Clark McLeod Pushes for Muni Broadband

Before he became part of the Broadbandits gang, Clark McLeod was viewed by many as a maverick and a telecom entreprenuer who found gold where others saw lead. During the bubble years of telecom he lost some of his bearings – his McLeod USA filed for bankruptcy in 2002 – but it seems the that teacher-turned-telecom guy is ready for a second act. In his latest role as the head of non-profit group Opportunity Iowa, he is urging municiplaties to take their broadband future in their own hands by building their own broadband networks.

Having fought the incumbents all his life, his stance is not surprising, since most incumbents are pushing legislations through politicians that prevent towns to build their own nets. Opponents of the Iowa’s munibroadband efforts point to state’s disastrous record with the Iowa Communications Network. ICN was built and by 1993 was providing optic connections to 99 counties. ICN cost $350 million to build, and since then has been taxpayer supported.

Then came the telecom bubble and burst. The project fell victim to the fiber glut. I have to say, that is an unfair characterization of a project. The excesses of the private sector that caused the problem. The state remains bitterly divided on the issue. “Public entities should not compete against business, except when communities are inadequately served,” writes Des Moines Register in a hard hitting editorial published this morning.

The proposed expansion of municipal telecom utilities is strongly opposed by private-sector providers of cable TV, phone and Internet services, most vocally by Mediacom Communications. They are asking the Legislature to pass a bill that would make it difficult if not impossible to establish new municipal telecom utilities in Iowa. That bill is too restrictive. Communities that are not now served or that are underserved by broadband should have the ability to form a municipal telecom. Moreover, the bill could have unintended consequences by making it difficult for existing municipal telecoms to update their systems.

According to Des Moines Register, Iowa law requires that these towns seek voter approval before building and offering telecom networks. So far 54 cities have held these elections, and 29 are already offering some sort of service. In other words, people have spoken. McLeod and his not for profit group is working with 83 more cities to put the issue on the ballot.

His altruism is not without a motive. McLeod is the president of Fiberutilities, a for-profit business which will manage utilities’ fiber-to-the-home networks. Vested interests have already got opponents talking. Rocco Commisso, CEO of Mediacom, Iowa’s largest cable service provider calls Opportunity Iowa a scheme. “It’s nothing less than a gimmick. Where I come from, they would call it a racket. I cannot compete with government,” he told a local daily.