The city of West Des Moines and Mediacom will pursue settlement negotiations in the lawsuit over the city’s partnership with Google Fiber to construct a citywide broadband network, according to Polk County District Court documents from Sept. 1.
Both parties are required to file a status update on negotiations on Sept. 27. The trial is currently scheduled for April 18-22, 2022.
“Mediacom cannot comment on settlement discussions at this time,” Mediacom’s Senior Vice President of Government and Public Relations Tom Larsen said in an emailed statement sent to the Business Record. “That being said, we have always been interested in finding a solution which allows Mediacom to compete on a level playing field to serve the residents and businesses of West Des Moines.”
The city declined to comment on settlement negotiations as well as the court actions this summer since the matter is ongoing.
The lawsuit, filed by Mediacom on December 10, 2020, alleges the following:
- That the city improperly approved the conduit network project as an “urban renewal project” by unlawfully declaring the entire city of West Des Moines as an urban renewal area.
- That the conduit network agreement approved by the city grants Google Fiber exclusive rights to use each section of the conduit network for 18 months after the section is completed, and that the city is using public resources to market Google Fiber’s services to residents.
- That the city failed to solicit bids on parts of the conduit construction, and granted Google Fiber effective control over the conduit’s design.
- That a member of the West Des Moines City Council is the primary lobbyist for Google in the state of Iowa, and that the city did not take steps to prevent that member from influencing negotiations between the city and Google.
The first claim regarding the city’s approval of up to $42.8 million in bonds for the project was the only part of the lawsuit to be dismissed by a judge in May. Mediacom has since sought to have the claim reinstated, which hasn’t been concluded.
Among the actions in the lawsuit this summer was the city council’s decision to reduce the validation period — the amount of time Google Fiber will be the only internet service provider allowed to access the conduit network — from 18 months to six months. The decision was made at the June 21 council meeting as part of an amendment to the licensing agreement with Google Fiber.
The council meeting minutes say the purpose of this six-month period is to “help identify and address any issues with the conduit system prior to making it available to other providers.” Council documents did not indicate a reason for reducing the length of time.
At a hearing on Aug. 13 Mediacom argued the design and size of the conduit network is tailored to Google Fiber and bars other providers from accessing it.
Mediacom presented evidence at the hearing, including the above image, to demonstrate how the conduit network is inaccessible to Mediacom and other local internet service providers and prove the city misrepresented the project when calling it a shared conduit, according to court documents. The network is made up of four component lines: arterial, distribution, feeder and premise drop.
Shown on the left is a cross section of the arterial line, where fiber first enters the conduit network. The two blue conduit pipes are both one inch in diameter and will only be used by Google Fiber. The red pipe is called a microduct and contains seven smaller tubes each with a diameter of 0.55 inch; three are reserved for the city for running utility lines with the remaining four available for other providers to run their own conduit.
The green and gray conduits pictured are the parts of the network that connect the fiber to individual houses. Google Fiber will be the only provider to access these parts of the conduit for the first six months after completion.
Larsen told the Business Record Mediacom has two issues with the design, first being that the conduit pipes in the microduct are “simply too small” to fit the fiber-optic cables that Mediacom and other internet service providers use.
If other internet service providers could share the two one-inch conduit pipes Google Fiber is using, there would still be a problem, he said. Google’s fiber will be installed for six months before others have access, and pulling multiple lines of fiber through the same conduit at different times risks damaging the ones previously installed.
Doug Jacobson, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Iowa State, said there is “always a risk of damaging the first cable” when pulling more fiber because it has to be carefully threaded, which is more difficult with another line in the conduit.
At the August hearing, Mediacom asked the judge to pause construction on the conduit network and halt the spending of public monies until the design problems are fixed. A ruling was expected in the coming weeks, but Larsen said the start of settlement negotiations will likely result in a short delay in issuing a ruling.
This summer, Mediacom’s FCC petition, which was submitted in May and asked the commission to review “discriminatory rights-of-way management practices” by the city of West Des Moines, opened for public comment.
The public comment period lasts until Sept. 22, followed by a shorter reply period. Larsen said the arrival of a ruling depends on when the FCC decides to take up the matter.
WDM first urban city in Iowa to provide citywide broadband
West Des Moines’ announcement of its partnership with Google Fiber in July 2020 made it one of 19 Google Fiber cities and the only one in Iowa, but Jacobson said it’s not the first Iowa city to provide internet citywide.
Some rural towns, such as Huxley, provide internet as a utility like gas or water, but often because no other providers are nearby and it’s too expensive to bring one in.
“It used to be that Iowa had more telephone companies than any other state because of the rural nature of Iowa, and it was just very natural for the telephone companies to become internet service providers,” Jacobson said.
Bringing Google Fiber to West Des Moines represents the first known metropolitan city in Iowa to launch a citywide broadband network where the city is taking on the cost of installing the infrastructure. Typically, internet service providers pay the city to lease space in public rights-of-way and install their own infrastructure underground or on telephone poles.
The western suburb estimated it would spend between $35 million to $40 million total installing the conduit, and over the 20-year licensing agreement, Google will pay back at least $4.5 million.
Jacobson said the fact that the conduit is intended to be shared among providers is a unique feature and can work provided there is equal access.
“If it truly was this big pipe that anybody could stick their [fiber] down [and they are] able to stick their stuff down the pipe day one, then to me we’re playing on the same field,” he said.
After calculating the area of the two sizes of conduit used in the arterial line in West Des Moines, Jacobson said this design provides Google an advantage as other providers would have access to only one-third of the space that Google has in its conduit.
Partnerships like those between Google Fiber and West Des Moines are now the norm in urban areas because they fill niches that the private sector can’t afford to fill alone.
For example, the city of Ames has explored providing wireless internet to downtown areas, in which case Jacobson said the city would likely contract with an internet service provider, avoiding competition conflicts. He said ultimately, the growth of partnerships between cities and internet service providers presents opportunities for cities to support their communities.
“[Cities] step into those niches where the private sector can’t provide, and that’s usually where we turn to the city or turn to the government to do those things that nobody else can or is willing to do,” he said.