WATERLOO — The city has taken the next step toward creating a municipal broadband utility to compete with private internet companies, like neighboring Cedar Falls Utilities has done successfully for years.
The Waterloo City Council unanimously approved a $2.5 million contract with Magellan Advisors on Monday night to design and engineer a network of 309 miles of fiber-optic cable throughout the city. It will be paid for with American Rescue Plan funding, which is allowed to go to broadband projects, said Michelle Weidner, the city’s chief financial officer.
Weidner said the company had hoped for a quick vote.
“They are physically having to walk the neighborhoods to figure out where to hook this up at, and they can’t do that once the weather turns,” she said.
Called “fiber to the home,” the design would allow for any private home or business to hook up with the Waterloo utility instead of Mediacom or CenturyLink.
Voters in 2005 approved such a utility, but the effort didn’t gain traction with city leaders until a few years ago.
“We were so excited we passed it, and then nothing happened. It’s been gathering dust for 16 years,” said at-large Councilor Sharon Juon, a member of the committee in 2005. “This is something our city needs so desperately. We’ve lost businesses because we don’t have the broadband needed.”
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The design will provide a cost estimate for actually building the system. The city likely will then ask voters to approve a bond issue to help pay for construction, expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
“Once we get this design done ... we need public support if we want to be competitive in bringing businesses and people to live here,” said at-large Councilor Dave Boesen.
Ward 3 Councilor Pat Morrissey noted the bond issue likely will be the responsibility of taxpayers “in the long run,” but said it would be worth it.
“You don’t grow a community by cutting, you grow a community by investing,” Morrissey said. “And what we as taxpayers will be doing is investing in something that is so long overdue, and I believe will be so appreciated.”
Magellan was brought on board two years ago to design and build 65 miles of a fiber system for the city’s storm water and sanitary sewer utilities.
The company is now 60% of the way toward another 40 miles of “fiber backbone” for the city, connecting “more general city sites and facilities” like parks, public safety, traffic cameras and more, said Courtney Violette, Magellan’s chief operating officer.
“We are moving forward on the backbone as intended,” Violette told the council during its work session, noting he anticipated that would be done by January or February.