 

Waterloo City Councilman Steven Schmitt, a 35-year veteran in the telephone business, said he voted for the feasibility study because he’s a businessman who is about looking at all options. Schmitt described $84,500 as a “drop in the bucket” compared to the millions Waterloo could invest if it fails to do its homework before it chooses a particular direction with broadband.   

Schmitt was similarly hesitant to endorse a specific broadband option, though he suggested a public-private partnership might be a good solution. Schmitt had critical words for anyone with a made-up mind. 

“Anybody that’s that locked into something without all the facts, I’d vote them out of office tomorrow,” he said. 

This idea of doing extensive research before making any firm decisions is just one of the lessons to be taken from the debate in Waterloo.

Looking to the Neighbors

Communities like Waterloo — which isn’t a major metro area but is sizable relative to many Iowa communities — often struggle to make broadband available at obtainable rates to the entirety of their population.

As the world has moved increasingly online — with the Internet evolving from a luxury into a vital tool for obtaining employment, completing homework and finding health care, among other things — more local governments have worked to ensure high-speed Internet is available to the people that live in their jurisdictions. In fact, one is located in close proximity to Waterloo. 

That city is Cedar Falls, which has a municipal broadband utility, something advocates say increases availability and enhances competition in communities like those in Iowa. Mayor Hart said many Waterloo citizens are envious of Cedar Falls. But that doesn’t mean Waterloo can just copy the blueprint set by its neighbor. 

A common source of funding for municipal broadband is repurposed money from traditional utilities, often electricity, toward future-facing utilities like broadband. Schmitt pointed out that the electric utility in Waterloo is a private company. 

“This broadband thing I think is real important,” Schmitt said. “But I think there are some people that are trying to make the case that, ‘Oh boy, if we just did this, we’d get all the businesses coming to Waterloo rather than Cedar Falls,’ and I think that’s very shortsighted. I don’t think they’re seeing the big picture.”

In Davenport, which is two hours away from Waterloo, the city has settled on a public-private partnership solution, after commissioning a feasibility study from the same organization tapped by Waterloo. Davenport is currently undergoing a citywide fiber build-out as part of a partnership between it, the city of Bettendorf and the private company MetroNet. 

Brandon Wright, Davenport’s chief financial officer and assistant city administrator, said his city looked into a municipal broadband system, but Magellan Advisors showed that the public option would bring too much risk. Essentially, embracing a public-private partnership model meant that the city would not suffer as much should the new service fail.

Davenport Alderman Maria Dickmann voted in favor of the partnership, saying it was a more cautious approach than investing in a municipal broadband network, albeit one that still helps bridge the digital divide and make it so broadband is treated as more of a utility. 

“Utilities are treated very differently than services, and there’s a lot of implications for beginning to treat Internet like a utility versus a service,” Dickmann said. “We took a more incremental approach in kind of trying to nudge it toward being more utility-like without taking on potential liabilities.”

In the end, local governments in Iowa largely agree that it's time to get involved with extending broadband access to more of the population, but, as in so much of the country, its the exact model for doing that that remains a question.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.