Storm Lake, Iowa--
Police Chief Mark Prosser would like to send pictures of criminals and missing persons electronically to other law enforcement agencies for immediate response. But he can't. Buena Vista University Computer Center Director Joe Traylor would like to reach out in Storm Lake via telephone lines for expanded communications. But he can't.
Rural America is running behind on the Information Superhighway.
High-speed telecommunications services that are available now in Omaha for as little as $30 a month won't be offered here for the "foreseeable future," says a phone company spokeswoman. That could be one year, five years or ten.
Nobody knows for certain.
This much is known: Telecommunications is becoming as important an ingredient in running a business or school as are good roads and dependable electricity.
A few years ago most businesses didn't need a fax machine. Now it's become standard office equipment. So it is with telecommunications.
However, a familiar refrain is heard: Western Iowa is too sparsely populated to attract enough attention. Whether it's roads or phone lines, the chicken-egg scenario is seen: We don't have enough people to make it pay, and without the infrastructure we won't have enough people.
The consequences are tangible.
Rick Hamers of Rick's Computers is the largest Apple Computer dealer in Iowa west of Interstate 35. He says he might have to move from Danbury, a town of about 1,000, to Omaha or Sioux City to tap into the technology structure.
"My impression is that US West doesn't care about western Iowa. They want to bleed it for what it's worth," Hamers said.
US West, the regional "Baby Bell" phone company, provides exclusive local phone service to most area communities. Spokeswoman Lynn Gipple says that the company has invested a great deal in western Iowa. Five years ago, for example, US West spent $1.8 million installing digital switching equipment at its Storm Lake office. And, it has extended fiber-optic lines from Storm Lake to Cherokee to Sioux City to Spencer.
"From 1990 to 1994 we had a very strong plan completed for rural communities," Gipple said. "It really allows for moving large amounts of information rapidly."
For a price.
A business in Storm Lake (pop. 9,000) can tap into the phone system to fully explore Internet for about $180 a month. That system does not allow the Storm Lake consumer to deal with a multitude of other parties around the country directly. It would not allow Rick Hamers, for instance, to communicate intermittently with the Storm Lake Community School District about computer matters, or ship the school information with graphics.
Without such service, Hamers says he simply can't communicate effectively with his customers anymore. Other businesses will find, too, that high-speed, flexible telecommunications will become vital. Many computer software programs, for example, can only be accessed on-line. Banks are moving more to electronic service as well.
Like first-run movies, major league baseball and Dom Perignon, that sort of high-speed, flexible, multi-party service just isn't available here.
It's called Integrated System Digital Network (ISDN), which rapidly has become the standard in the telecommunications industry.
That's because there aren't enough customers in Danbury or Storm Lake or Cherokee.
"It's a dollars and cents issue for them," said Curt Stamp, legislative liaison with the Iowa Utilities Commission. "We can't order them to do it."
Frontier Communications Iowa Manager Jim Peterson agrees. His company doesn't offer ISDN service in Fort Dodge with a general population three times bigger than Storm Lake.
"It's a question of how much you're willing to pay," he said. "It's a multi-million-dollar investment."
In Storm Lake, most of the investment was made in 1990. US West, however, isn't even offering ISDN service in far larger cities. In Iowa, only Des Moines and Cedar Rapids -- the two biggest metro areas -- are offered ISDN service.
GTE, another big phone company with 300 communities in Iowa, doesn't offer ISDN, either.
"We'd have to have really significant numbers to make it worthwhile," said Iowa manager Charles Bruggeman.
Not all companies take the same view.
Clear Lake Telephone Company finished a $1.5 million digital switching upgrade in June.
It will offer ISDN services to its town of 8,500 people at similar rates to the big cities.
"Anything is possible," said spokeswoman Jan Lovell. "But understand, we're a small, family-owned business. The larger corporations want to serve the metro areas."
Lovell, who answers the phone in the office, happens to be one of the family owners.
She said that her company would be interested in serving Storm Lake if it were allowed to. And it might get that entree in a year or so, she figures.
First, the Iowa Legislature last session passed a law allowing competition for local service. The law does not allow local exchanges like Clear Lake's to tap into other local exchanges like US West. Clear Lake would have to come in and build its own system.
That, too, could change. Congress is rewriting laws covering telecommunications for the first time since 1934. Lovell believes that local exchanges will be forced to lease lines to one another at governed rates.
That, for the time being, may be only a comforting theory.
At least that's what Hawarden, Iowa, thought.
Instead of putting up with US West, it kicked the Baby Bell right out of town.
City Clerk Tom Wadell said that 97 percent of the tiny town's voters approved forming a telephone utility in 1994. The vote came after US West announced that it was selling 23 Iowa exchanges, including Hawarden's.
Hawarden bid for its exchange but US West rejected it. Instead, it was sold to another corporation, which in turn sold Hawarden to Sioux Center Mutual Telephone. Although Wadell hears that Sioux Center Mutual is an excellent company, the council believes that the voters clearly said they want their own phone system.
So they ordered US West, or its successors, to get their stuff out of town. The city believes that US West, and thus its potential successor, has no franchise granting it easement on city right-of-way.
A month ago an engineer presented the cost of building a new, state of the art fiber-optic system. A "Cadillac system," Wadell said, would cost nearly $5 million.
While the city probably won't spend that much, it intends to proceed boldly.
"We are committed to fiber optics for the entire town," Wadell said. "This community believes that's where the future is and that's where our niche is."
Storm Lake city officials are not aware of any US West franchise here. City Administrator Clarence Krepps says he has had no discussions about a municipal utility.
"We have a lot of other things to take care of first," Krepps said.
Phone companies may agree. There is obviously some interest among companies in competing for towns like Storm Lake.
"But with true competition, rural areas might find that some customers can't get service," says GTE's Bruggeman.
Lovell says not to worry. Iowa's independent telephone companies have formed a consortium called Iowa Network Services to address that question. In collaboration these smaller companies can build up critical mass to serve customers efficiently in a competitive market, she said.
It's not an issue to take lightly, Lovell said. It speaks to whether marginally populated areas will share in an economy driven by gigabytes and modems.
"That's precisely the question," Lovell said.
So, will US West provide ISDN services to Western Iowa?
"I won't say forever, but not for now," Gipple said.
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