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Group says cities should run telecom


If the airlines operated the way telephone companies do, Des Moines would have a separate runway for every airline that flies here, says Clark McLeod, founder and former CEO of McLeodUSA Inc.

McLeod, who last week unveiled plans for OpportunityIowa, a grass-roots effort to form municipal-owned communications utilities in every Iowa community, said communications lines into homes and businesses have become essential infrastructure for the 21st century. Local ownership of communications lines will push forward efforts to connect homes and businesses with fiber optic or wireless technologies, an effort OpportunityIowa says established telephone companies are not making because they have no incentive to replace existing copper-wire connections.

“This is a paradigm shift,” McLeod said. “We have the ability to get a better network and to get it cheaper than it can be provided now.”

However, communities that choose to muncipalize communications services would be embarking on “a dangerous adventure,” said the head of Qwest International Inc.’s Iowa market.

OpportunityIowa, a non-profit group whose board members include former Iowa governors Terry Branstad and Robert Ray and former attorney general Bonnie Campbel1, wants to provide communities with an alternative to existing communications companies. OpportunityIowa is working to put a referendum on the ballot in every Iowa community in November 2005 to form municipal communications utilities.

Since April, the group has been approaching communities with the proposal. So far, 83 communities in 55 counties have indicated their support for the effort, which McLeod said represents 25 percent of the state’s homes and businesses.

Currently, 50 Iowa cities have created a municipal communications company, and about 20 of those companies are operational. The largest city with a municipal communications utility, Cedar Falls, has operated a municipal fiber-optic network since 1994.

Max Phillips, president for Qwest’s Iowa market, said muncipally run communications utilities would create a disincentive for private telecommunications companies to invest in technology and infrastructure.

“Also, it doesn’t pay attention to the opportuntiies that are happening in the wireless networks already,” he said. “I would think the majority of Iowa communities are served by high-speed Internet. … To the extent that a community isn’t being served, it’s a hole that’s quickly being filled by my company and others.”

In January, McLeod and a group of former McLeodUSA executives formed a for-profit company, Fiberutilities of Iowa, which would provide the management for municipally owned communications utilities.

More information about OpportunityIowa can be found by visiting www.OpportunityIowa.org or by calling (877) UNITY-IA.

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