Ely is doing a broadband feasibility – if you’re in Ely you can help

Ely is looking to get input from local residents and businesses about their broadband use and need. I wanted to share to help spread the word to folks in Ely. But also it’s a good model for any community that might be looking to do the same.

 

The Ely Echo reports…

Ely area residents and business owners, your input is needed.
In the quest to create a broadband fiber loop downtown and improve high-speed internet service in the city limits and into the surrounding townships, area leaders have commissioned a pair of public surveys.
One is for residents and the other is for business owners, and both come as part of an ongoing area broadband feasibility study that encompasses the boundaries of the Ely School District.

A little background on the project…

Earlier in the year, Ely was named one of six Blandin Broadband Communities in northeastern Minnesota, and a $25,000 grant from the Grand Rapids-based foundation will help fund the feasibility study.
The study is the next step in what could be an effort to improve internet service in the Ely area.
City officials have talked about establishing a fiber loop downtown and expanding the network outward, and Langowski said efforts aren’t limited to the city limits.
In a nod to those who live outside of town and have wrestled with slow internet speeds, Langowski said the project could involve towers for improved wireless service in the outlying areas.

And a link to the survey…

The survey is already up on the city’s website (www.ely.mn.us) and has been distributed via e-mail to some interested parties.
The residential survey includes questions about demographics, satisfaction with and the level of current internet service, current internet speed, how respondents use the internet, reliability of current internet service. Respondents are also asked how much they’d be willing to pay for faster, higher quality internet service.
Business owners are asked similar questions, as well as specific questions about how their business might use faster service and the importance of redundancy – which provides additional protection and network availability in case of technical failure.

Case study of Cook County MN – building a case, building partnerships, building broadband

CoBank recently published a helpful (and inspiring!) report on Making the Move to Broadband: Rural Electric Co-ops Detail Their Experience. The whole report is worth a read if you’re looking at tackling rural broadband and even you’re not an electric cooperative. One of the communities they highlight is Cook County and old ARRA project deployed by Arrowhead Electric Cooperative.

A little bit of background on the project. IN 2009, Cook County was listed as least served counties in Minnesota; last I looked they had 94 percent coverage for speeds of 25/3 and 100/20. ARRA Funding is the impetus for the jump. (Although they were also part of Blandin’s MIRC program, which certainly helped boost use of the network.)

The case study is in the form of an interview – Jenny Kartes from Arrowhead talking to Mark Doyle from CoBank. I am just going to pull out the section (pg 43-44) that I think will have the most value for the greatest number of reader – so folks with and without a relationship to a cooperative – although I have to say the ethos for the cooperative certainly seems like a good fit for getting rural broadband done…

MD: Did you partner with anyone?

JK: We did. At the beginning of our project, we had a number of options as to how we were going to do this. Were we going to be the retail provider or the wholesale provider? We found quickly that there is a large learning curve especially related to phone and the assets you need for providing phone service. We wanted a partner with our same values and good industry knowledge. We found Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) out of Brainerd, Minnesota, which as a cooperative really had our same values and has been doing this for a very long time. They were a good fit for us, and they were very excited to work with us as well. It was a good partnership as a small entity. There was a lot more on the front end than we had originally realized. We did indeed need that partnership and rely heavily on it.

MD: How are you funding the project?

JK: We funded this project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the broadband initiative program. It was funded through a $16.1 million federal grant and loan: $11.3 million in grant and $4.8 million in federal loan. After our application, we realized that due to our terrain and the seasonality of our customers, it was going to cost a bit more than that. We then went to our county, and they

provided $4 million more in grant funds to us. It was a $20 million project in total, roughly 75 percent grant funded.

MD: Did you collect contributions in aid to construction from your subscribers?

JK: On the initial rollout of our project we did not. We had a window of a few years, as we were rolling out our construction, when we allowed people to essentially sign up for free construction to the home. It did not require them to take service. Once that window closed, and if you did not sign up within that window, then we do require 100 percent aid to construction from the subscriber. Since our subscribers are not necessarily members of our cooperative, we do require them to fund that construction.

MD: Was the project on time and on budget?

JK: Based on our original projections, it was not. As I mentioned earlier, our original budget was significantly short and we required an additional $4 million to complete the project. We then reworked our budget a few times, and we did stay very close to our second budget that included the additional $4 million.

 

However, that did create a timing issue as far as securing the additional funds to complete the project. The project was initially to be done at the end of 2013, and we finalized the project in 2015. Construction delays were mainly due to the terrain. We have a lot of rock, and construction is slow going in our service area. Additionally, the very short construction season in northern Minnesota

slowed us down.

MD: Did you encounter any surprises or challenges along the way?

JK: Yes. I could talk for quite a while on that. Having detailed maps and accurate plant records would have saved us a lot of frustration and a lot of time as the project began. We also did not realize the importance of on-site engineering, on-site contractor management and constant quality assurance throughout the project, at every point. We ended the project with those elements in place. We also ended up changing some of our contractors/vendors mid-project. Many of our contract crews were a bit surprised by our service territory and the time it took to complete work, never doing work up here before.

