‘Robust communications’

Webster City will soon have another option for internet service provided by a consortium of telecommunication firms in north central Iowa.

The Webster City Broadband Consortium proposes to develop a fiber network in the community to offer what they say will be fast, reliable internet service for businesses and residents.

Representatives of the consortium gave a presentation to the City Council Monday night and explained plans to build a fiber network service in the community.

“I want to commend the city for acknowledging in this time of COVID-19, it’s never been more apparent that there’s a need to have robust communications and broadband networks. We believe we’re the type of organization that can bring that to the City of Webster City,” said Doug Boone, chief executive officer of Premier Communications.

The Webster City Broadband Consortium is composed of four telecom companies, including Premier Communications of Sioux Center, Webster-Calhoun Cooperative Telephone Association, Western Iowa Networks of Breda and Jefferson Telecom of Jefferson.

“Companies like all of ours were formed many years ago as traditional telephone companies but obviously did not stay there,” Boone said in his presentation to the council. “We chose to become broadband and technology companies. Collectively, we have over 300 years of combined history in the telecom business.”

He added that the four firms have more than 32,000 customers collectively and serve more than 50 Iowa communities.

“We have financial stability, strong cash flow and a very low leverage. We have a strong track record of success and over the past 10 years we have invested collectively over $120 million in broadband investment, electronics and fiber placement in the ground,” Boone said.

WCBC plans to establish a local presence in the community, including a storefront in Webster City with local team members. After hours and weekend trouble call services would also be available, according to Boone. He said the median response time for the consortium companies was one hour with the average response time being a same-day resolution.

The fiber network would be funded, constructed, owned and operated by WCBC and would be available to all Webster City residents and businesses.

Vantage Point Solutions will serve as the engineering consultant on the fiber network project.

Larry Thompson, Vantage Point Solutions CEO, said his company would do the engineering work for the project and oversee the construction, making sure the work is done according to plans and specifications. He likened his role to that of an architect with a building construction project. Thompson explained that the new fiber network would be all underground construction.

“It’s more expensive to do it that way, but it’s more reliable and makes for a happier customer,” Thompson said.

All of the initial design work has been completed, he said, providing “the highest quality broadband available.”

Thompson said the disruption due to the construction process should be minimal.

“We’ve got requirements for the contractors that they clean up their work everyday, and everything is done in a logical, straightforward way. Most of what you will see is hole boring,” he said. “You won’t see big backhoes digging up areas of the city.”

Thompson also walked through the timeline of the construction process.

“We’ve been in communication with your city planning office and have been looking at right-of-way requirements. We plan on having field staff — feet on the street — to start gathering some of the data we need to do the final design of the network,” he said. “You’ll see Vantage Point trucks around town starting next week.”

Thompson said he hoped that outside plant construction could begin by the end of the year.

Boone concurred.

“Because we have been consistent in build out and construction, our builders have significant inventory of fiber in place, which gives us some confidence we would be able to get some construction done yet this year,” he said.

“We’re anxious to get going,” said Boone.

Boone told the council that service would likely be provided using a tiered approach, depending upon the customer’s needs.

“We would have a very symmetrical product offering,” Boone said.

Survey shows a need

For some time, officials with the city have been thinking about the development of a fiber network and how such a network would operate.

The city looked for inspiration to other Iowa communities that had started a municipal fiber service or had a least explored the option. Fort Dodge is one of the recent cities to do just that. The city had considered taking the path toward developing a municipal fiber utility as well, according to Henderson.

Then the pandemic hit. With workers logging into their businesses remotely from home and students working on classes via the internet, the need for additional internet service options became obvious.

“(The pandemic) really put the exclamation point on that need,” she said. “It was time to start exploring our options.”

With no current service providers expressing an interest in making the fiber investment and since the city already had some fiber infrastructure that was installed several years ago, Henderson said there was good reason to see where the notion could lead. It was time to ask the public.

“A survey had been on our minds for some time at the city,” according to Henderson. “We knew that there had been some frustration with some of the service providers here in town and we know that several small communities around have the newer technology, the fiber service for their internet.”

Webster City currently has service provided by Woolstock Mutual Telephone (WMTel), MediaCom and CenturyLink.

The city worked with SmartSource Consulting on the survey.

The survey, presented in an online format, drew about 400 area residents who shared their thoughts on internet service in the community.

“That was a pretty decent response,” said Curtis Dean of SmartSource Consulting of the residential survey. “We always try to determine what the margin of error is on the sample and that registered about a 4.5 percent margin of error.”

A separate business survey had fewer responses, but Dean said there was still useful information gleaned.

“The survey showed that there is a fairly decent level of dissatisfaction among the citizens who answered the survey with regard to current providers,” Dean said.

There was one exception to that information — those who had service with WMTel were satisfied with their internet service for the most part, according to Dean.

WMTel provides service through a fixed wireless connection as opposed to a wire. Dean said that type of service has some limitations.

“It’s limited in where they can serve because trees get in the way, hills get in the way and so signals can’t go through those,” he said. “There are people in Webster City who just can’t get the service because of those restrictions.”

The survey also showed a strong interest in a new provider if one became available.

“The goal for these surveys is to first identify if there is a problem and if there is, to get a solution,” he said. “In some cases, the solution could come in terms of a municipal fiber network, from existing providers stepping up their game or it could come from a new provider coming in to say we want to serve the city with better service.”

Henderson said the Webster City Broadband Consortium’s interest in Webster City is a welcome answer to a proven need in the community.

“From a community vitality aspect, (fiber) is quickly becoming essential infrastructure for economic vitality,” Henderson said. “It’s not a maybe, it’s a must to have this sort of technology in Webster City.”


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