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.

Pope County gets results of broadband feasibility study including fiber wireless hybrid option

Pope County Tribune reports…

Pope County continues to work toward increasing broadband access and Internet speed for all residents and businesses in the county.

The county recently utilized grant money to fund a feasibility study on broadband to improve Internet access and speed in underserved or unserved areas of Pope County.

Pope County Commissioners, along with about 50 residents of the county, heard the results of that study last Tuesday and learned about the next steps needed to improve broadband throughout the county.

The study area excluded most of the western part of the county, including Starbuck, because areas served by Federated Telephone Cooperative already have fiber, and the area served by Runestone Telephone Company are expected to get fiber in the near future.  The city of Starbuck is currently served by Mediacom and that area has speeds greater than 100 megabytes per second (MBps).  The goal is to bring all areas in the county to Internet speeds of at least 10-25 MBps, according to Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting, the firm that did the study along with Finley Engineering.  The study concentrated on Glenwood, Sedan, Villard and all other rural parts of the county, it was stated at the meeting.

They talked about a network plan…

CCG Consulting and Finley Engineering found in the study that bringing all-fiber to the 4,626 households in the underserved area of the county is expensive.  That’s why they designed a scenerio that includes a fiber ring around the county and utilizes wireless technology to serve portions of the county within that ring.  On that scenario, there would be about 1,358 households on fiber and 3,226 served through the wireless technology.  “This would be far and away better than what is out there now, but the goal is to bring fiber to each household,” Dawson explained.  He also said that the wireless technology has improved drastically over the past few years and is a viable system.

So, the plan would be to construct a 67.6-mile long fiber ring to cover the service area (the entire county).  That would mean there would be 765 miles of roads that would need fiber and the engineers stated that it would be more cost effective to bury that whole fiber network, so it would not be placed on rural poles.

Adding the wireless scenario would mean utilizing new and exiting towers throughout the county that would be served by fiber.  The wireless system being considered would delver speeds of at least 25 mbps.  “That’s the minimum and the goal would be to upgrade the white space spectrum to increase bandwidth,” he explained.

And costs…

Installing fiber everywhere in the county would cost about $29.3 million, according to the study.  If the combination of wireless and fiber were used, the cost would drop to about $9 million.  And in another scenario, the study excluded the city of Glenwood and used a wireless and fiber combination for the rest of the county and that was estimated to cost about $6.5 million.

For customers on the fiber network, that would provide fast Internet, cable TV and telephone.  For wireless customers, it would provide Internet and telephone service only.

It was stated at the meeting that there is “no reasonable scenerio to immediately finance fiber to the entire county.  That would take at least a 75 percent state or federal grant to make it possible.  Today, most of the state grants funded to broadband expansion are about 50 percent grant.

But, the study found, it is financial viable for a local telephone company to do the combination of wireless and fiber, especially with some state grant money.    According to the study, it would take a 43 percent penetration for the company that would provide the service to break even.  A 60 percent penetration would return about $12.1 million over 25 years, and a 70 percent penetration would return about $17.8 million over the same period.

Fillmore County creates a Broadband Development Fund

According to the Fillmore County Journal

In support of the [Minnesota Border to Border broadband] grant applications to rural Lanesboro and rural Rushford, the county board agreed to provide $75,000 to support each application. This day the board formalized the establishment of a Broadband Development Fund in the amount of $150,000. This will be a revolving loan fund that will be paid back and used to support future applications for broadband grants. The fund will be used to support grant applications for any provider of services within the county.

The board approved an agreement with AcenTek to loan them $75,000, which will be repaid to the county over three years, pending county attorney approval of the agreement. Smith noted the provision of monetary support by a local government entity for an application is important; it adds points for an application when the application is reviewed by the office of Broadband Development. This is a competitive process for limited grant funding. The state grant in the Lanesboro area project provides about 25% of the total project cost.

Smith said it is our intention to resubmit an application for the Rushford project this year.

