Iowa already has more municipal broadband utilities than many other states and the voters in Fort Dodge decided on November 5th, that that it's time for one more. "Yes" votes came in at around 72 percent of the total while 28 percent of those casting ballots decided against a measure to grant authority for a municipal telecommunications network.
A Copper Island in a Sea of Fiber
In June, consultants described the way Fort Dodge had become "an island of copper in a sea of fiber to the home." Local rural cooperatives around the city of around 24,000 have been investing in Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) while incumbents Mediacom and Frontier still rely on old infrastructure to serve the more densely populated city areas. Curtis Dean from SmartSource Consulting noted that people in the rural areas served by the co-ops likely have access to better connectivity than those living within Fort Dodge. The city had hired SmartSource to evaluate the broadband situation in Fort Dodge and make recommendations.
The results of a survey and assessment of connectivity in the community encouraged community leaders to ask voters for the authority to look further into a possible municipal telecommunications utility.
At an October forum, Mediacom representatives argued their case against a "yes" vote on the proposal. Those that attended, offered negative comments to Mediacom about the service they've received from the company. Frontier Communications, another major Internet service provider in Fort Dodge, didn't bother to send a representative to the forum.
In an interview in late October, Fort Dodge Mayor, City Manager, Assistant Director of Parks, and Curtis Dean, spoke with The Messenger and provided more detail about the proposal and what people in the community could expect if the measure passed. They answered questions about the benefits and challenges that face municpal networks. They focused on the fact that any infrastructure developed would be owned and controlled by the local community. Dean told The Messenger:
“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.
Local news editors, who have supported the proposal, were unable to share the results immediately. A tweet from Sports Editor at The Messenger explained the situation:
The Messenger has kept the community abreast of the conversation regarding the initiative and has published letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and editorials throughout the process. In addition to correcting misinformation circulated in Fort Dodge, editors at the Messenger stressed the fact that a municipal utility would allow the community to retain local control, rather than depending on a profit-centered corporation that, so far, has offered unsatisfactory service.
A yes vote doesn’t automatically mean the city will go into the broadband business. But a yes vote allows local leaders, not executives in some distant city, to begin looking at ways to improve service for Fort Dodge residents.
Editors at The Messenger also set the record straight about funding the deployment:
One thing must be made clear. Despite what opponents of the ballot measure, including Mediacom, have been saying, no tax dollars will be put at risk if the city does set up a utility. That utility would be financed by revenue it creates through fees for service. Property tax revenue and local option sales tax income would not be impacted.
Fighting (and Writing) for Facts
The special interest group Taxpayer Protection Alliance (TPA) attempted to derail the initiative by infusing disinformation into the debate leading up to the vote. In a September opinion piece, former Iowa State Representative Chip Baltimore who now works for the TPA, tried to sow seeds of doubt in the voters' minds. Taking a page from the TPA playbook, Baltimore criticized consultants, local elected officials, and misconstrued the financing of any possible project.
As TPA hired guns usually do, he tried to paint another community's municipal fiber optic network as a "failure." In reality, people in that community are content with the fast, affordable, reliable service they have that keeps dollars in the community, rather than turning a profit for distant shareholders.
But people in Fort Dodge were too smart to listen blindly to TPA and Chip Baltimore. They examined the evidence from local officials and experts, and talked to each other. In the end, folks in Fort Dodge decided that they deserve better than what the incumbents are offering and trust in their local leaders — people elected from the community — to help find a better option.
Strong Local Coverage — Weak Local Internet Access
Fortunately, Fort Dodge still has a locally-operated news source that understands the weight this issue will have on the future of the community. In addition to the impact poor Internet access has had on the operations at The Messenger, people in the community have reported ongoing problems with service from incumbents Mediacom and Frontier. A survey completed this fall indicated that 82 percent of respondents ranked their likelihood of switching providers between 8 - 10, with 10 being “most likely to switch.” People in Fort Dodge just aren’t happy with their Internet access providers; they want more options.
Letters to the editor include complaints about poor customer service and technical help, unreliable service, and the fact that the incumbent’s home office is located many miles away on the east coast. All of the complaints echo those that have influenced other communities to reclaim the ability to develop their own municipal telecommunications utilities.
In order to offer perspectives from those who have direct experience with municipal broadband service, The Messenger also published a letter from some one in Fort Dodge who has lived in a community served by a publicly owned network. This from a resident who once lived in Cedar Falls:
The problems that most companies have do not exist with a municipal broadband utility. Peak hours, data caps, network congestion, and seemingly zero help from customer service. None of these issues affected our home Internet use.
The contributor goes on to write about favorable pricing, clear billing, and the fact that any investment in a fiber optic network will help spark economic development in Fort Dodge.
As The Messenger was sure to let voters know, passing the measure was not establishing a network, but the first step in allowing Fort Dodge to explore the possibilities. In addition to covering public conversations about broadband in the community, The Messenger published simple, easy to digest articles that provide the basics to the voters on what their yes or no decision would mean and what would come next.
The Messenger also presented a piece by Christopher that provided facts about other, similarly situated communities in Iowa and the routes they chose. His article laid out the facts, but also revealed the realities:
Currently, Fort Dodge is stuck with two of the most loathed broadband companies in the United States. Consumer Reports puts Mediacom as the overall worst cable company providing Internet access in the nation. They received the lowest ranking in value, reliability, technical support, and customer service — and second worst in speed. Frontier is ranked even lower, barely above the satellite companies.
Fort Dodge can do better. That doesn’t just require a vote in November — it means some citizens and business leaders have to sacrifice some of their time and guide the process. Creating local Internet choice can benefit everyone except the monopolies. They know that and will fight hard to undermine competition every step of the way. Without a public mobilization, Fort Dodge could be one of the communities that starts the process but loses interest along the way.
Thanks to a strong local effort to educate the public, Fort Dodge voters came to the polls with all the information at their fingertips. Overwhelmingly, they decided that they want to explore the possibility of publicly owned Internet network infrastructure.
Image of Fort Dodge downtown by Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]