Posted by: Ann Treacy | December 7, 2012

5-County Region focusing on broadband

Yesterday I was on the road with Bill Coleman. It’s interesting to take a look at the frontlines when I spend so much time looking at the research and watching policymakers and planners. He met with various stakeholders in a 5 county region  (Aitkin, Carlton, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine Counties) interested in a regional approach to expanding broadband in their area. This is the second time the group has met on the topic. The focus was on goals and first steps.

The situation in the region is that the cities have decent access but the folks outside of the cities don’t. That is similar to other communities but that statement only tells half of the tale. When only the cities are served it means that up to 95 percent of the surface area is un/underserved and 70 percent of the residents are un/underserved. It reinforces the importance of a regional approach to broadband deployment – especially to reach the Minnesota broadband goal of ubiquitous broadband coverage.

The meeting began with folks talking about their hopes and goals for the project – focusing on what would make the project successful two years from now. Below are some of the responses to the initial and following questions. (My intention was not to capture the entire conversation as much as to share questions, answers and ideas that might be helpful in other communities.)

  • We have some dead spots in the County. We want to enhance service for everyone. It’s critical for industry, school district and residents.
  • Rock Creek  fastest growing city in Pine County. Too many underserved residents – on the border of the TCs and Pine County. Really anyone outside of the city if underserved. We need to make sure our residents in the future are served.
  • It’s not a luxury anymore – it’s a necessity.
  • There are residents in the area with broadband who don’t have electricity.
  • We need a multi-community, regional nonprofit FTTP organization that covers the region… similar to what Jackson has.
  • We did a survey a year ago on providers but we haven’t used the results yet
  • Need a plan to provide high speeds services – we need SWOT analysis for region and a phased approach (by county) would be nice
  • We have a need and residents are interested in broadband
  • Cell coverage is also not great – especially when you get away from the highway
  • Adoption isn’t necessarily the issue – access is. We see use in the local coffee shop and the library is full!
  • We’ve got the coolest school network in the world (ECMECC) and government – but the businesses and residents are hurting
  • We don’t want to be a telecom provider – but…

Are the county residents pretty similar? (Kanabec has some a feasibility study – could that be extrapolated. Also good to know if the communities are compatible in terms of similar needs an assets.)

  • Pine and Kanabec are
  • Around the Aitkin County lake the residents may be more seasonal but that’s still the minority
  • Towns are small, small county seats
  • Everyone has a lot of commuters
  • In Pine City 37% commute to TCs for work
  • Vast majority of the population does not live in city limits

Is FTTP the goal or are we looking at the State goal (10Mb down/5 Mb up)?

  • Typical resident may not need fiber
  • Maybe our goal is any improvement
  • In city and industrial parks we need world class
  • Geography will prevent world class access – maybe we need to prioritize need for access

Wireless versus fiber

  • We don’t have decent cell coverage
  • Cell data caps are an issue
  • Will wireless speeds surpass fiber?
  • We have been sold one story on WiMAX for rural areas and then learned the benefits may have been exaggerated

On Northeast Radio Group

  • There’s a little disconnect between counties and MNDOT on tower ownership, access, need
  • The push is for data but not voice won’t work on new system
  • Starting Next Generation 911 upgrade
  • It’s confusing to learn that sometimes the provider who owns the spectrum doesn’t (yet?) provide access to the area

Stimulus Grant Idea

  • Use towers (CTC) to set up network of towers with fiber connection
  • Application didn’t go in because the business plan didn’t add up
  • But the concept of using the ARMER system is still compelling

Next Steps?

  1. Host an event
    1. Nice to get word on what folks in the community want
    2. Maybe include a remote component to encourage more folks to attend at whatever level they can
    3. Be nice to get elected officials and press involved
  2. Feasibility study
  3. We want to know where we’re going. It would be nice to have a two-year plan!

By the end the meet the group had agreed to consider a big event, a feasibility study – in fact committees had been formed – they also agreed that a two-year plan would be a great goal.


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