Southwest MN Counties get Blandin grant for broadband feasibility study

The Granite Falls News reports

Blandin Foundation announced recently that it has awarded 11 grants totaling $483,090 that assist rural Minnesota communities in advancing high-speed Internet access and use in their communities. Among these, the Southwest Regional Development Commission (SRDC), in partnership with Chippewa, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Pipestone and Yellow Medicine counties, will benefit from grant funding to map existing Internet technologies and explore possibilities for increasing Internet access.

The six participating counties have elected to collaborate for not only economic benefits pertaining to the cost of the study, but also to ensure that county lines do not limit any projects that result. “We like to say at the Foundation, ‘Change follows relationship lines at the speed of trust,’” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement. “It’s fantastic that so many partners in southwest Minnesota have come together to explore what they can do together that they couldn’t do alone.”

To prepare for the feasibility study, Chippewa and Yellow Medicine Counties engaged the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission to conduct several listening meetings to hear stories and concerns about existing broadband access. Based on expressed needs, an engineering firm will study three different scenarios for bringing fiber to the counties: 1) build fiber to every part of each county that is not covered adequately, 2) build a fiber-fed wireless network, and 3) look to see if there are any public/private partnership options that add value to the project.

The grants funds received from the Blandin Foundation will provide the impetus to get the project going in Chippewa County. This is a very important project for Chippewa County. There will be a need for many volunteers moving forward to assist in the implementation of this project. For each scenario, the cost of the network will be quantified, revenue streams will be identified and an implementation plan will be created. “Today’s rural leaders know that for their communities to reach their fullest potential, they need a strong Internet connection,” said Blandin Foundation President and CEO Dr. Kathleen Annette. “We are thrilled to see six counties in southwest Minnesota collaborating to bring the promise of the Internet to their residents. We are honored to stand with them as they pave the way to a broadband-enabled future.”

Lake County Connections – for sale but a very rural area is well-served

I wrote earlier this month about the Lake County network sale. Today the Minneapolis Star Tribune has a full story. I think it’s a good case study on community networks in rural areas.

Why do local governments get involved with broadband?

Lake County never wanted to own a broadband network and still doesn’t, he [county administrator Matt Huddleston] said. The only reason Lake Connections exists in 2017 is that the county and its commissioners had reluctantly concluded that no one else, privately owned or otherwise, had any interest in building out broadband throughout Lake County.

How bad was it?

Spotty and slow internet service was a common complaint, from everyone from business owners to health care administrators. And in January 2010, a fiber-optic line failure in Duluth knocked out service to Lake County and other areas of northeastern Minnesota. News accounts from the time describe phone service going out, including 911 calls, credit cards not working and bank ATMs going down. Even the Border Patrol had to scramble to restore communications.

The availability of federal stimulus money after the start of the Great Recession is what provided the opportunity for Lake County to take charge of providing its own solution.

What were the problems building the network?

The county’s up-and-down history with the RUS later became the subject of an in-depth investigation published in Politico entitled “Wired to fail,” although by far most of the criticism was directed at the federal agency.

It’s certainly true that the project ran into delays, including finding out it would be very difficult to get rights to hang Lake Connections’ cables on the poles of other utilities.

It didn’t help that the traditional broadband industry, which didn’t want to make a big investment in Lake County, also didn’t want the taxpayer to do it. That explains why the cable company Mediacom Communications tossed legal and PR rocks at the project.

There were speed bumps with contractors, too, and the current management company has been in place only since late last year. But the county pressed ahead, and the first customers in Silver Bay and Two Harbors were connected roughly three years ago.

Would they do it again?

But it seems clear that even if the county doesn’t get back all or much of the more than $17 million it has put into the project, county officials won’t see much to apologize to the voters for.

After sorting through a list of names of logical potential buyers, one conclusion was that what the county decided more than seven years ago still seems to be true — that had the county not stepped in, they would still be waiting for reliable broadband service in Lake County.