A top Democrat in the legislature says it’s time to start exploring the idea of selling or leasing the vast, state-owned fiber optics network that’s linked to every public school and National Guard armory as well as all state government facilities. House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines says in tough budget times, the Iowa Communications Network may be one state asset that can be sold.

"It may not be a viable thing to do after some analysis, but think we should move forward and have some analysis on it to see what the potential is there," McCarthy says. "I know that there’s been some private industry who’s been in my office that would like to look at it."

Critics of selling the almost 20-year-old I.C.N. in the past have said the state would reap now more than a dime for every dollar the state’s spent on the network. McCarthy says the network’s value is in the trunk of fiber optic cable that’s been laid throughout the state. "The base infrastructure is tremendous and the capacity it could hold is huge, now depending on who would get access to it, you may have to build infrastructure to connect to it," McCarthy says. "Maybe it could be regional. Maybe there could be a pilot project, I don’t know, but it’s the base fiber optic infrastructure itself that’s valuable. The capacity is just tremendous."

Republicans in the House floated the idea of selling or leasing the Iowa Communications Network yesterday, but McCarthy and other Democrats in the House voted down the idea. McCarthy says that bill wasn’t the appropriate vehicle for such a momentous decision. According to McCarthy, this would be a complex deal that probably wouldn’t be finalized until next year, if at all.  "Clearly, there’s some infrastructure here that is largely laying dormant, that is largely not profitable for the state, that has the potential to be so without us losing control over it, so I think that’s worth exploring," McCarthy says.

McCarthy is the guest on tonight’s IPTV program, "Iowa Press," and during the show’s taping this morning he floated the idea of selling the Iowa Communications Network. "One of the things I find intriguing of the Republican proposals for revenue that they put out this week was the possibility of leasing or selling the I.C.N., " McCarthy said. "I think that may have some merit."

According to McCarthy, it makes more sense to sell that Iowa Communications Network than it did to sell the Iowa Lottery, an idea which has been set aside. "The Lottery is more of a function that has ongoing revenue — $57 million a year we get," McCarthy said. "Well, here we have with the I.C.N. arguably the best infrastructure in the entire country and it largely remains dormant and we have a robust private enterprise in telecommunications that has no access to it."

McCarthy concedes the state-owned fiber optic system has been good for rural schools which use the network for "distance learning" classes, but McCarthy said a leasing deal that gives private companies access to the fiber optic lines could yield "quite a bit" in annual cash payments to the state.