MD: What is your long-term measurement for the success of this project?

JK: The long-term measurement for success, being that our goal was to just get our community connected, is that the broadband project and division can be financially self-sustaining. We do not want the project to have any risk for our electric members. We’re not looking to make large profits off of it. If it can stand on its own financially, and provide good customer service and good broadband service to our community, we will call it a success.

Feasibility study in Pipestone County find wireless more affordable broadband option

The Pipestone County Star reports…

The most viable way to provide broadband internet service to under-served parts of Pipestone County is with a wireless system, and even that is not feasible without a grant.

Those were the findings of a broadband internet study Pipestone County commissioned earlier this year to find out what it would take to provide broadband access to the under-served parts of the county. Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting, and Mark Mrla, business unit manager with Finley Engineering, presented the results of the study Sept. 12 to the Pipestone County Board.

The study examined three scenarios to bring broadband to 1,747 homes where it is not currently available: Build a complete fiber system; build a hybrid fiber and wireless system; or an all wireless system. An all-fiber system requiring 458 miles of fiber was estimated to cost $12,359,445, a hybrid system $5,327,253, and an all wireless system $1,002,809.

A factor on the table…

Meanwhile, Woodstock Communications expects to find out before the end of the year if it will receive a $363,000 Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grant to build a hybrid fiber/wireless system estimated to cost $967,000.

The company’s plan differs from the $5,327,253 hybrid plan in the feasibility study because Woodstock would use existing infrastructure and less fiber, relying more heavily on wireless service.

So they are waiting to figure out what to do…

Sharon Hanson, Pipestone County administrator, said the county plans to wait and see if Woodstock Communications receives the grant it has applied for and will share the broadband study with other internet providers if requested.

Pipestone County undertook the study in collaboration with five other counties. Its share of the $252,500 total cost of the study was $39,798, half of which was paid by a grant.

But the feasibility study contractors think that info will remain pertinent…

Dawson said the cost of fiber construction has remained steady over the last decade, so the costs in the report will probably be reliable for quite a while.

Fond du Lac Break ground on $8.2 million FTTH Project

This summer, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa broke ground on their fiber to the home project. Yay! Sadly, I wasn’t able to make the event. Thankfully Zachary N. Dunaiski from the Fond du Lac newspaper was willing to share notes and a picture with me.

I have done training on Fond du Lac. I have worked with entrepreneurs who run their businesses from their smartphone. I’ve worked with Elders on how to use Facebook to share (and tag) historical photos to help put names to faces. I’ve worked with people who want to use broadband to help their kids learn and help themselves earn a living. Earning a living may come from setting up an eBay shop or putting a profile on LinkedIn. In fact, one of my favorite teaching stories is the father and son duo who came to class. In class they decided to join LinkedIn – mostly on the premise that the father’s connections could be good for the son’s job search. BUT before the end of the class, the father (a pipe fitter) had a hit on his profile and a likely job lead!

In other words – this is a community that has built up demand. And now broadband supply is in the making.

The network cost is projected at $8.2 million. Two $3 million grants were secured from the USDA, Rural Development – Community Connect program. Fond du Lac Band is contributing $2.2 million to match.

Construction began last month (July 2017) and is expected to end October 2018. The project covers most of the Fond du Lac Reservation. The installation will include 160 miles of the main line fiber and 78 miles of drops or connections to the home. Also, there will be two Central offices located in Sawyer and Brookston. The project can provide connectivity to 1000 homes for both Band and Non-Band members.

Fond do Lac will benefit from this project with more than just business; it will also open up many opportunities such as Telemedicine, home health care, electronic health records, online schooling, and more. Additionally, the system is designed for voice, video, and data.

Kandiyohi County – the MN broadband grant project is off

West Central Tribune reports…

A $10 million project to bring broadband to rural northern Kandiyohi County is officially dead.

In a news release issued Tuesday afternoon, Consolidated Telecommunications Co. said it was pulling out of the project, citing financial considerations.

I’ve been following the story, so that isn’t news. The lessons learned (as reported by West Central Tribune) are interesting…

Kleindl and the County Commissioners think there were probably multiple factors that made the project an uphill battle.

The company’s rollout of the sign-up campaign was confusing, they said. Roger Imdieke, chairman of the County Board, called it “poorly designed and poorly executed.”

The slow pace of sign-ups and payments became especially frustrating, Kleindl said. “As gut-wrenching as this has been, the reality is this: We needed people to sign up and they did not sign up.”

CTC was so cautious in moving forward that it cost them time, which in turn led to higher interest rates, he said.

The County Commissioners also believe the project was seriously hampered by a new grant requirement that gave existing internet providers the right of first refusal. This was the first time that applicants to the state’s border-to-border program dealt with this provision, and it left Consolidated Telecommunications Co. with limited options for choosing a project area that would be both cost-effective and contain an adequate customer base. The majority of other grant-funded projects either were not in areas with an incumbent provider or consisted of upgrading an already existing service.

