DES MOINES — The Iowa Communications Network went up for sale Wednesday with a 172-page request seeking private companies to buy or lease the government-built statewide broadband system.
Two days before that, news came from Washington, D.C., that the Federal Communications Commission is proposing an ambitious plan to create nationwide wireless networks to make the Internet more accessible.
Both moves come from the same fundamental question: What should the government’s role be in providing Internet access to its citizens and at what level should that happen?
“Federal policy, at first, was to make sure the Internet was there,” said Ramona McNeal, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa who specializes in telecommunications policy. “Federal Internet policy started with the Clinton administration, and each administration after left its own mark.”
For example, McNeal said, President Bill Clinton focused on getting Internet access to underserved communities through programs such as E-rate, which helped hook up schools and libraries.
President George W. Bush focused on leveling the technological differences among different groups. Bush, for instance, expanded the definition of the word “literacy” as it was used for his hallmark No Child Left Behind legislation to include technological competence, and he provided money for teacher training in that area.
President Barack Obama’s administration, McNeal said, returned the focus getting Internet access to rural areas. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act put $7.2 billion for Internet expansion in rural areas. The latest move by the FCC reinforces that push.
The Iowa Communications Network was Iowa’s effort to connect schools, hospitals and government institutions in all parts of the state — specifically rural areas — to a singular network. The state has spent close to $320 million on the network, which is primarily used for telecommunications and distance-learning services.
The 25-year-old system consists of 8,661 miles of fiber cable but uses, at best, 10 percent of its capacity, said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines.
Although there is excess capacity, the idea for the system was never to have it serve as a government-run Internet provider, said David Roederer, director of the Iowa Department of Management.
“The vision was this would be something available in all 99 counties … It would connect the schools and institutions in places that the private marketplace wasn’t,” he said. “We don’t buy satellite or cable television for everybody.”
The state’s request for proposals requires whoever buys or leases all or parts of the system to let current users continue to use the network at an overall lower cost than what it would cost them if the state continued to run it.
What could happen is a partnership like the one that exists in the city of Bettendorf. The city has a fiber optic system that runs its traffic signals. About five years ago, Central Scott Technologies in Eldridge worked out a deal with the city to use part of the system to provide Internet access for businesses.
“We had a citizens’ group that asked to extend that to homes, but we never pushed for that,” City Administrator Decker Ploehn said.
Ploehn said the fiber system runs along the city’s arterial streets and moving them into residential areas could become costly. Also, the heavy bandwidth users typically are businesses, not homes, and there are private companies that concentrate on the residential markets.
In some places, businesses and municipalities haven’t worked as well together as they did in Bettendorf, said James Baller, an attorney with the Baller Herbst Law Group, a Minneapolis-based firm that specializes in broadband access cases.
Specifically, his firm often represents communities that want to start their own networks against companies that try to prevent them from doing so by getting barriers put in place at the state level. The firm also lobbies for a national broadband strategy that makes it possible for everyone to have access to the Internet.
“In the last few years, people have really begun to realize the importance of broadband to their community,” he said. “Across the spectrum of reasons, from environmental to educational and economic development, public broadband is the electricity of this century.”
Those municipal systems generally are set up in rural communities where provider choices and services are either extremely limited or non-existent.
“There are no major cities that have municipal networks,” he said. “Most of the networks that have been created up to this point are networks in rural areas, and most of the advanced networks are in communities that have their own municipal electric utilities already. The reason is experience with infrastructure, billing practice and those types of operations. It’s a relatively smaller step into providing communications.”
Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, said he doesn’t want to see government-run Internet service.
Still, he’s not keen on selling ICN either.
“In my mind, Internet should be regarded as critical infrastructure in today’s economy, just like roads and bridges,” he said. “I don’t think selling the ICN is the answer. I think the best answer is some type of public-private partnership.”