When Indianola decided to invest in a municipal fiber network, the decision was part of a larger economic development plan that included a startup incubator in partnership with Simpson College - which we wrote about earlier this year. Located near Des Moines in Iowa, Indianola is one of a few communities that has partnered with a local trusted provider, MCG in this case, that offers services over a publicly owned network.
According to Chris Draper, Director of Indianola + Simpson College Entrepreneurial Development Initiative (EMERGE), his program would not exist if the city did not decide to invest in economic development and municipal broadband as a package deal. Less than a year after launch, EMERGE has nine active startups, some of which are already seeing significant growth and seizing new opportunities. Collective Labor (collectivelabor.com) has created an online platform to facilitate collective bargaining negotiations.
By centralizing the process of calculating proposals and editing contract terms, Collective Labor decreases negotiation time, reduces errors and ultimately makes the negotiation process more efficient. In Iowa alone, Collective Labor believes it can save schools upwards of $35-million a year by streamlining their collective bargaining efforts, freeing up budgets to hire more teachers and improve schools.
Even more promising, the platform can handle all collective bargaining scenarios from teachers to municipal workers, and trade unions to public safety professionals. The demand for Collective Labor’s service is proving solid. Less than a year after launching (in February), Collective Labor has signed up five school districts and has thirteen contractor requests pending. In fact, Collective Labor President, David Gaus, just announced on Twitter that a Colorado firm has agreed to invest cash and expertise that will result in a new office and additional staff to support a nationwide expansion. Not bad for a startup that’s barely seven months old.
With other ventures ranging from biofuels trading to book publishing, EMERGE has successfully engaged a wide cross section of the community, from English students to professional engineers. Another startup seeing early success is LNR, which has developed an innovative way of “painting” stripes and other road marks. Instead of using actual paint, which eventually wears off, LNR has developed a colorable quick-setting concrete and application device that produces road markings which last 20 times longer than paint. Having just launched in April, LNR has already secured a $100,000 loan from the Iowa Innovation Acceleration Fund for market development.
Chris Draper says the key to the program is the combination of resources it brings together for the benefit of local entrepreneurs. Before the program, a member of the community with an idea would have to seek advice on diverse topics from various individuals - a daunting task that hinders untold numbers of would-be entrepreneurs. Now, EMERGE offers all of the necessary expertise in one place. And with a community fiber network at its disposal, the expertise offered by EMERGE is in-tune with the most advanced communications technology available.
Collective Labor is a good example of EMERGE’s ability to quickly enable high-tech ventures. Collective Labor's founder, David Gaus, previously used Excel spreadsheets to manage the collective bargaining process as a school business official. When he brought the idea and spreadsheets to Draper’s team at EMERGE, they converted it into an online cloud-based platform in a matter of months. This is the type of expertise seen in high-profile big-city startup incubators, but it's now available in a small-town community of 15,000 people in Iowa.
Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), recently recognized the city of Indianola on the US House Floor to recognize the community's municipal network. On February 15th, he spoke to the body about Indianola's recent certification as Connected by Connected Nation and Connected Iowa.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the City of Indianola, Iowa, for earning the Connected program's Connected certification. Indianola is the first community in the state of Iowa and the third in the country to garner this technology designation.
The Connected certification is a title applied to communities that display top-tier proficiency in the access and utilization of broadband-supported technologies. This coveted certification is awarded by Connected Nation and its subsidiary Connect Iowa, who advocate for broadband access on the state and national levels.
The City of Indianola is one of more than 30 communities across Iowa actively participating in the Connected program, and the first to become formally certified. Indianola has a team in place that has developed a comprehensive plan to increase broadband access by assessing the broadband landscape, identifying gaps, and establishing manageable goals. Attaining the Connected certification adds to the long list of desirable attributes that make Indianola such a great place to raise a family or grow a business.
Mr. Speaker, I commend the City of Indianola for its commitment to embracing and efficiently utilizing technology for the benefit of its residents and businesses. It is a great honor to represent the citizens of Indianola, and all of Warren County, in the United States Congress. I know that my colleagues in the House will join me in congratulating the City of Indianola in being selected to receive this certification, and I wish the city and its people continued success in the future.
Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) has built a wonderful network that an independent ISP uses to deliver services to the local businesses and residents of the community. This was a well-deserved recognition.
