Mid-Minnesota Regional Roundtable on Broadband – filling the gaps for today and tomorrow

Continuing the regional tour of broadband discussion with Bill Coleman with a stop in Litchfield today to talk with the Mid-Minnesota Region. There were 20-25 people in the room including Representatives Dave Baker and Dean Urdahl and Chuck Ackman from Senator Klobuchar’s office and Jackie Anderson from Representative Peterson. We heard about broadband efforts in the area – including Kandiyohi (the old timer) and Meeker County (with a newly minted feasibility study in hand).

Kandiyohi spoke about some of their frustration getting the stars to align for their border to border grant was awarded. The quick version is that between application and award interest rates increased, other local providers started beefing up their connections and they were short of time to get local residents signed up for the service in advance as required by the providers. (They singed up but not necessarily with deposit.) Meeker County is excited but they realize that part of their challenge will be to get residents and local businesses to look to their future broadband needs.

Attendees recognized the need to plan for multiple technologies. As someone put it, fixed wireless is a great solution for getting people broadband today but it’s not future proof. But for a community like Kandiyohi, it will extend fiber into the area and for a community like Meeker, it will get people online and build demand.

Introductions –
(not great notes here as I was having trouble with the video)

  • We have broadband – you just need money to access it.
  • Chuck Ackman from Senator Klobuchar’s Office
  • Rep Dave Baker – been involved with broadband from day one. Has been chief author for broadband bill – but handing the baton off to Sandy Layman. Other technologies need to be recognized. I was in Sundberg and they were putting up towers as we speak.
  • Dean Urdahl – Xtratyme Technologies customer. Glad to hear we’re going to get a speed increase (Xtratyme Technologies is in the room.) They got me from 1 Mbps to 8 Mbps in Acton Township. I have received many complaints about connectivity in the area. We need more in our area.  (He could get up to 30 Mbps; he chooses 8.)
  • Ralley Nisson – County Commissioner that tried to get people to sign up for CTC service.

State of Broadband and the Current Activity in the Region

Kandiyohi County  – Connie Schmoll

We’ve been working on broadband for 20 years. Convened first in 1998 – with a group called Kandilink. They worked on telephone connections and getting phones to low incomes folks. That eventually morphed into seeking FTTP whenever possible for economic development purposes throughout the County. Aside from Spice, Willmar and New London we are falling behind.

Looking at the maps, we found there were at least 20,000 buildings that were known or suspected to be unserved.

Got money from Blandin to do a feasibility study. With it we pursued a Border to Border grant. We learned $60-68 million to get the whole county covered. We talked continually with our legislators and it helped a lot. We also made an effort to talk to metro legislators where they didn’t understand that the market was not taking care of the need.

We met the folks from CTC. We partnered with them. We submitted a grant. We got the grant. But in the end CTC couldn’t move forward without a 50 percent buy in from customers. Frontier, Centurylink and TDS have upgraded their services – with finer in some areas – but there are holes in the service. MVTV has been working to meet the needs with fixed wireless. But they are the first to say that fixed wireless isn’t futureproof. LTD has come into the area with fixed wireless but there seem to be some potential growing pains with customers waiting months for new service.

We are going to have to use a mix of technologies to serve everyone quickly but we keep our eye on FTTH for the future.

Renville County – Lisa Herges

A Renville County Administrator was a champion. We started with a fiber ring in the county. It was started last year with a MN State grant and we think we just got a USDA loan. We are working with RS Fiber. It will serve about 300 homes; we have a low population density. We would like to work on further expansion. RS Fiber will provide fixed wireless.

McLeod County –

They don’t have an economic development department to work on broadband. So no one seems to be championing the effort on a county-wide basis. BUT, as part of RS Fiber, two cities are getting connectivity (FTTH). Hutchinson has cable and halfway decent speeds – but outside of Hutchinson, the county is not well served. There was a MN State grant in 2014 just outside the city of Hutchinson via New Ulm Telecom.

Meeker County – David Krueger

We got $25,000 from Blandin for a feasibility study. Access is uneven. Preliminary results show that consumers and businesses need more of what they may not know they need. They need more education as well as broadband.

A couple of years ago people started to recognize that they didn’t have adequate broadband or if they could it was too expensive. We realize that if we had more customers that would help create a business case for providers to come in and/or upgrade services. Students are needing better broadband. They get ipads from the school. Now they’re going to McDonald’s to do some homework.

What are the barriers in place? The technology required is based on needs of the users. Is there a possibility for dark fiber, a cooperative model, partnerships, shared use of conduit, future planning… But we need to build demand to make sure we maximize use and ROI.

Two years ago, businesses thought they were fine with existing broadband. Now they need more. We need to focus on future needs to create a solution for today and tomorrow.

Kandiyohi County Lessons learned:

  • When we were working on the maps, they kept changing. We added businesses. We had to change borders. That didn’t give us time to really think about the area.
  • Plan for a smaller service area.
  • Know that there’s a market – that can even help attract a provider.
  • Understand expectations of funders.
  • The providers don’t understand the bonding process as well as the counties – remember that, especially in terms of timing. (Interest rates can increase on bonds.)
  • Counties want to protect tax payers – so the provider will need to put up collateral. That may be new, so let them know. Big Stone and Swift have some examples.
  • Know the math on annual tax increase versus reduction in monthly broadband costs.
  • We needed a 50 percent take rate – as required from our providers. We really ran out of time more than customers.
  • We ran into problems with CAF II money being used to block our FTTH plan. It would be nice to get all of the money to work together to serve the higher and lower population density areas.
  • When you want or use broadband, you’re willing to pay for it. There were people who paid very little and were unwilling to pay more – which really was a sign that people weren’t making good use.
  • We need broadband to attract generation Z – then want broadband more than bathrooms!

Update from Rep Peterson

Always comes down to money. Looking at broadband in infrastructure bill.

There will be changes in the farm bill related to broadband. Should be available in the next couple months.

We hear a lot about broadband at the federal level – but we’re not seeing any yet.

We hear about the IoT.

Our constituents have uneven access.

Update from Sen Klobuchar

Was in Mora with Bill last week – enjoyed the elected official who admitted that in the grocery story, people talk to her most about broadband. It passed transportation.

Historically township people worry about annexation – but now it’s broadband. 90 percent of MN have 25/3 access – but the townships are not well connected.

Klobuchar recognizes the rural aspect of broadband.

Fun to hear that the height of superbowl traffic was uploading pictures after the halftime show.

Broadband is an infrastructure issue. There should be rural infrastructure funding for it.

Comments:

Do providers compete for areas? When you write a grant – they give a heads up to incumbent providers who then get to challenge the grant application.

Three things from a provider:

  1. Read the Governor’s Task Force report. It hit the issues with the border to border report.
  2. In Kandiyohi we now have a few wireless providers – but like DSL they are all in the same areas. How can we get them to “unserved” areas?
  3. How can local government incentivize broadband deployment? Google had a checklist back in the day – it’s a good list. (Here’s a link to their list.)
This entry was posted in Blandin Foundation, Conferences, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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