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Ames Tribune Editorial Board Wants a Gig

We continue to see more and more of what we might call "gigabit fever." This is not just a "me too" bubble centered around superfast Internet access. It is a recognition by more and more communities that the refusal of their cable and DSL duopoly to invest in next-generation networks is materially harming their future.

Shortly after Cedar Falls announced it was the first community in Iowa with universal access to a gigabit courtesy of the municipal utility, the Ames Tribune made the case for a gigabit there also.

Ames is home to the excellent Iowa State University (as is Cedar Falls, with U of Northern Iowa). I can praise them as long as I don't say anything about the Hawkeyes, rivals to my beloved Gophers.

Unfortunately, the municipal utility in Ames is less than enthusiastic about following the Cedar Falls approach.

Yet Don Kom, director of the City of Ames Electric Department, tells us: “There has been no discussion at my level of bringing fiber from the city to our customers. We’re not having that discussion.”

Certainly the city has many pressing issues and priorities to address, but super-fast Internet service ought to be high on its list. Besides the fact that it’s the wave of the future and we ought to try to keep pace with that wave, Ames has an impressive history of ambitious and innovative achievements. From burning trash for power to building a large man-made lake, from CyRide to the Main Street revival, Ames is a leader, not a follower, in tackling big things.

Ames provides a reminder that while municipal electric utilities have been at the forefront of investing in FTTH networks historically and gigabit networks more recently, many municipal electric utilities are spending a lot of energy trying to avoid stepping outside their historic business models.

I'm reminded of an interview with Harold DePriest, the visionary CEO of Chattanooga's Electric Power Board, who runs the first network in the US capable of delivering a gig anywhere in the city at a moment's notice (see our case study, Broadband at the Speed of Light).

Story County Iowa Logo

I asked Harold about the role of a municipal electric utility and he said the municipal utilities were formed to ensure the community could take full advantage of the new technology of the day because the private sector was not investing in a way to allow everyone to benefit. It was not about electricity, it was about doing what needed to be done for a community to have the infrastructure it needs to thrive.

That said, either Ames or Story County could move forward with a project absent assistance from the utility. Seattle found its electric utility quite reluctant as well and has settled with a public-private partnership. Other local governments have moved forward with no electric utility - it is a harder path, but by no means impossible.

At the risk of copying too much from the Ames editorial, I do want to highlight how they finished it. Very well written:

And, to take this a step further, while Ames should be taking steps to become a gigabit city, Story County should be looking for ways to extend broadband service to everybody in the county. It’s disturbing, frankly, to imagine that some rural residents are still coping with the sluggish Internet speeds of the 1990s.

It’s pretty clear now that the Internet is not just a fad. It’s equally evident that most of America’s future economy will involve the Internet in some way. Let’s get started now on making Ames a gigabit community on a par with anybody else in the country. It’s not overly dramatic to argue that our economic future depends on it.

County and State Partner For Local Connectivity in Iowa

In 2010, the Iowa Communications Network received a $16.2 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The project will connect all 99 counties in the state by upgrading an existing 3,000 mile network (PDF of the project summary). The state plans to bring 10 Gbps capacity points of presence to each county and to provide 1 Gbps service to about 1,000 anchor institutions. The project will be managed by the state's Department of Transportation, which will be using fiber primarily for traffic management.

A recent Ames Tribune article reports that the local community will be partnering with the state to capitalize on the existence of the fiber for connectivity. Story County, located in the very center of the state, will soon be using several strands in the Ames area to create a loop between city and county offices. The 20-year arrangement will cost the county $15,000 and provides ample capacity to support the county's work and support future uses. From the article:

“For us this is a huge windfall,” [Story County Information Technology Director Barbara Steinback] said. “If we were to go on to a project like this on our own, it would cost between $250,000 and $300,000.”

The opportunity comes at a good time for Story County. The sheriff’s office recently began using new mobile laptops that Steinback said have been putting a strain on the network and, along with some other projects, has been resulting in some slowness issues.

“So we do need to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.