“We want to grow our own new businesses in Indianola, and Simpson College is home to an entire group of potential entrepreneurs who we hope will find support for their efforts here and some day choose to locate their businesses here,” [Jerry Kelly, former Indianola mayor and executive director of the city's development association] said. ‘What we are doing is called ‘economic gardening.’ What grows here will stay here.”
Thanks to the Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) next-generation broadband network, the city and the college have fertile soil to nurture that garden. We previously wrote about this FTTH partnership here, explaining that the community owns the infrastructure and a local business provides services over the network.
Through the partnership, the incubator will have access to IMU's server platforms, wholesale bandwidth, local marketing and outreach efforts, and customer service activities. 25 students will develop senior Capstone Projects through the initiative. College and city leaders anticipate that number will continue to grow.
The Simpson College News Center also writes that the project will be led by Chris Draper. Draper is associated with Des Moines' Startup City, a technology-based business incubator. Draper is CEO of the first graduate of Startup City, Meidh Tech, which offers property management technology solutions.
“By engaging students in real-world problems, allowing them to own their successes and responsibilities, they will begin to see that their classes actually feature lessons learned instead of paths to follow,” he said. “While we expect that many students will grow their own jobs because of this program, and many of those jobs will remain in our communities, the greatest benefit that Simpson students will realize because of this program is that each day provides a lifetime of opportunity.”
Kevin Kirkpatrick from the Record Herald also talked to Draper, who acknowledged the critical role of local resources, including the network provided by IMU.
Because Iowa does not create barriers for local communities to invest in broadband infrastructure, programs like the Indianola + Simpson College Entrepeneurial Development can proliferate. More states need to take a similar approach and open the door for local communities to pursue economic development with the aid of local community owned networks.
We have covered developments in the town of Indianola, Iowa, where the community decided to build their own network in 1998. The original purpose for investment was to use the network to enhance public safety and increase efficiency with SCADA applications. In 2005, however, the network began offering telecommunications services to local businesses. As of October, Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) began offering fiber-to-the-home to residents as it gradually begins expanding the use of its fiber asset.
You can now hear firsthand about the network, its history, and how the municipal utility navigated the journey to its next-generation open access network. Craig Settles interviewed Todd Kielkopf, General Manager of IMU, in an August Gigabit Nation podcast. The two discuss IMU's evolution since 1998. They also talked about the unique advantages that exist when a community considering network infrastructure investment already has a municipal utility in place.
Kielkopf tells how the driving factor for the fiber installation was to allow easier management and communication between utilities. When a 1990 franchise agreement with MediaCom was about to expire, the city investigated options. Hopes were that that the city could build a fiber network and MediaCom would offer services over that network, but that vision was never embraced by MediaCom.
Iowa law allowed the city to hold a referendum asking residents for permission to provide telecommunications services through the municipal utility's network. The referendum passed and they created a five year financial plan. Financing was with taxable and tax exempt bonds. The electric utility would build and own the network and a new telecommunications utility would license to a private partner that would offer retail services. Now, IMU and Mahaska Communication Group (MCG) have an agreement whereby MCG provides retail services over the network. While the agreement is not exclusive, no other providers currently use the network.
Kielkopf discusses three distinct phases in the development of the network's current status. First the network connected schools, libraries, government entities, and other anchor institutions. Next, IMU began connecting and serving businesses. Now, IMU is in the third stage of connecting homes. Along the way, says Kielkopf, the utility took its time and proved to the community that the investment was well spent and that IMU could manage the resource wisely.
Money saved on customers' telephone service, the willingness to work to finance installation, and treating customers well, contributed to IMU's positive reputation in the community. Accordingly, the community continues to support IMU's ambitions and goals for new uses of the network. The main objective for the network has been to provide a public necessity while paying off debt service and earning enough to maintain and improve the network. So far, IMU has met that goal.
In addition to cost savings and increased accessibility for Indianolans, IMU works with the local community college as part of an economic development program. Additionally, IMU is planning slow expansion and is committed to finding ways to simplify utilities and save energy for customers with the fiber network.
Kielkopf and Settles also discussed challenges from opposition to community owned networks and the search for local champions to lead efforts. Kielkopf notes that being proactive and knowing where hot button issues may exist before they ignite can make or break efforts.
He also stresses how Indianola has consciously tried to be different than surrounding communities as a way to attract talent and economic development. As one of many bedroom communities in the Des Moines area, Indianola competes with other similarly sized towns for new jobs, residents, and other resources. Kielkopf sees a direct connection between the network and what Indianola has to offer its residents, two thirds of which commute to Des Moines every day. Businesses (and now residents) can't get this caliber of affordable, reliable, and fast broadband in local areas served by the private sector.
