The Waverly City Council in Iowa recently voted 5-2 to establish a communications utility and to move ahead with a feasibility study. We spoke with Diane Johnston, Waverly Light and Power (WLP) General Manager, who told us the decision to get this far started over a decade ago.
In 2000, the community passed two ballot measures that sat dormant until this year. At the time, incumbents Mediacom and Qwest (now CenturyLink) did not meet the needs of residents, who were increasingly frustrated with poor service and shoddy customer relations. Incumbents cherry-picked the local commercial segment, ignoring smaller businesses and establishments more challenging to serve. When asking for better connectivity, Johnston says local businesses “hit the wall.” Incumbents flatly refused to invest in Waverly.
The 2000 ballot measures, establishing the municipal telecommunications utility per Iowa law (requiring a majority vote) and having the entity governed by WLP’s board of trustees passed with 86 percent and 80 percent of the votes. Clearly the public wanted more choices but Johnston told us the time was just not right. A feasibility study, focused on phone and video service, prompted Mediacom and Qwest to make some improvements and improve customer service. As far as WLP was concerned, the problem was solved and Ordinance 970 went on the shelf.
Since 2000, businesses and residents have approached WLP about establishing the utility but the proposal did not gain traction until six months ago. When reviewing the strategic plan for the electric utility, WLP’s Board of Trustees concluded that Waverly and WLP needs a telecommunications utility to stay vital.
Johnston notes that advanced metering infrastructure is essential for the future of electric services. WLP wants to be able to provide customers with the ability to monitor their electric usage, control the use of appliances, and conserve. The utilty also needs its own connectivity. Johnston and WLP recognize that access to a high speed network is critical to economic development and WLP needs economic development for healthy electricity sales. In order to supply affordable electricity for all customers, WLP’s wants to continue to increase sales. A fiber ring around the city provides connectivity between substations today and will likely become part of any new project.
K-12 schools in Waverly struggle to get the capacity and speed they need, Johnston says. Administrators also want to move to a textbook-free environment and support this measure as a way to service iPads for students. Likewise, the local college sees a network as a way to offer more to students on campus and expand distance learning programs.
The community of 10,000 is 25 minutes northwest of Cedar Rapids and maintains its rural small-town feel, says Johnston. With a telecommunications network in place, she anticipates the high quality of life would draw more telecommuters and businesses.
Johnston tells us that WLP will entertain all types of business models. They want to provide access to high-speed connectivity to every home and business in the community and will work with any entity that can help realize that vision. WLP has a stellar reputation with the community, she says, and WLP will only work with partners that can ensure the same level of reliability and customer service. Johnston hopes the initiative will also improve private provider rates and service.
Next, a task force will commission an updated feasibility study.