Two former state officials today (Thursday) denounced a plan that backers say will help Iowa communities form municipal utilities to provide the highest-speed Internet access possible. Former State Auditor Richard Johnson predicts the “Opportunity Iowa” group will create the same kind of problems the state ran into when it installed a state-wide fiber optic system known as the Iowa Communications Network. “I watched and was involved with the operation of the ICN. I can see what it is today. I know how difficult it is for the ICN to operate because the state has walked away from it as far as subsidizing its operation,” Johnson says. “I can see the same kind of a problem happening, except local governments wouldn’t be able to walk away.” Johnson says local taxpayers would get saddled with the costs of running a communications system that’s competing with private industry. Gerald Bair the recently-retired director of the Iowa Department of Revenue will serve with Johnson as co-chair of the “Project Taxpayer Protection” group that’s asking legislators to put limits on “Opportunity Iowa.” “The potential there is for not only the cities but the taxpayers to come out on the short end, so we joined up with this ‘Project Taxpayer Protection’ to hopefully get some protective legislation passed that will at least put some safeguards (in the law) regarding ‘Opportunity Iowa,'” Bair says. Former Governor Terry Branstad and the Cedar Rapids businessman who founded MCI are among those touting the “Opportunity Iowa” project. Up to 45 communities across the state may hold referendums in November to explore the idea of a municipal utility that would provide residents with broadband service. An “Opportunity Iowa” spokesman says the goal is to install the kind of high-speed access available in places like Japan and Ireland that’s light years ahead of what’s available from most cable systems or phone companies here.
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