Lastly, Kielkopf notes that successfully managing utilities depends on strong research, testing, and growth from an already existing knowledge base. He suggests that communities recognize strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on them both when venturing into the realm of broadband. The strategy has proved successful for IMU, its partners, customers, and the community.
The new residential service from IMU and its partner MCG includes triple play service of 25/25 Mbps Internet, unlimited local calls, and 105 of the most popular digital television channels for $99.95. For an additional $10, residents can upgrade to 100/100 Mbps. Stand alone Internet service is available for as low as $39.95 for 25/25 and double play packages (data and phone) are also available for as little as $49.95. MCG provides a broad range of bundling variety and 25/25 is available for as little as $5 per month in some packages.
We told you earlier this year about Indianola, Iowa's network, filling the gap for businesses where private providers had failed. At that time, the network only served local businesses and community anchor institutions, but plans to provide fiber-to-the-home in their community of 15,000 are now unfolding. The town passed a referendum back in 1998 to build a fiber ring which was used first by the local Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) for SCADA and for pubic safety. The goal was to expand incrementally. It later partnered with Mahaska Communications Group (MCG), located in Oskaloosa, Iowa, about 50 miles west of Indianola.
According to the IMU website, residential retail services will be available from MCG after October 1, 2012.
Monthly rates will include triple play at $99.95, double play packages between $49.95 and $94.95, and 25 Mbpssymmetrical Internet at $39.95. Residents can upgrade to 50 Mbps for $5 extra or 100 Mbps for an additional $10.00. Home Wi-fi is only and additional $5.95 per month. For complete details, check out their rate sheet PDF.
The network also leases fiber that connects community anchor institutions to the Iowa Communications Network, which provides video to K-12 schools, higher education, hospitals, state and federal government, National Guard armories, and libraries. The network also connects to BroadNet Connect, which is the network used by Iowa Health Systems for telemedicine in rural Iowa.
Indianola is the county seat of Warren County and has a population pushing 15,000. Back in 1998, the city had a referendum before building a fiber ring. The utility first used its telecommunications capacity for SCADA applications and public safety communications but began using spare capacity to benefit local businesses after 2005.
Indianola describes its network as open access but the network only has one provider. Nonetheless, it serves 70 commercial customers and is presently expanding. It is not available on citywide basis yet and further rollout will be on an incremental basis over many years.
In the open access arragement, service providers have to come to an agreement with the utility on pricing and adequate levels of customer support.
The utility entered the broadband space because incumbent providers Qwest (now CenturyLink) and Mediacom were not meeting local business needs, a familiar story we hear from communities around the country.
Contrary to the common claims of big cable and DSL companies, the city was still willing to work with its telecom competitors -- but it was Mediacom that said it was uninterested in using utility ducts created when parts of town were transitioned from aerial utility service to buried.
In reaction to the competition, Mediacom dropped its business pricing for customers that agreed to long-term contract offerings. IMU (and partner MCG) once had a considerable advantage in pricing but Mediacom's new packages have eroded some of that difference. Fortunately, IMU has a better reputation for service and does not require long term contracts.
One of the biggest benefits to the community is the high-capacity connections at schools, libraries, and public buildings. Schools connect to each other at a gigabit, allowing them to centralize network operations and cut costs. The municipal and county governments gain the same benefits.
Todd Kielkopf, IMU General Manager, told me "You can't put a price tag on what the savings have been."
When I called a local business, EDJE Technologies, that uses the publicly owned network, the owner candidly told me "Qwest is not good enough for us."
Communities like Indianola are smart to invest in broadband to benefit local businesses. It may anger the cable and DSL companies that are used to a non-competitive environment, but it is the only way many local businesses will gain access to the connections they need to be competitive in the digital economy.
It is inherently dangerous to a democracy for all of its telecommunications infrastructure to be held in the hands of unelected and unaccountable private actors with no obligation to behave in a nondiscriminatory manner. Municipal networks by their nature answer directly to the local community and their policies are subject to scrutiny and modification by public action, if need be at the ballot box. The preservation of a system of mixed public and private ownership of telecommunications infrastructure is essential to maintaining the free flow of information unfettered by the economic interests of dominant private actors. ,