Local officials in Charles City, a town of 7,500 in northeastern Iowa, approved a preliminary study of community broadband interest late last month. The study will determine whether additional funds should be allocated toward a more comprehensive study. This announcement comes on the heels of increased regional interest in the Iowa Fiber Alliance, a proposed multi-community fiber ring.
The preliminary study will cost the city $18,500 and should be completed before the end of the summer. The Community Broadband Engagement and Education Project seeks to engage key community stakeholders, educate the public on high-speed community networks, and ultimately measure the interest of local residents, businesses, and government leadership.
Third Time’s the Charm
Local interest in community networks has peaked twice in the past decade. In 2005, Charles City residents approved a referendum to create a telecommunication utility with a 62 percent majority. Under threat of losing revenues to a community network, incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) promised local officials that they would improve the network. Stopgap measures from Mediacom and CenturyLink marginally improved local connectivity in the short-term, but Charles City residents soon realized that they hadn’t escaped the letdowns of the telecom octopus.
Waverly, Iowa, a town of 10,000 residents, 30 miles south of Charles City, experienced a nearly identical letdown from Mediacom and CenturyLink in the 2000s, only to launch its own community network earlier this year. For rural county seats like Waverly and Charles City, a community network offers an opportunity to stimulate economic development and improve local quality of life. Historically, Charles City is a manufacturing town. The White Farm-New Idea Equipment Company produced tractors and employed up to 3,000 locals during the 1970s before closing its doors in 1993. With manufacturing jobs leaving town, local officials are looking for new ways to bring jobs to town and revitalize their local communities.
In 2010, interest peaked again when the city conducted a community broadband survey and discovered strong local support for a municipal network. A 2014 Technology Action Plan assessed and outlined a more connected future for Charles City. City officials realized that Internet technology had changed significantly since 2010, however, and are evaluating their options in light of new innovations.
Munis On The Plains
Iowa is home to more than two dozen municipal networks. Thanks in part to their can-do attitude and their self-reliant streak, Charles City, Waverly, and many other Iowa communities have stopped waiting for incumbent providers and taken control of local connectivity. Charles City officials are enthusiastic about the upcoming feasibility study; council member Delaine Freeseman told Charles City Press that, “very interesting things could come out of this, long-term, for the city.”