West Central Regional Roundtable on Broadband – providers, legislators and community leaders

Back at the regional tour of broadband discussion with Bill Coleman with a stop in Fergus Falls today to talk with the Mid-Minnesota Region. There were 50 people in the room including Rep Jeff Backer, Rep Paul Anderson, Rep Bud Nornes and representatives from Senators Klobuchar and Smith.

It was a good mix in the crowd with folks who knew policy, folks who knew technology and folks who knew they needed better broadband. It was interesting to hear what Otter Tail County has done to ensure that everyone in the county gets broadband in the future. They are working with providers, getting a view of what’s happening and likely to happen with a feasibility study (thanks to support from the Blandin Foundation).

We also got a quick update on policy from the legislators who attended.

Bill Coleman started with a presentation on broadband (above).


Question: How many kids in average family? Does that impact average use.
Average is maybe 2 kids

Did Frontier have to give back some money because they haven’t hit the goals?
Haven’t heard that. They only need to get 40 percent of goal at this point.
They are partnering with Martin County to upgrade service with State funding.
CenturyLink is working with some communities as well.

Let’s talk about connection costs.
How does it increase the cost of a house? If you move you have to reconnect.
It’s like remodeling a kitchen – you may or may not get the money back immediately and $10,000 for a kitchen upgrade isn’t bad.
Also the installation cost doesn’t usually come straight from the homeowner.
There are communities that work to subsidize installation. And different providers have different ROI requirements. A community can help offset some of the costs and impact the ROI timeline.

We got satellite 2 years ago we had to pay $1100 for installation – now that installation is free. Maybe fiber will be free eventually too.
Upgrades are happening and technology is changing.

About regionalism and community efforts – we want to increase reception on the interstate near Fergus Falls. What’s the best way to get this done – in terms of deploying technology and reaching the legislators.
Communities can find where there are public lands for towers. Find out where the fiber is. Look for opportunities for public-private partnerships. See if it’s a public safety issue – do the police need a tower?

What was the story in Traverse County?
They found an interested provider in the area. They cut a deal where the county lent the company money and provided some easier access to towers. Once the provider got a certain number of providers, they had to look at paying back the loan. They’ve been successful. It’s wireless. It’s maybe not 25/3 but it’s better than what people had before.
Wireless isn’t wireless – it’s wireless to a tower that needs fiber.
Fixed wireless isn’t a long terms acceptable solution for Minnesota. They are akin to party lines. MY connectivity cannot depend on my neighbor’s trees (or on whether they build a new barn).
But fixed wireless is working in places like Renville Sibley County – where people can get fixed wireless and are happy to have it until FTTH becomes available.


About broadband in Otter Tail County

Worked with Finley Engineering – they talked to providers about inventory and plans. At the time there were a lot of areas that unserved. BUT the overlook over the next few years (based on provider feedback) was different.

Worked with CCG – they do financial modeling for broadband deployment

We saw that over 5 years much of the county will get FTTH – but some areas weren’t in that plan. SO as a county we had to think about how we could work with providers to reach the areas that weren’t already on the calendar for deployment. CCG did some cost modeling to reach the hard to reach areas.

Question – So the places without FTTH – what do they have?
Some of the areas we’re showing do have multiple providers – so they will likely be served.

Question – CenturyLink (CL) areas – they have a year to upgrade or not. Are they OK with having another provider come into the area?
CL gets CAF. They had the opportunity to not take CAF funding for areas they thought were too expensive. BUT really any provider can go into this area if they can justify the cost. You have to be able to get financing from the bank. That’s the barrier. And we have a lot of snowbirds so we know the marketing model. The State grants have been a big help.
When we deploy fiber we have to bore – so distance from the node, distance to deploy gets far. We run into lakes, and road. So some providers in the room are able to use A-CAM.

Finley works with many providers. They were surprised with the activity planned for the next 5 years. But there are still a number of homes not in any plan. There were 6,689 homes that were not going to get served. That’s a challenge. We need to find a way to get them service to keep thriving.

Question – has anyone done a comparison to costs in REA vs getting fiber?
The model is more difficult today because there was only one provider with electricity. There are several broadband providers in many areas. We get 63 percent take rate in some areas.
In the 20s – 80 percent of the people lived in rural areas; not 20-25 percent of people live in rural areas. It’s a political issue.
Rural areas are growing but even more people choose to go to metro areas.

Question – what’s the lifecycle of fiber?
Fiber is about 40-50 years; the electronics’ lifecycle is not as long but also replacing the electronics is not as expensive.

Next step – April 2018 meeting with Stakeholder and kick off Citizen Task Force.

Hear from Legislators

Rep Paul Anderson – Representing parts of Pope, Douglas & Stearns – this is not a budget year. Feb forecast came out with $320M surplus; we thought it would be higher. That number may be conservative. But the lower number makes us think. School safety and gun control are big issues – there was a meeting yesterday with standing room only. They are talking about $300 million a year to put an armed officer in each school; mental health counselors might be a use of money. I got a postcard from HughesNet. They talked about 25/3 with 20Gig data and Netflix quality broadband. Wireless has to play a part of any solution in our area. The State grants are great – but it increases costs when you need to pay livable wage. I don’t think we’ll get $50 million this year.

