The Globe reports on a process that Nobles, Murray and Pipestone Counties have used to move to better broadband in their areas…
The widespread utility of broadband has led several southwest Minnesota counties to invest their time and money into researching the topic, and make serious progress in the process.
In 2016, Nobles County conducted a broadband feasibility study with CCG and Slayton-based Finley Engineering. Shortly after, the state’s Border-to-Border grant program awarded Lismore Cooperative Telephone nearly $3 million to create a hybrid fiber and wireless network that will provide baseline broadband speeds to most of the county and ultra-fast fiber to hundreds of homes. The project is expected to be completed by mid-2018.
Last year, Murray County and Pipestone County partnered with four other southwest Minnesota counties and the Blandin Foundation to conduct feasibility studies — also done by Finley and CCG — in hopes of getting a similar outcome.
Pipestone County’s study was completed in February 2017, and later that year, Ruthton-based Woodstock Telephone received a $363,851 grant from the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband to provide fixed wireless broadband to rural Pipestone County.
Murray County is still working on access…
“The county does not plan to build a broadband network but is open to talking with providers who are interested in extending service to our citizens and may need financial assistance to do so,” Rucker said. “Murray County had the feasibility study completed so that any provider who wants to extend broadband service to our unserved and underserved areas could use the study as background to apply for state or federal grants to do so.”
The county has seen significant broadband investment from Woodstock since 2015, when it installed two wireless broadband towers around Lake Shetek. It continued over the last two years, installing eight internet coverage sites in the area, including towers in Lake Wilson, Slayton and Edgerton. The company plans to add another tower south of Chandler this year.
The towers, which are fed with fiber, provide 50Mbps download speeds at a range of six miles, according to Terry Nelson, Woodstock general manager. The speeds and service can vary, however, as wireless internet can be disrupted by geographical features such as hills, trees and windmills.
“We’ve done wireless in a lot of these areas, but there’s still little pockets that we can’t hit with some of our wireless,” Nelson said. “I would definitely never say the county is 100 percent covered, because it’s not.”
An October 2017 report from the state found 99.8 percent of Murray County households have access to 25/3 broadband — up from 50.47 percent in July 2016 — and more than 52.9 percent can access 100/20 — up from 41.56 percent. The numbers in Pipestone County are 97.87 and 79.73 percent — up from 79.36 and 44.54 percent, respectively — but Dawson said the numbers shouldn’t be relied on.
Counties recognize wireless as a means to meeting 2022 state goals, but at looking for fiber to reach 2026 goals…
Minnesota wants 25/3 speeds mandated statewide by 2022. By 2026, the required numbers will be raised to 100/20. Reaching those speeds consistently is nearly impossible with wireless internet, Dawson said.
“The wireless that we’re talking about is capable of that within a mile or so, but you would have to put a cell site at every farm — that’s not going to happen,” he said.
Instead, broadband experts agree the ultimate solution is delivering fiber-to-the-home, reliably delivering 1-gigabit (1000Mbps) speeds.
Lismore Telephone is installing fiber to every household in Leota and Wilmont and hundreds of homes along its 135-mile fiber ring, but it is expensive. In addition to $6 million between the state and Nobles County, the county had to throw in an addition $1 million in cash and $2.57 million in taxable general obligation tax abatement bonds to make it work.
That’s with fiber costing around $20,000 per mile, and the price won’t be coming down any time soon, Dawson said.
“You are already in a state where fiber is as cheap as it will possibly be,” Dawson said. “With 50-foot deep soil, they can get it in real easy. Minnesota can bury fiber for $20,000 a mile, where in a lot of parts of the country, that’s $50,000 a mile.”
For Woodstock, a successful fiber formula has been delivering directly to large businesses, where the return on investment makes it doable.