By Kathy Bolten | Business Record senior reporter
High-speed internet access will be provided to every West Des Moines residence and business through an ambitious plan unveiled last week by city officials and Google Fiber, a provider of fiber-optic broadband internet service.
Under a development agreement approved this week by the City Council, West Des Moines will install conduit throughout the city, including to houses, apartments and businesses. Google Fiber will install the fiber optics enabling high-speed internet access to be provided to all of the city’s residents and businesses. The city infrastructure project will also allow other internet service providers to lease space in the conduit laid by West Des Moines. The city is committing up to $42.8 million to the project, according to the agreement.
The conduit system will have the ability to generate revenue from license agreements for use of the system. Google Fiber will be the first tenant to lease space in the network and will pay the city $2.25 per month for 20 years for each address to which it provides services. The annual payment from Google Fiber will be capped at $20 million a year, according to the agreement.
West Des Moines’ portion of the project will be paid for by issuing taxable general obligation bonds. Because of the city’s top credit rating, it will be able to finance the project with lower-than-average interest rates, city officials said. Officials emphasized that property taxes would not be increased to pay for the project.
“We took the position that high-speed internet access is as important to our residents and our businesses as being able to flush a toilet or turn on the faucet and have water come out,” West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer said.
The past four months have shined a bright spotlight on the disparities in broadband service, not just between urban and rural communities but also between neighborhoods. When COVID-19 sent millions of Americans to their homes to work, learn, play, shop and receive medical attention, many found inadequate internet speeds. Those without internet access couldn’t go to public places like libraries to complete school assignments or work.
West Des Moines’ plan would not only end disparities in internet access within the city but through its partnership with Google Fiber, internet speeds would also be faster, officials said.
Providing households and businesses in existing areas and new developments with high-speed internet access will also help attract new residents and businesses to West Des Moines and keep current ones, city officials said.
“I think it’s going to give us a huge advantage over other cities because businesses and residents look at internet access as important, and we’ll have it,” Gaer said.
How the plan began
About four years ago, West Des Moines city officials and staff, along with community business, education and neighborhood leaders, developed a 20-year strategic plan called WDM 2036. Included in the plan’s six priorities is internet access to everyone in the city.
In 2018, the city began working with internet service providers to create a ubiquitous broadband network. In a meeting with the providers, officials explained their desire to provide internet access to all. The city said it would install banks of conduit in the rights of way, allowing providers to run their fiber optics through them.
Internet providers expressed interest in participating but only in areas of the city where it would be profitable, officials said. That stance didn’t meet the city’s goal of providing internet access to everyone.
“We knew that whatever system was built would need to go to every household, every business in the city,” said Jamie Letzring, West Des Moines’ deputy city manager. “That digital equity piece is very important to us – the staff and the council members.”
In January, representatives of Google Fiber approached West Des Moines officials about developing a public-private partnership that would include creating an open conduit access network that not only would allow Google Fiber to provide internet service to residences and businesses but would also give access for other providers.
Google Fiber told city officials that if West Des Moines installed all of the conduit, the internet provider would “‘stop at every single household that wants us,’” Letzring said. “We didn’t have that from any of our other existing partners.”
Google Fiber representatives also emphasized the need for a public-private partnership, said David Lyons, an innovations consultant for West Des Moines and former Iowa insurance commissioner. “They said people really needed to stay in their areas of expertise and competency. The city’s area of expertise is putting in the conduit; Google Fiber’s expertise is the fiber and providing the customer service.”
On Monday, the West Des Moines City Council approved a development agreement with Google Fiber that outlines the public-private partnership.
The agreement stipulates that West Des Moines will build the ubiquitous conduit system that will provide every residence and business the opportunity to connect to the system free of charge, city officials said. Google Fiber will deliver fiber through the system to every household and business.
City officials estimate there currently are 36,000 potential clients for Google Fiber. As West Des Moines continues to grow, there will be additional residences and businesses for Google Fiber to potentially provide service, officials said.
“We’re excited to be the first tenant – and first citywide provider – on the City of West Des Moines’ open conduit network,” David Finn, Google Fiber’s director of corporate development, said in a prepared release. “This will help ensure that homes and businesses across the City have access to world-class internet and foster increased competition in the market.”
City officials believe the entry of Google Fiber into the West Des Moines market and the ability of other internet providers to be able to access the conduit will increase competition, lowering costs for internet service.
“I’m confident that this is going to drive down prices because it’s driving up competition,” Gaer said.
City officials expect installation of the conduit to begin in the fall and work to be completed in about 2 1/2 years.
Letzring said the city will install the conduit from the right of way to a residence or business at no cost to the property owner. She said the city will need permission to access private property. Property owners can either grant the city permission to install the conduit or they can say no, Letzring said. She said an engineering team is working on a plan that will cause minimal disruption to private property.
Providing service to everyone
Letzring acknowledged that just because a residence has access to internet service doesn’t actually mean a household can afford to pay a monthly service fee. She said the city is exploring ways low- and moderate-income households could obtain internet service at no cost or for minimal monthly fees.
Federal and state grants may be available, she said. Private companies may also step forward with grants or donations, she said.
“We know we’re not done,” Letzring said. “The first piece is getting [internet service] everywhere. The next piece is getting it to everybody.”