It’s an issue the county wants to share with the Minnesota Office of Broadband Technology during future discussions about lessons learned from the failure of the project.

The state also needs to take a look at budget expectations that can leave grant recipients vulnerable to changing conditions, Kleindl said.

“They can’t have their margins so thin that they can’t adjust,” he said.

They recognize that the need remains.

Is rural broadband too expensive? Ask rural resident Aaron Brown!

Aaron Brown (aka Minnesota Brown) has been a long time, vocal advocate of rural Broadband. I remember when he celebrated when fiber came to his neighborhood on the Iron Range!

This week he talks about what it’s like to be in a community without broadband and with limited prospects

Thus, the United States has deferred to private companies to expand our broadband footprint. Those private companies have been loathe to invest in rural areas where they won’t see an immediate return on investment.

This has put the federal, state and even local governments in the business of waiting for those private companies to change their mind.

Usually, the general policy is to just ignore the broadband issue and tell rural residents that they’ll have internet in “5-10 years” when some combination of new technology and new private investment will enter the picture. They said this 5-10 years ago and 5-10 years before that.

Frustration over this endless delay has created demand for new rural broadband solutions. These have been implemented in all sorts of ways.

Recognizes Minnesota’s approach…

Here in Minnesota, state matching grants have helped several projects get off the ground, including one that brought fiber service to MinnesotaBrown World Headquarters. However, these grants have been limited to about $30-$35 million per biennium. This state money is then matched by some other source, usually private investment. In our case, it was a cooperative.

And a special nod to Iron Range neighbors who have gone all out to provide broadband for their residents…

And then we have the news this week that the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa was simply going to build a fiber network of its own. The $8 million plan, including matching funds from a federal program, will serve 900 unserved households on its reservation.

On one hand that’s a steep price — more than $6,000 per household. But on the other, it means improved quality of life, access to education and the potential for future job opportunities for those on the reservation. The impact could last decades. It depends on whether you perceive internet as a utility that is necessary for modern life or not.

Typically, opposition to this kind of broadband infrastructure comes down to the sheer cost of it. (“I know it’s good for people, but it’s too expensive”). Or it comes down to some kind of futuristic tech mythos. (They’ll be delivering the same thing through the air in 5-10 years, so don’t bother).

To that I would say that rural people are right to demand that they join the information age now, not later.

Blandin recognizes Lake County’s courage to expand broadband

The Lake County News Chronicle today posts a letter from Blandin Foundation president Kathy Annette applauding Lake County’s effort to improve local broadband…

Hope is the engine that powers change. Hope inspires communities to imagine a vibrant future for themselves and the generations to come.

Lake County leaders’ foresight, and ultimate decision, to strengthen their community by expanding high-speed Internet (broadband) access was grounded in hope for a better future and deserves recognition.

In 2009, county leaders already had figured out what other rural communities are just now realizing — that broadband access, and the skills to use it, are fundamental for strong economies, leading-edge education and healthcare, and a high quality of life.

Listening to the needs of their communities, Lake County leaders took courageous action on an issue that will define their future. Their ability to pull people together, identify needs, pool resources and forge partnerships — skills they used to make their broadband expansion choice — will serve them time and time again when opportunities and challenges arise.

We see the same forward-leaning hope in other work, county leaders have invited Blandin Foundation into, such as Two Harbors’ participation in the Leaders Partnering to End Poverty Program (LPEP). Organized through LPEP, Beacons of Hope leaders now combat poverty through inclusive conversation and action with leadership skills learned and exercised during training.

We saw it five years ago when Lake County was a Blandin Broadband Community. Making the most of the broadband connectivity they had at the time, leaders created a shared vision to improve Internet use. They launched a YouTube channel to share training videos, paired youth and seniors together to improve digital literacy, and created a central online source for community information, events and resources.

And the energy continues this summer. Two Harbors is recruiting for its third Blandin Community Leadership Program cohort.

We see how Lake County leaders continue to do what it takes to ensure a healthy and inclusive — vibrant — future for residents.

When it comes to rural broadband access, the need is great. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Each community’s situation is unique, and the menu of possible approaches is strongly impacted by whether any local providers are willing and able to partner.

Without a subsidy or incentive, for-profit providers sometimes cannot fully serve areas that don’t bring them enough financial return. That’s why some communities — like Lake County — choose to take their future into their own hands. As a result of their bold vision, Lake County residents now can use their world-class broadband network to do things like turn home offices into global operations, increasing sales and reducing costs. Research from the Strategic Networks Group found that for every $1 invested in broadband access and use, local economies see a return of $10. This confirms that broadband is one of the best bets a community can make when it comes to its future.

Communities must press on through successes and hurdles. Broadband access is fundamental to the survival of rural communities. Business people, students, patients and families feel that now more than ever. As rural champions, we must do what we can to kindle hope and empower local leaders to take action to meet their community’s needs.

We applaud you, Lake County, for your courageous leadership and your hopeful commitment to building a better future.