The Ames City Council extensively addressed the possibility of improving the city’s internet service during its Tuesday meeting.
Assistant City Manager Brian Phillips presented staff findings on community internet improvements.
“I want to focus the presentation tonight on the issues that are identified in the report as potential next steps for the council,” Phillips said.
Phillips listed possible ways to move forward on the issue.
A feasibility study for a municipally-owned-and-operated internet utility.
Whether there would be further action related to existing internet providers and how service could be provided.
Studying subdivision requirements for the installation of internet infrastructure.
“I should mention that in preparing this staff report, we had conversations with two dozen people representing seven different internet service providers, plus some industry consultants and institutional partners,” Phillips said.
The council’s goals related to internet service are: improvements to availability, reliability, cost, speed, customer service and policy.
“Existing providers all made outward expressions of interest to solve these issues," Phillips said. "We made some headway in gathering serviceability data from Mediacom, and we had preliminary conversations with CenturyLink and ICS [Advanced Technologies] about their services."
Phillips said one internet service provider (ISP) approached them about entering the Ames market. The provider would reach nearly all residential areas of Ames and would be a $30 million investment fronted by the provider.
“[ISPs] have expressed to city staff they are seeking from the city just the same conditions that apply to other providers," Phillips said. "They are not seeking any particular incentives or benefits in order to come to Ames and provide service.
“In conversations with this ISP ... one of the things that’s been made pretty clear to city staff — fiber to the premises internet typically only works when one provider is providing it to that particular endpoint.”
City staff told the provider City Council may pursue a feasibility study for a municipal internet utility.
“The provider responded that it would not be desirable for the city to wait until the results of that study are known," Phillips said. "That time-frame doesn’t really align with their business plan, and so it would take the city’s initiation of a feasibility study as a trigger point to move onto another community."
Ward Two Representative Tim Gartin said he felt this provider was trying to bully the city based on the staff report.
“I received probably 30 emails from constituents who also had a similar sort of pushback," Gartin said. "I think you’ve clarified that wasn’t really their intent, but if there are people who still feel a bit put-off by the notion that they would hold us hostage to having a feasibility study."
Phillips replied he didn't take the ISP's comments to be intimidating or threatening.
"[I]t was really just how our choices align with the business model they operate within,” Phillips said.
Two members of the audience who identified themselves as employees of Mediacom made public comments touting their employer.
Phyllis Peters said she has worked for Mediacom for 10-12 years, and has been a resident and taxpayer in Ames for 30 years.
“I do know something about this issue, even though I’m not a technology person,” Peters said. “I believe Mediacom has consistently offered the fastest speeds.”
Beau Hicks, area director for Mediacom, said he met with the city manager and Phillips to see why the company does not provide service to certain areas of the community.
“I will tell you that that has put a plan of action in place," Hicks said. "We do have lots of new construction going in here in Ames. There are still some addresses that are unserviceable."
Iddo Friedberg, an associate professor of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine at Iowa State, said he has been paying Mediacom for 50 megabit download speed for five years, and that never happens.
“That’s my personal experience — I know others, but I could say that the internet at my home is quite unreliable," Friedberg said. "I need internet for my work. Luckily for me I work at ISU so I get very reliable internet there."
Friedberg said he is in favor of the feasibility study.
“I would just like to raise — you might say a kind of a social contract issue with regard to the internet, and that was alluded to by a previous speaker,” Friedberg said. “I don’t want my electricity to go out and wait a week … all of these are utilities and the internet has changed over the years, and now it has become an essential vehicle for conducting your everyday life.”
Gartin made a motion to meet with the ISP before moving forward on a feasibility study, which passed unanimously. If council believes a public internet utility is still worth exploring after that meeting, then a feasibility study would likely move forward. That meeting will be held no later than August.
Following this motion, more than half of the members of the public in the audience left the council chambers.
The council also heard a staff report on the creation of an “inclusion crosswalk” at the intersection of 5th Street and Douglas Avenue.
Three options were presented to council. They opted for the third, which would be most cost-effective, according to city documents.
Mayor John Haila mentioned during council comments the city will hold a fireworks celebration 10 p.m. July 3 from the fields east of Jack Trice Stadium, followed by a free pancake breakfast the following morning at City Hall.