Republicans in the Iowa House say it’s time to sell or lease the state-owned fiber optic network that was championed by former Republican Governor Terry Branstad. House Republican Leader Kraig Paulsen admits they don’t know how much the system’s work, or whether anyone would be willing to buy it.
The state started installing fiber optic cable throughout the state in 1990. It was Governor Branstad’s goal to provide "distance learning" in each school district over what is called the Iowa Communications Network. Paulsen says many superintendents tell him they use their ICN rooms for storage. "The technology’s dramatically outdated and we end up spending tens of millions of dollars each year on something that quite frankly really doesn’t have that much more capability than plugging your computer into the wall and hooking up to the Internet," Paulsen says.
The ICN provides audio-video hook-ups in 744 classrooms throughout the state, but the fiber optic cables are also providing phone service and Internet connections to every agency in state government. Paulsen argues even if the state doesn’t wind up finding a buyer for the Iowa Communications Network, the state might wind up spending less by getting phone and Internet services from a private company.
"The phone industry is so hyper-competitive, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t have an opportunity to spend less than the way we’re doing it," Paulsen says.
Forty-three Republicans voted in favor of selling the Iowa Communications Network during House debate this afternoon, but 55 Democrats voted against the idea. However, while Democrats may have rejected the argument this week, a key Democrat held open the possibility the ICN’s sale may be explored yet this spring. Representative Jo Oldson, a Democrat from Des Moines, is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. "I think it’s an important issue to talk about, as we should every other issue that may affect the state budget," Oldson says. "But I think it’s a pretty complicated issue and it needs to be done in a pretty plan-full way."
Representative Doris Kelley, a Democrat from Waterloo, reminded legislators their own laptops are linked to the Internet via the Iowa Communications Network when they’re at the statehouse — and Kelley argued the ICN should be used to expand broad-band access into remote sections of the state. "We have an asset that is so critical, but it’s underutilized," Kelley said. "And it’s under-utilized because we have not taken advantage of the opportunities that are there."
Representative Cecil Dolecheck, a Republican from Mount Ayr, says if the network is sold, accommodations must be made to keep some of the state-owned fiber optic lines serving rural areas of the state where high-speed Internet service is still not available. "I won’t say that I’m ready to sell it yet, although it will probably be a good move at some point in time to get that off the books," Dolecheck says, "but we need to make sure that we continue to provide the services…and I’m not sure that all of Iowa is quite up to speed."
Dolecheck also has a different perspective on the value of ICN classrooms. "I just had a visit with the person who coordinates the programs for I.C.N. In one week’s usage out of Southwestern Community College, there were over 30 presentations in one week," Dolecheck says. "And so as we go through this scenario and talk about selling the I.C.N. we have to be cognizant…of what they do for our schools…and make sure…that opportunity to use some kind of services remains there."