Later this week the Iowa House is scheduled to debate a wide-ranging state government reorganization bill that could save over 118-million. One additional budget-cutting proposal House members will debate is the idea of selling or leasing the state-owned Iowa Communications Network. The I-C-N is a fiber optic system which provides audio, video and data transmission for state government and public schools.
Representative Doug Struyk, a Republican from Council Bluffs, says it’s time to get rid of the I-C-N. “I think it can be accomplished. We need to figure out exactly what the purpose of the I.C.N. is and move forward,” Struyk says. “We have lots of different concepts on what the I.C.N. should be doing, but right now it’s a floundering system.”
In 1989, former Governor Branstad and other legislators touted the I.C.N. as a means of providing “distance learning” to Iowa’s rural areas and by 1993 the system’s fiber optic cables had reached all 99 counties. Today, over 700 classrooms around the state have full-motion video connections through the I.C.N. with, for example, a teacher at one site and students miles away at another. Struyk says there are newer, cheaper ways to conduct such long-distances classes.
“When you look at what current technology can do as far as…Skype and other name-brand software packages that are out there, people are already communicating both voice and video,” Struyk says. “The state doesn’t need to maintain that backbone at the level that it is. We either need to stop investing money in an archaic system in order to keep it up to speed or we need to sell it.”
Critics of the system have tried a number of times over the past two decades to sell or lease the state-owned network. Struyk, who is a lawyer, admits selling or leasing all or part of the system would be challenging since many lines were laid on public right-of-way, areas where private companies are barred from burying cables.
“Selling it creates all sorts of interesting dynamics as far as who’s going to buy it, who’s going to have the ability to use tax-free right-of-ways when they run it,” Struyk says. “That certainly is difficult, but the first step is stopping the investment in the infrastructure and the next step becomes who wants to buy it.”
In 2007, legislators approved a seven-year plan to upgrade switches and other equipment in the system. The I-C-N provides telephone and data service for over 12,000 connections for state agencies in Des Moines. It also has connections in hospitals, public libraries, and National Guard armories as well. The system also has backers in the legislature.
Representative Mary Mascher , a Democrat from Iowa City, is a school teacher who touts the courses which are taught over the system. “We can see throughout state government many different entities that utilize it on a regular basis, so to say that it’s a boondoggle, I wouldn’t agree with that at all,” Mascher says. “….It was there for a purpose. It started us down the road in terms of looking at a technology system for the state and I think that was good.”
According to a Legislative Services Agency analysis, the state and federal government have invested over 230 million dollars in the Iowa Communications Network.