I am thankful to the folks in Monticello for letting me be a stowaway on their tour for legislators. (You can read another report of the day in the Monticello Times.) The 30-second reminder of situation in Monticello – the city decided to deploy FTTH because they recognized that the city’s residents and businesses would benefit from faster broadband; the incumbent providers did not see the need. Monticello moved forward. The incumbents sued. After much litigation, Monticello won and now the city is probably the best wired city in the Midwest. Monticello became an important case both locally and nationally. Locally, it stirred the pot on the required super majority for municipal telecommunications referendums. Nationally, I think many municipalities watched to see what happened in terms of incumbent lawsuits hampering municipal plans.
The tour started at the FiberNet Head-End Building in Monticello. We got a tour of their network operations center, where we could see where the video, voice and data magic happen. Then we moved onto a construction site where we saw folks in the field installing fiber. It’s always kind of fun to see something like that in action. Seeing the spray paint on the street near the digging area bring to life the right of way issues that seem so much easier from your desk. Also it was impressive to see how unobtrusive the process seems to be – although the installers did admit that it’s less obtrusive for some than others. Some end up with large utility-type boxes on their property.
Right now Monticello has 1200 customers but there are 5500 passing (potential customers) in the community – or at least there will be once the installation is complete. They add customers at a good clip, in fact keeping up with demand is the current worry. One thing I hadn’t realized was that not only to customers get super-fast Internet access, they also get access to a 1 Gbps in-town connection. Imagine the applications for that with access to local classrooms, business, sporting events. Also they are working on a local studio to provide more local programming.
City Administrator Jeff O’Neill had some words of wisdom for any other cities looking into fiber, which I think helped the legislators frame the issue in terms that applied to their role in Minnesota:
- Do the research – be able to answer questions
- Conduct a referendum – and the initial vote sets the tone
- Must have- City Council and Mayor with Courage – dedicated staff and capable attorneys
- Maintain a strong will in face of lawsuits and fear mongering
- Keep telling the truth and maintain accountability
- Maintaining high road on consistent basis
- A preexisting reservoir of trust I your government is helpful
- Trust that citizens see through falsehoods
- Like any new venture – it’s lots of hard work – keep at it
- Believe in the cause and the ability of the organization to succeed.
Jeff pointed out that the city wasn’t necessary looking for extra tasks to fill their spare moments – but they were driven to look into telecommunications when they realized that was the only way to get the community the broadband they needed to drive economic development today and tomorrow. While they plan to break even on the project – that is not their own or primary goal. If they are able to save taxpayers money and/or provide services without increasing taxes, that’s a win too.
It was an interesting look at how things are going in Monticello. I think the legislators seemed to find it valuable. I was surprised to see that there were quite a few legislators there from suburb communities. I think more policymakers are realizing that broadband is a necessity, not a luxury.