Twenty-five years ago this month, voters in Cedar Falls approved creating a municipal communications utility through Cedar Falls Utilities.
Today that system is a major tool in the city and metro area’s economic development toolbox. It brought the city international recognition and a visit from then-President Barack Obama in 2015 as a “gigabit” community.
In 2014, CFU began offering 1 gigabit per second internet service, a goal of cities across the country as a spur to economic development. CFU was recognized by Google as a “2014 eCity” in October.
“About 20 years ago, in a visionary move ahead of its time, this city voted to add another option to the market and invest in a community broadband network,” Obama said during 2015 visit. “Really smart thing you guys did.”
That didn’t happen in Waterloo, as many people know. It’s been trying to catch up ever since, as many smaller communities around it began adding municipal internet and broadband service, one of the latest being Waverly.
The Waterloo Telecommunications Utility board of trustees met in August for the first time in five years to discuss hiring a consultant to develop plans for a citywide broadband communications network.
“I think it’s time,” said board member Rich Kurtenbach. “We’ve got communities all around us that have their own utilities when it comes to broadband.”
Waterloo voters in 2001 rejected a referendum to establish a municipal utility and allow the city to sell bonds to begin constructing a competing fiber optics system in the city.
Waterloo voters in November 2005 approved the creation of a municipal telecommunications utility but did not approve any funding for the board to move ahead with a system to provide high-speed internet, television or phone services. Community leaders at the time were concerned Waterloo was losing ground in the economic development arena because businesses in Cedar Falls had access to faster and cheaper data service.
The Waterloo board met several times over the years, at one point unsuccessfully asking the city for funds to hire a consultant, but eventually went into hibernation.
Mayor Quentin Hart said too long has passed without action.
“This is a huge piece in moving forward,” he said.
Roughly 30 cities in Iowa, including Cedar Falls, have municipal telecommunications utilities that provide high-speed internet, cable television and phone services to residents and businesses in competition with private companies like Mediacom.
Last week, Waterloo City Council members voted 6-0 with one member absent to approve reallocating some $110,000 in general obligation bonds to pay for Magellan Advisors of Denver, Colo., to look at a potential city-owned utility.
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The study is driven by concerns voiced by local businesses and residents about the quality of the city’s current broadband providers, the largest being Mediacom and CenturyLink.
As was the case with the 1994 referendum in Cedar Falls, the council’s action was met with some opposition.
Chip Baltimore of the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance questioned City Council members last week about plans to use city bond funds for a consultant to study the issue.
Baltimore, a former Iowa state representative from Boone, questioned using money to be repaid with property tax dollars over the next eight years “all for a study for something that quite honestly I’m not sure that you need.”
“When property tax revenues are spent to repay borrowed money stretched over years on very speculative projects like I anticipate this will be, I think that’s a concern,” he added.
Council members present were undeterred by the arguments. Nor should they have been – especially when one considers how much not having those services has cost the city in missed economic development opportunities over the years.
In fact, CFU officials have noted they are not allowed to provide services to any businesses in Waterloo that ask — but the utility can connect businesses that already have an office in Cedar Falls to a branch in Waterloo. That gives businesses in Waterloo an incentive to locate in Cedar Falls.
Mediacom spokesman Tom Larsen has said Waterloo residents and businesses are not at a broadband disadvantage, noting Mediacom has “a trememdous amount” of capabilities in and around Waterloo.
“If there are areas the city feels are lacking fiber access, I can say with certainty that having a local provider like Mediacom expand its existing network would be a significantly cheaper alternative than spending tens of millions on a new network,” he said.
Mediacom predecessor TeleCommunications Inc., or TCI, made similar promises in 1994 prior to the Cedar Falls referendum, and proceeded with those improvements after the vote’s passage to stay competitive.
Waterloo Telecommunications Utility boardmember Kurtenbach said, “I for one am a fed-up resident of this community having to deal with the two primary (providers) we have for internet services in this city, either with Mediacom or with CenturyLink.”
The current discussion may result in another referendum.
Whatever path the discussion takes, doing nothing is not an option. Improved broadband services in Waterlooare critical if the city is to remain competitive.
Just as Waterloo was one of the last cities of its size to get a link to the interstate highway system with Interstate 380 in 1985, so too does the city need to kick it into high gear now on the information superhighway.