The future of the MetroNet is being explored by the six anchor members that came together to build the powerful $1 million fiber optic network around the city of Decorah.
“Where do we take the MetroNet from here now that a majority of initial goals have been met?” City Manager Chad Bird asked the Decorah City Council at its last meeting earlier this month.
Those goals included shared networking, aggregate purchasing and data recovery after a disaster.
The six members are the city of Decorah, Luther College, Winneshiek County, Decorah School District, Winneshiek Medical Center and Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission. The six members formed a 28e intergovernmental board that entered into an agreement with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to receive a $570,000 grant in 2010.
The grant funded 70 percent of the construction of a 144-strand fiber connecting 18 individual sites of the six anchor members. The total cost of the project was about $1 million, and the members contributed a total of $450,000 over a three-year period.
The MetroNet has 18 interconnected, end-point locations: Decorah City Hall, Winneshiek County Courthouse, Wellington Place, the county’s Freeport shop, Decorah High School, Decorah Middle School, John Cline Elementary, Keystone Area Education Agency, Luther’s Preus Library, Decorah Public Library, Decorah school administration building, the county’s Smith Building, St. Benedict School, Decorah Wastewater Treat ment Plant, Decorah Water Department, West Side Elementary, Winneshiek Medical Center and Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission.
“Through the (MetroNet) agreement, each anchor is allocated their own fiber, and the remaining fiber is open or ‘dark’,” Bird, chair of the MetroNet Board, said.
“The MetroNet is the owner of a vast amount of dark fiber.”
Bird said the MetroNet Board has to decide how to respond to a grassroots petition committee of citizens “demanding access to the MetroNet and faster broadband speeds and fiber capacities” for Internet access to private homes and businesses.
“The MetroNet Board is now starting to look at the future and what the MetroNet holds for the six anchor members, but also for the community,” he told the Councils.
Members are being asked what their vision is for “the next generation of the MetroNet,” he said. Bird said he hoped to have some direction by the Board’s next regular meeting Thursday, May 21.

Public utility?
Future possibilities include forming a municipal utility, becoming a cooperative, a non-profit or remaining a service for the six members and 18 sites currently connected, according to Bird.
Council member Jody Niess asked if it became a utility whether residents would be able to choose to utilize it.
Bird said to form a utility requires a referendum and passage by a super majority or 60 percent of the voters and it would be up to each citizen whether to utilize it. If a utility is pursued, Bird said several issues could arise, such as who would pay the legal administrative expense to pursue a vote and what happens, should it fail, or pass.
Mayor Don Ardent asked how pursuing a utility would affect the MetroNet partners.
“We’re still trying to wrestle with more legal questions as we go down this road. I suspect one outcome would be the MetroNet 28e Board dissolves in favor of a utility board that would govern the utility,” Bird said.
The city manager said the city of Waverly recently sold about $7 million in bonds to allow the development of a community-owned, high-speed fiber-optic network broadband telecommunication system that will serve both residents and businesses. The city already has a public electric utility, which will make it easier to add the service, Bird explained.
“They already have the infrastructure in place – the conduit, cable, poles, equipment and staff … when you have all that in place, you’re really stepping on the back of what you have there to provide one more service to the home,” Bird said.
“What we’re being asked to do is have what Waverly has, but we don’t have what Waverly has. They already have a (city-run) utility. We don’t have that,” he said.
Besides establishing a utility, another option would be to send out requests for proposals and lease the MetroNet’s “dark fiber” to businesses already in the marketplace, Bird said.
“We could monetize it (the dark fiber) and not get into the business of providing Internet service to a customer base and all the costs and expenses to do that,” Bird said.
Niess asked if something had been planned for the dark fiber and Bird said fiber bids came in “extremely low” so the MetroNet’s fiber counts were upgraded.
“That’s how we ended up with more fiber than planned,” he said.

Feasibility
Bird told the Council the MetroNet Board has signed on to a feasibility study – “A Study for Municipal Transport Network in Northeast Iowa” – commissioned by the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities to look at connectivity throughout Northeast Iowa. In addition to Decorah, some of the cities involved in the study include Osage, New Hampton, Cedar Falls, Maquoketa, Bellevue, Reinbeck, Independence and Waverly.
“The feasibility study is going to look at a lot of things. Basically, what our current capacities are and what assets we already have. We know what the MetroNet has, we know what (the other communities have), what impact does that have for Northeast Iowa and what would it take to connect these existing infrastructures together so that we can take advantage of the traditional economies of scale for purchasing. Some of these communities are already purchasing video. They’re competing directly with Mediacom,” Bird told Decorah Newspapers.
“Part of the feasibility study is how can we collectively come together and do that same thing with larger volume and more efficiency. There is power in numbers – not just for video, but for the triple play as it’s called in the industry – video, voice and data (television, phone and Internet),” Bird said.

Consensus required?
During the recent Council meeting, Council member Andy Carlson asked if there would need to be consensus between all six MetroNet partners on how to proceed.
“That would be ideal,” Bird responded. “Working toward a full utility would take time and staff resources. Are the six partners ready to invest the time and resources to take it to the next level? They’ve already committed a lot.”
Bird said the process of determining the MetroNet’s future is just starting.
“It needs more discussion – there’s no question on that,” Mayor Don Arendt said.
“We can make a better decision once we know if forming a utility is what is best for us and what the other entities want to do,” Niess said.
Council member Tade Kerndt said the cost of establishing a utility needs to be determined.
Paul Scott of Decorah said the topic is difficult for most people to understand, and recommended the city conduct a Skype session over the Internet with Curtis Dean, president of the Iowa Association of Municipal utilities who has worked on “countless studies.”
Bird said Dean is serving as a consultant for the feasibility study the MetroNet Board has agreed to be a part of. The Metronet Board already has been working with Dean for more than a year, Bird added.