Folks who follow broadband in Minnesota know that Lake County has been a saga. The National Association of Counties recently featured their story in their newsletter. It’s fun to see how the story reads today.
Why did they do it?
Lake Connections, a county-owned, privately operated company [that] has buried or strung 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable throughout this rural northern Minnesota county. It’s given the county some of the fastest, most reliable internet access in the state, perhaps the nation, according to Commission Chairman Rich Sve.
“It gets to the point of what counties do,” he said of getting into the telecommunications business. “What is the need of our people? And this is a perfect example, because for me it’s not that you are able to get on your Facebook or you’re able to play a game. It’s what the future’s going to hold, it’s about health care. We talk about elderly people being able to stay in their homes longer because of these real-time connections that are coming.”
How did they do it?
Lake Connections was made possible by federal stimulus funds, awarded in 2010, from USDA’s Rural Utilities Service under its $3.5 billion Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP). The county received a $10 million grant and $56.5 million in low-interest loans, and invested $3.5 million taxpayer dollars in the project.
What did they do?
While getting the money for the project wasn’t exactly easy — it took two tries to make a successful application — it turned out to be easier than getting the system to where it is today. The county’s application eventually was accepted after the project was expanded to include parts of neighboring St. Louis County.
There were complications along the way that both increased costs and threatened funding. There was some opposition from private providers, county officials said. And then, there was northern Minnesota’s brutal winter weather, which effectively makes for a six-month construction season. At one point, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) cut off the project’s funding because the project was behind schedule.
The biggest challenge was morphing from a system that was intended to mostly hung on utility poles to one that’s about three-quarters buried. As originally planned, fiber optic cable would be attached to 30,000 poles, said Jeff Roiland, Lake Connections general manager. The current system uses 5,000.
And back to the why … or maybe to the did they meet the needs of their people?
Lake Connections is already benefiting the economy on a smaller scale. The company interviewed several customers, commercial and residential, and their testimonials are on the website.