Almost half (48 percent) of Mille Lacs county has access to broadband by today’s definition of 25/3 (Mbps down/up); less than a third (29 percent) has access to speeds of 100/20, which is the 2026 Minnesota broadband goal. When I looked in 2014, 44 percent of the county had access (broadband was defined with lower speeds), so not much progress has been made.
The citizens of Mille Lacs County have been working on improving broadband in their area. They have been part of the Blandin on Broadband Communities Central Woodlands project with efforts to increase broadband adoption and use. Their projects have included WiFi in the senior center, computer distribution to low income households through PCs for People and lots of training. They have also worked on a feasibility study. Here are some highlights from the feasibility introduction…
Probably what is most important to understand about the county is how poor the broadband is in the rural areas. The alternatives in those areas are poor or non-existent. And when there are alternatives, like using satellite data or cell phone data, the broadband is expensive and has very small stingy monthly data caps. Since over half of the residents in the county live in these poor broadband areas this is a major problem for the county and one that is going to put you at an economic disadvantage to your neighboring counties as they find broadband solutions. The county is a textbook example of broadband haves and have-nots. You either live in the cities or near the lake and have broadband or else you don’t.
But we found that it would be a financial challenge to build fiber everywhere. It’s not impossible, but there are several factors that make a business plan a challenge here. First is the geography. The river in the middle of the County means that a network has to be built on both the east and west side of the County, which costs more than what we would have expected in looking at the square miles of the County.
Second, we found that the people in most of the cities today have broadband with which they are probably happy. Certainly some of them would love to be on a fiber network, but the question is: can you count on enough of them to make the business plan work? The financial analysis shows that you’d need at least a 46% penetration rate in the cities just to make the business plan reach breakeven, and you’d want to do better than that. If you want to consider fiber everywhere you’d have to conduct a thorough canvass to make sure that enough customers would support fiber.
Third. There was a change in the rural broadband picture since the time that we started the study. These areas today have basically no broadband, or else broadband that is expensive and that suffers from low monthly data caps. These areas are ripe for a broadband solution. But in late August, as we were wrapping up this report, both Frontier and CenturyLink accepted federal money from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to improve the DSL for the rural parts of the county to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. Even by today’s standards that is not great broadband and it is going to be obsolete almost before it is built. But it might be just good enough so that some rural households might not elect to change to a new network. You need a 62% penetration in the rural areas to justify fiber and that seems like a high hurdle considering these DSL upgrades.
Finally, some parts of the county either already have fiber or will soon get it. Milaca has already been overbuilt with fiber from Milaca Local Link, and the Benton Cooperative Telephone Company is planning to overbuild Bock and the surrounding area with fiber in a few years. If you take Milaca out of the business plan the needed breakeven penetration rate for fiber for everywhere else gets even higher.
In light of the challenges to build fiber in the rural areas we suggest a solution to build a carrier-class point-to-multipoint wireless network just for the rural areas. The biggest issue with doing a point-tomultipoint wireless network is the heavy tree cover and foliage in the county. But there are ways to work around that. We’ve recommended using a new spectrum that the FCC is just about to release in the 3.65 MHz range that carries through trees a little better than the other spectrum available today. Plus we’ve assumed that you would build tall towers and also use telescoping poles at each customer house to enable a direct sight to a tower. This network will deliver speeds up to 30 Mbps download to customers. There is an even better spectrum on the horizon called white space spectrum that the FCC is expected to release that could offer speeds of almost 50 Mbps.
Further, the wireless business plan can spin off significant profits over the years and it looks to us that if it’s operated well you could eventually use the profits from the wireless business to then build fiber in the rural parts of the county. It might take 15–20 years to get fiber everywhere, but it’s a financially and technically viable plan. Customers could get real broadband today with the goal of eventually upgrading to fiber.
Mille Lacs will see some improvement through a recent Border to Border grant awarded to Benton Cooperative Telephone…
Benton Cooperative Telephone Co., Bock – $510,000. This project will serve 337 unserved households, 37 unserved businesses and 1 community anchor institution in Bock and portions of Hayland and Borgholm townships in Mille Lacs County and a portion of South Fork Township in Kanabec County. Benton Cooperative will provide services that will improve educational opportunities, telemedicine, telecommuting and business development. The total eligible project cost is $1.76 million, with a $1.25 million local match.
Mille Lacs County is in line to receive $1,867,463 in CAF 2 funding to upgrade 4285 locations. CAF 2 recipients are only required to upgrade to 10/1 access. Many may choose to upgrade to better speeds but there are no requirements.
The Office of Broadband Development released data on broadband covered in fall of 2016, based on information gathered in July 2016. Here’s how they ranked:
- Percentage served with 25/3 or better: 47.86
- Percentage served with 100/20 or better: 47.83
Mississippi State University Extension have come up with a ranking system to gauge the digital divide index (DDI) by county. (The lower the number the better – the state average is 40.66.) Here’s how they ranked:
DDI score of 48.58 out of 100.
- Find more articles on broadband in Mille Lacs County (http://tinyurl.com/h7wcdjj)
- There is a matrix of Minnesota broadband adoption projects.
- Districts: CD 8
I plan to profile each county in Minnesota – tracking broadband access, digital divide and annotated links to news of what’s happening with broadband in the county. I’m keeping it high level because there are 87 counties!