Earlier this month, Waterloo City Councilors unanimously approved a $2.5 million contract using its American Rescue Plan funds to hire Magellan Advisors to design and engineer a fiber-to-the-home network for the ninth-largest city in Iowa (est. population 68,000).
The plan, as we previously reported, is to deploy 309 miles of underground fiber across the city, which according to Magellan’s proposed contract, will pass “nearly every household and business throughout the community.”
Although the design and engineering work will provide city officials with an official estimate on how much it will cost to build the network, a study commissioned by the Waterloo Industrial Development Association (WIDA) in 2019 estimated it would cost between $39 million and $65 million to construct a city-wide network, according to the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier.
The city’s Chief Financial Officer, Michelle Weidner, told Government Technology magazine the city is likewise eyeing American Rescue Plan funds to help pay for construction costs, although City Councilor Pat Morrissey noted that a bond issue will likely be necessary – something that Morrissey said is well worth it “in the long run.”
"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."
Long Time Coming
While Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart touted his 2030 Vision Plan, which included bringing better broadband to the city in his recent State of the City address, he was careful to not to get out in front of the project’s skis.
“We’re still waiting to get back those preliminary numbers, but we do want to let the community know that we’ve talked about this for 20-plus years . . . and now we’re at the point where that design is almost finished, and we need to move as a community forward,” he told the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier.
Indeed, it was in 2005 when voters approved of the city creating a telecommunications utility to compete with the duopoly providers, Mediacom or CenturyLink. But, as Waterloo City Councilor Sharon Juon told Government Technology Magazine, "we were so excited we passed it, and then nothing happened. It’s been gathering dust for 16 years.”
So in the wake of the city moving forward into the engineering and design phase, Juon said, “This is something our city needs so desperately. We’ve lost businesses because we don't have the broadband needed.”
Work in Progress
Meanwhile, as Magellan gets to work on the engineering and design of a city-wide fiber network, the firm has been working over the past two years to build a 65-mile core network for the city’s municipal facilities. They have connected Waterloo’s storm water and sewer operations to the backbone network, according to Government Technology Magazine. And, the firm has already completed 60 percent of another 40 miles of the backbone network, connecting "more general city sites and facilities" – parks, public safety facilities, and traffic cameras.
“We are moving forward on the backbone as intended," Courtney Violette, Magellan's Chief Operating Officer told the City Council at a recent work session, adding that he anticipated the city’s institutional network would be done by January or February of 2022.
And as Magellan continues its work, City Councilor Dave Boesen said one crucial next step is to rally public support to carry the project the last mile.
“Once we get this design done . . . we need public support if we want to be competitive in bringing businesses and people to live here,” Boesen said.
If voters ultimately approve moving forward with building out a full fiber-to-the-home network, signing off on how the construction is funded, it would make Waterloo the largest city in the Hawkeye State to own and operate a telecommunications utility.