Rep Jeff Backer – Won’t repeat what Paul said. Suburban representatives seem to think HughesNet will solve out problem. I don’t agree. It might be helpful for constituents to talk to the Chair of the Committee. He’s very smart but he seems to think satellite is the solution. I’m a business owner – we sell online. I believe in broadband – but a barrier is thinking satellite is a solution.
Each week we get together with rural GOPs – a nice time to get together with folks. A chance to talk Senate to House. This week we had rural caucus – broadband was the first topic that came up from Senator Jenson. Representative Layman also brought it up. We want to work together. But that belief that satellite is a solution is a problem.
We need to have the bill number to support it.

Rep Bud Nornes – This has been interesting. I have excellent service thanks to Park Region. I don’t even know what I have – but it works. My grandson is a song writer. He was in Europe; his song was part of a contest in Scotland. It was great to watch it online. I take it for granted. I feel for those who don’t. I feel for folks who are just on the wrong side of the wrong highway. Technology is changing. I remember my first computer – it was really a glorified typewriter.
We have a tax bill that has to be fixed. We’re not sure how the surplus will work. If we don’t fix things we could have taxes that explode. Until we get the taxes done, we don’t know how this will play out. We don’t know if we’ll have money for anything. School safety is a top priority. Deadlines are serious. At some point we might get to broadband. Bonding is what we’re really there for.
This County is progressive with a broadband plan. Other areas are in different potion.

Remark from attendee – I focus on equitable, equal and doable. We’ve been hearing about doable from the legislators concerned with budget. Are there other ways to do this? Can we offer incentives – like we’ve done with parks and trails? We need market and government to tackle the problem together.

The value of broadband differs from person to person. I work from home so I can pay more – I need to pay more. For someone who doesn’t have the same need their interest in investment is lower.
There’s a discussion of a 5-county push in East Central Minnesota to get better broadband. The local health care provider is involved because they want to provide service and can’t if their patients can’t get broadband.

In Pope County we have 4 schools that are connected and the county building are connected. It’s been a security boon – we have cameras set up and the police can see into the halls. It’s a good example of the need for wireless and fiber.

How does Net Neutrality fit in?
The closer to home your provider is – there lesser chance for a negative impact of privacy issues.
Net Neutrality wasn’t an issue here; now that we don’t have it – issues go back to FTC. I’d rather work with FTC. We need to think about the content provider – such as ESPN360 – for our customers to access that channel they wanted us to pay for access for each of our customers (who might only be potential customers for ESPN). This is what happened in the cable industry. Hopefully we’ve learned. Net Neutrality hasn’t had an impact on anyone in this room.

Interconnection is important. It allows broadband and content providers to work together. We decided to not go with Viacom; so they blocked all of our customers from accessing their video and website.

Can a provider leave an existing area?
There are some penalties; but they are not a high barrier. But they could sell to someone else. And a new provider could come into the area but it’s difficult to enter someone else’s market.

Communities will work with a provider: they do community surveys that sign people up! And that’s a low cost way for a community to get involved.

Rep for Tina Smith  – my boss can have influence on the farm bill. Just learned that RUS is under utilized because of some specific rules to qualify. So we’re looking at what might need to change to open that up to more people.

Rep for Amy Klobuchar – this is an important economic issue for rural American. She’s co-chair of the rural broadband caucus. We have asked the Administration to call out funding for broadband. She’s asked for changes in the USF and restoring funding for high cost carriers. Having discussions with the farm bill folks. Working on Dig Once Legislation.

What can the region do together to bring this initiative forward? Preparation is huge. LqP for ARRA funding because they had a feasibility study ready. It’s good to be ready.

Any news from USDA RD?
In MN the biggest change is distance education/telemedicine. The school programs are still around and we’re working on higher points for fiber, STEM programming and opioid deterrents.

It’s helpful to look at your anchor tenants – such as schools and healthcare – to find partners. Public Safety is another good hook for funding.
As you partner with providers – think about community benefits, especially when looking at grants.

How do you deal with providers that aren’t interested?
Find a new one. But that means making a case and deciding what it’s worth to the community to get better broadband. To attract new people, you need broadband. Or at least pinpoint areas where you might be able to draw in providers.
It helps providers to know the ROW and permitting processes are reasonable.


The FCC says broadband is 25/3. How practical is that number going to be moving forward?
IN 2008, broadband was defined by 768K; it has increased 30x in the last 8 years. IN 2008, people were doing less online. We’re moving to Gigabit being a standard. MidCo, Mediacom, others are offering gig. This like Wayne Gretzsky – be where the broadband goal (puck) is going to be.
The state goal is 100/20 by 2026.

The FCC 25/3 is the minimum. They picked it because if they set a higher rate – they’d have to offer more funding (CAF/A-CAM).
Why care about upload? Think back to the cameras in the school – that’s upload. If something happens you want the police to get good quality video from those cameras – and that’s not going to happen at 25/3.

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About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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