For the Record: Expansion of fiber into Decorah

By Denise Lana,

For the Record is part of a series of informational articles aimed at helping clarify some of the hot-topic issues currently facing the city of Decorah. In this edition, Decorah City Manager Travis Goedken (TG) and Decorah IT Director Chopper Albert (CA) explain and clarify the proposed fiber to the premises (FTTP) project within the City of Decorah, and the processes and details of both the current MetroNet and operations, as well as what is planned through the FTTP expansion.

At the July 17 Decorah City Council meeting, council members, city staff and employees met with Michael Maloney, vice president of D.A. Davidson & Co, regarding financing solutions and analyses of municipal utilities and start-up fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) providers to develop a plan for expansion. 

Currently, Decorah is home to an installed fiber ring with Metronet, but it is only available to the Decorah Metronet group consisting of Luther College, city and county offices, Decorah Schools, Winneshiek County Fairgrounds and WinnMed. During the meeting, Maloney detailed a FTTP plan to expand fiber to reach all businesses and residential properties, potentially started by the end of this year, giving residents access to significantly faster and more reliable internet and phone speeds and service. 

How did MetroNet start?

CA: The fast fiber group started in 2010. When we originally started, there were eight miles of fiber underground. Now, we have about 42 miles of fiber in the ground. That hasn’t all been paid for by the city, some has been paid for by the cell companies (US Cellular, Verizon) the 911 Commission, and such, and that helped build those segments out. The first couple of years, we put little spurs out to Freeport and the business park, and we kept building little spurs out. Now, most of the businesses in that business park as well as some businesses in town wanted to connect to fiber and paid for their connection. 

We probably have two-dozen homes who have paid out-of-pocket to also have fiber installed, and they got their fiber through one of the city’s partners, AcenTek. They are the partner the city is looking at for doing the fiber utility service operations of this venture for the city, as the city MetroNet today can’t be a reseller of internet service. 

TG: We don’t have a municipal service right now at all. There is a board that exists, but there is not a service under them at this point. They don’t have any funding to get anything started. Back in 2015, a referendum was held, and 94 percent of Decorah residents voted to establish a municipal telecommunications utility, and that is how the Telco board that oversees today’s MetroNet was born, from that established vote. That’s what we are working to achieve: to get a service going. Thats’ what we are currently working on with AcenTek. 

Let me point out, the State of Iowa per City Utilities Code 388.10 prohibits the use of tax dollars for this venture. We can’t use property taxes to pay for the telecommunications utility. Even as we move forward, all of the actions that are taken are not taken by the City Council, they are taken by the Telco Board. They have to operate on their own with their own revenues, which will come in from the fiber optic connected subscribers. 

What is the process for the project in Decorah?

CA: Travis has a path set forth, with how we want the contracts to line up, and they have to line up perfectly. We need a contract with the operations side and one for the investment group, there is a contract for a Request For Proposal to build the fiber plant. All maintenance and operations will be handled by our partner and the investment group. So, there is a group of investors that build the fiber plant and in essence, hand that plant to Decorah, the subscribers will pay into the service, and that’s the money that will be used to maintain the utility. 

The investment group is still pending, one of the partners would line up the financing for the start up for the infrastructure/fiber plant of the project. For the electronics, the city has to do a separate loan to connect the fiber into each house. There will be six meetings breaking down each step of this project. 

As it stands now, the plant is going to be in the library basement. The city’s IT server room is there as well. Any potential partner knows it can’t be installed in a flood plain, and the library is a perfect fit. We would use the existing fiber network that is used by the Decorah Metronet, and we would break the city into 10 or 20 pockets. For example, the flats would be one pocket. We would branch off the existing fiber where it is closest to the flats. All the fiber lines will be buried in conduit and installed in the right of way and penetrate into each home. It might take three to four months to connect all the residences in that pocket. The plan is to accomplish two to three pockets per year. Our goal is to connect every home to fiber, for current residents, but also for future residents. 

When we install the fiber to each premise, we will add extra fiber strands for use down the road. We have also offered to Alliant and Black Hills Energy to piggyback on that fiber in the ground and remove all the overhead power lines and move them to the already-installed fiber. We are being a proactive as possible.

The first pocket should take 90 days from the time we get all our meetings scheduled.

What are benefits to having fiber at each residence?

CA: Fiber would allow the city a better infrastructure for our automated water meter scanning system, to save time and labor. 

TG: This would be great because a city employee could pull up the water meter system from city hall and see every residence’s water use. Imagine if a pipe burst in a residence and it went unnoticed. That employee could easily see it and minimize damage and water loss. 

CA: This would give the city and the water department a significantly better handle on water usage and water loss. Fiber is the elite out there for telecommunications. The telco will offer the same speed up and down, 200MB uploading and downloading, fiber offers no slowdown and there are no caps on usage. We anticipate costs to be $59.99 per year for those wanting to connect, and that would remain the same each year. We are looking for a five-year contract with the service provider/reseller to be negotiated every five years. With fiber, there would be quicker internet service and less buffering. Weather would not be a big issue with interference as it is with the current coaxial service we have, and fiber offers a better-quality product. 

TG: We anticipate the current companies to slash prices to compensate for this fiber, but you have to keep in mind that is for a coaxial service. Where we are going to be able to excel is we will have fiber technicians in town for any customer service. We would have our partner in the area with their trucks and technicians and support system to provide those services to our system. We are looking for our partner to provide a much better service than what we currently have available to our residents and businesses. 

CA: The current coaxial cable franchise we have was established in the 1970s or before. The service will be night and day difference with fiber. 

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