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Omnitel interested in expanding fiber broadband access in Charles City

Omnitel interested in expanding fiber broadband access in Charles City
This Charles City map provided by Omnitel shows three potential phases of fiber optic internet cable installation in the community, with green representing the first phase, yellow the second and red the third. Submitted graphic
By Bob Steenson,

An Iowa telecommunications company is interested in expanding broadband fiber optic internet access in Charles City, although its initial plan focuses solely on business areas.

Omnitel, a 117-year-old company based in Nora Springs, already has a presence in Charles City, and it asked the Charles City Council this week for permission to use city right of way to significantly expand that area.

“Omnitel has reached out to us about doing some additional fiber work in town,” City Administrator Steve Diers told the council at its regular meeting this week. “Last November they came and got permission to do an install by 9th Street Chautauqua, to serve them. Now they’re looking to serve additional areas in town.”

Mark Pietig, with Omnitel, said the company wants a right of way agreement so it can plan a phased build-out in the community in areas where there was the most interest, rather than seek an individual agreement for each separate area like it had done with the Chautauqua project.

A map that Omnitel provided showed a first phase concentrated in the downtown business area on the southeast side of Main Street, from the Cedar Terrace South housing units south of the Cedar River, to about Richings Street in the north, and as far east as the former middle school building, 500 N. Grand Ave.

That initial phase as envisioned on the map would also include Washington Elementary School, the high school and middle school campus, Morningside Apartments, and a couple of other smaller areas – one in the north part of town and one in the south.

A second phase could include the Zoetis and Cambrex plants, the Southwest Development Park, more of the downtown area, and an area on either side of South Grand Avenue from about the Charley Western Recreational Trail in the north to 215th Street in the south.

Pietig stressed that those areas were only initial ideas, and the company would have to judge actual interest before committing to any area. He said Omnitel would spread the word that it was considering providing fiber access in an area and ask people to sign up to show their interest.

“If we get 60-70-80% of these addresses, fantastic, we know we can start building in that area,” Pietig said. “If we get 20% response from an area we know we have one of two problems. Either we’re not communicating properly to the consumer base out there, letting them know what potentially can happen, or folks in that area simply are not interested … and we may move on to another area in town.”

He said Omnitel would target business areas first because they are located near the existing WIN (Wisconsin Independent Network) fiber optics ring that the company would tie in to and because companies already understand what fiber is.

“They understand the need for it in their business,” he said.

The City Council informally gave direction to the city attorney and staff to begin working on a potential right of way usage agreement to be discussed at the next workshop session, and to be potentially passed at the next regular meeting after that.

But that was after a couple of council members said they had concerns.

Patrick Lumley said he wanted to know where Omnitel was intending to lay the fiber optic cable before granting permission.

Pietig said the right of way agreement is needed so the company can make a plan.

“Folks would come to town and meet with the city, the guys out in the street. It’s boots on the ground and expensive, which quite frankly we can’t invest in unless we know we have the ability to do this type of thing,” Pietig said.

Diers said Omnitel is looking for something similar to what Mediacom and MidAmerican Energy have, for example, which is a general agreement to be able to use the city’s right of way. The company would have to meet with city staff before actually installing anything.

City Attorney Brad Sloter said the city would still have a lot of control because there are detailed rules in the City Code controlling use of public property and rights of way that give the city engineer the authority to determine where items are placed.

Councilor Keith Starr asked what the rush was, since the council had only known about the request for a short time.

“Why does this make any sense compared to our normal, caring, methodical route we would take?” Starr asked.

Lumley said, “I don’t want it to come off that I’m not interested. I think this is probably one of the top three topics for the citizens we represent to give them something that is a better quality product than what is being provided today, but I would like to see, as a council, another planning session.”

Mayor Dean Andrews said they could direct the city attorney and city staff to begin working on an agreement to be discussed at the next workshop session, which will be Monday evening, March 14.

“We’re just giving approval to start the process, nothing formal,” Andrews said.

Andrews asked the Omnitel representatives, if the demand was there, how long it would take to install fiber in the entire community.

Pietig asked, “Like all of Charles City? The short answer is we probably wouldn’t do it all at once.”

Andrews asked, “How long do you think it would take if you phased it in?”

Bryan Nelson, another Omnitel representative,  said he didn’t have a timeline for that, and the company is already committed to other projects that encompass all the capital dollars the company has to spend short term.

“Is that five years? Is that 10 years? I don’t have a timeline I could honestly share today and stand behind today,” Nelson said, adding that with current supply line shortages the delivery time on new orders for fiber cable is being measured in years.

“So that’s quite frankly, why we want to get those phases out now and get things going so when we see that demand we can start lining things up,” Nelson said. “Because from getting a right-of-way agreement from you guys to turning on the first customer, there’s a lot of lead time there just within the structure and everything.”

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