MONMOUTH-INDEPENDENCE -- The city councils of Monmouth and Independence held separate public hearings last week to find out if citizens felt there was a need for improved Internet service.
And if a proposal to expand MINET into residential neighborhoods should go forward.
At least one question was answered clearly. Residents and councilors alike expressed interest in better and cheaper Internet access.
Both city councils passed resolutions officially voicing the need for affordable and uniformly available broadband services.
Starting the second phase of MINET proved a more difficult issue.
During the second phase, the local utility would extend fiber optic line to all residential and commercial areas and act as a provider of high-speed Internet, cable and phone services.
Many people were simultaneously enthused about the possibility of improved services but worried about the risks involved.
Among the most common concerns was the price tag. MINET would have to secure $8 million to $10 million in revenue bonds to build the network and connect customers.
To pay off the debt, approximately 40 percent of the customer base would have to sign up for the service, according to a feasibility study.
"More bandwidth would definitely be a good thing," said Jim Aanes, an Independence resident and an avid online gamer. "I'd like to have something like that now.
"But if this is going to cost us $8 million to put in? This isn't like a sewer or water system. To me, it seems like more of a luxury."
"The financial aspect is the most important part of this for me," said John Sparks of Monmouth. "If it went broke, do you still have money on the books to pay for it? And does it end up coming to the taxpayers?"
Monmouth City Manager Jeff Hecksel has said the expansion was not going to be paid out of the general fund, although the cities would have to use existing money from other operations and services if MINET was unable to meet debt requirements. Property taxes wouldn't be raised.
David Cooke, an economist from Monmouth, agreed that the area was lacking in advanced communications services, but urged the council to look at the financial plan for the project more carefully.
He said he didn't feel the average citizen had the money to shell out the monthly expense for high speed Internet or improved cable services and that the 11- to 15-year timeframe to pay off the debt was too optimistic.
Adam Torgerson of Monmouth said broadband access was a "quality of life" consideration when he and his wife moved from Salem and that he would sign up for the service if it was available.
"But I think that 40 percent needed to sign up, that's pretty aggressive," he said. "I don't know if they could get that."
Brian Sparks, a Monmouth Planning Commission member, said a city-operated communications utility raised the issue of government control of the media.
"What I don't want to see is services being offered by one vendor only," he said, adding that there should be competition between providers.
"Part of the concept here should be offering multiple vendors, multiple cable operators and phone providers...that would be a sensible use of the system, not just having one option."
He also wanted to know if rapidly changing technology would render a fiber optic loop outdated in a few years.
Hecksel said although the equipment that connects the fiber to homes and the service offerings might change, fiber was viable for another 30 years as means of transmitting data.
One question posed at both meetings was whether or not the city should consider wireless Internet technology, which doesn't have the capacity to handle some of the advanced cable services, but is cheaper and still an improvement over available DSL and cable connections.
John Conley, owner of Ash Creek Wireless, said the number of trees in both towns would pose a problem for such systems, and that he would become an Internet Portal provider on the fiber network if the cities opted to do the expansion.
As the Monmouth city council passed its resolution, a prerequisite for state funding should the cities proceed with the project, councilor Kyle Jansson said he wanted to continue evaluating the second phase.
"If the town wants to continue to improve the quality of life for people that live here and those that want to move here, we should move forward with this," he said.