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FD officials give insight on broadband issue

Matter will be on Nov. 5 ballot

During the Nov. 5 election, Fort Dodge voters will decide if their city government should have the power to establish a municipal broadband utility.

The ballot question they will respond to asks: “Shall the city of Fort Dodge, in Webster County, Iowa, establish a municipal telecommunications utility (including the potential provision of video, voice, data, and all other forms of telecommunications and cable communications services) for the city?”

Recently, some representatives of the city met with the editorial board of The Messenger to discuss the broadband issue.

Those city representatives were Mayor Matt Bemrich; City Manager David Fierke; Ryan Maehl, assistant director of parks, recreation and forestry; and Curtis Dean, president of SmartSource Consulting in Grimes. Dean’s firm was hired by the City Council in June to advise it on broadband matters.

Here are some of their responses to questions posed by the editorial board.

How would a municipal broadband utility be better than what we have now?

Dean: “I can tell you how it would be different. I think it’s up to people to decide whether it’s better or not.

“With a municipal telecommunications utility, the decisions are made in your community. They’re not made in Middletown, New York, (headquarters of Mediacom) or wherever Frontier is based. They’re made by local people, and the decisions are made for the benefit of the community, not necessarily for anybody outside of the community.

“The municipal utilities tend to operate pretty lean operations. Because they’re not as worried about getting a profit — in fact profit is a bad word when it comes to a municipal utility — they’re focused on covering their operating expenses and covering their debt that they had to take out to build the system.”

Bemrich: “I would compare it to a co-op. Their primary function is to deliver a service to the benefit of the investors who are the people using that service. They want to do that at the best possible level at the lowest marketable price to make sure they can cover their operations and service any debt related to providing that infrastructure. It’s not about creating a rate of return back to Wall Street or an investment bank. It’s about returning that investment back to the end user in a very similar fashion to a co-op.”

How does that different approach translate to higher internet speed and better reliability?

Bemrich: “That normal money that would be returned to investors is returned to the end user in a better service — higher quality modems, better infrastructure — not to a shareholder, not to Wall Street. Basically, Wall Street is Main Street in this scenario. It’s providing that service to our community, not exporting revenue to somebody to create a return on their investment. That gives the ability to take revenue that otherwise would go somewhere else and put it back into the infrastructure, put it back into better modems, better hardware, better service techs, better training for those techs. ”

Dean: “There were a lot of municipal telecommunications utilities that started at about the same time Mediacom became Mediacom, so late ’90s, early 2000s, and they operated the same kind of network that Mediacom does — a hybrid of some fiber but coaxial to the end user. Those municipal utilities that started at about the same time have either already completely rebuilt to fiber to the home, or are in the process of doing it today, or have it on their immediate window of things they’ve got to get done because they realize that is the most future-proof infrastructure.”

Are there other communities the size of Fort Dodge that have set up a municipal broadband utility?

Dean: “Cedar Falls is the biggest in the state. Indianola is 15,000. If Fort Dodge were to do something it would probably be the second largest in the state.”

It seems like a relatively low number of communities that have passed a referendum like this have built a utility. Why is that?

Dean: “There’s 70 some communities that have approved a referendum, and right now we have 24 or 25 that are actually operating networks. So I went and looked at the ones that approved referenda but never built a network and I’ve got a few here listed that they did not build a network, but somebody built a network. Somebody came in and offered that superior service or are in the process of offering that service.”

How would you answer critics who claim the city can’t fix the potholes so it won’t be able to improve my internet speed?

Bemrich: “I would tell them that we’ve been fixing potholes for the past decade. We’ve been slowly fixing infrastructure that we inherited, and we’ve been fixing it at the rate that we have available funds to do so. This is starting a new piece of infrastructure, not related to that infrastructure, and the plan is to put together a comprehensive utility that will maintain its infrastructure.”

Would you have a separate staff to run the utility?

Bemrich: “I think you’d have to. I could see a board or commission set to operate the utility with a management team and a set of techs .”