St Paul could use COVID money for better broadband

MinnPost posts an idea from columnist Bill Lindeke…

In normal times, especially given the 2020 COVID budget crunch, cities would be hamstrung when it comes to doing anything about this problem. But these are not normal times. This month, cities across the country are getting a huge one-time influx of money, thanks to Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

In a city like St. Paul, it amounts to $187 million, and it’s targeted for COVID-related assistance and a list of infrastructure types that, critically, includes broadband.

How does St Paul Compare to Minneapolis?

St. Paul grants companies permission to provide internet access within the city every few years — the current franchisees are Comcast and Centurylink —  and that negotiation provides an opportunity to leverage benefits for people. For example, both of the current providers are supposed to provide a small income-based discount for people who qualify. (In practice, this can be a difficult application and is not always applicable.)

One of the key reasons that Minneapolis’ broadband network is so much better than St. Paul’s is that it has a decade-old partnership with US Internet (USI), a Minnetonka-based company. Years ago, the city teamed up to fund an admittedly spotty municipal wireless service network. But that partnership allowed USI to invest in fiber optic broadband throughout much of south Minneapolis. That in turn allowed the city’s fiber service to be both faster and more affordable than the larger national providers.

Ask around yourself. Pretty much without exception, any USI fiber customer gushes accolades about their broadband service, which reaches speeds of 300 megabits per second (at minimum). By far the biggest complaint about USI is that it’s not available everywhere. Moving from a Minneapolis neighborhood with USI fiber to a part of town without it amounts to losing a cherished pet, and I’m convinced there are people who decide where to live based on their fiber service availability.

Maybe St Paul could improve on the Minneapolis model…

Chris Mitchell would like St. Paul to use some of its ARP money to copy and improve this model, perhaps leasing a new network to the company. Or alternately, the city could build the fiber network itself, representing something of a moonshot for a municipality that only recently began organizing trash collection.

Either way, there are a lot of options for how to leverage the funding, and it could do wonders for digital equity in St. Paul’s poorest communities. Crucially, they could use COVID money to focus on the city’s poorest neighborhoods first.

EVENT May 5: Dakota Broadband Board Technical Advisory Committee Meeting

Dakota County has been working on building broadband through partnerships for a long time. So even if you’re not in Dakota County, you might learn something lurking at some meetings.

They have one May 5, 2021 from 8:30-10:30am. One topic that may be of interest: Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Initiative. You can get the full agenda online.

Half surveyed trust local government to get into broadband

Morning Consult reports…

As the pandemic continues to underscore the importance of reliable, at-home internet service, debate rages over whether local governments should be permitted to build out and run their own broadband networks, either on their own or with the help of a private partner.

The White House, in its infrastructure proposal released earlier this month, has thrown its support behind allowing municipalities to explore such options. And a new Morning Consult poll suggests many adults agree with that stance: 53 percent of U.S. adults said local governments should be able to explore having their own internet services — but they tend to trust local governments less than private internet companies to carry out the job on their own.

The survey, which was conducted online April 16-19 among 2,200 adults, has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

 

Here are some results:

  • 54% said they had either “a lot” or “some” trust in local governments to give them the best at-home internet service, compared to 75% who said the same about private internet providers.
  • Eighteen states currently make it prohibitively difficult for towns to consider local internet service options.
  • Just 14% of adults said local governments should not be allowed to consider municipal broadband options.

Comparing Duluth’s market-based broadband solution to Superior’s Municipal open access model

Duluth News Tribune reports…

Superior is considering a $31 million investment in a fiber optic network, while Duluth is prepared to put $1 million on the table as the city weighs its options.

Duluth News Tribune goes on to compare the two cities based on broadband access; it’s a story of market-based solutions and city sponsored open access model.

The story in Duluth…

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has offered a harsh assessment of the city’s dominant broadband service provider: Spectrum Internet. …

But Larson remains unimpressed and has proposed the city spend $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds “to incentivize new service providers to enter the market” and compete with Spectrum. …

Schuchman concurred [with uneven access in Duluth], saying: “I do think one of the challenges we have is that there are areas of the city that do not have broadband, and so, while the city in general does, and we are considered ‘served’ at that point, we also have some gaps. So, it’s really important to the city and the community to close those gaps and make sure that we have equitable distribution of that access and that it is consistent and high-quality.”

Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, said the situation in the Twin Ports is “unfortunately, a story shared among cities and towns across the U.S.”

“Often, a given provider will own the phone lines, while another will own the cable lines. This creates a de facto duopoly which is one of the central barriers to broadband expansion across the country,” he said

The story in Superior…

Meanwhile, across the river in Superior, aggressive efforts to boost Spectrum’s competition in the Twin Ports are taking even clearer shape. At a Thursday night listening session, representatives of EntryPoint Networks laid out plans to potentially build out an open-access fiber optic network in Superior at an estimated cost of about $31 million. …

“It’s a robust digital road, and it’s open to, in this case, any ISP (internet service provider) that will follow the rules,” Christensen said.

For its part, the city would require users of this fiber network to pay a toll or fee that would be used to help pay off the cost of building and maintaining the system.

Christensen said the fiber network would offer customers speeds of 1 gigabit per second for both downloads and uploads, likely at a monthly cost of about $50, give or take 10%. He said the network would need a minimum of about 3,000 subscribers to be sustainable and is likely to easily exceed that threshold.

The rest of the article outlines the differences, benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Photo from Duluth News Tribune: A chart taken from a Connect Superior Webinar video on YouTube.

MN Bill aims to expand broadband in rural MN by expending easements for electric coops

KTOE reports

A bill at the State Capitol would allow rural electric cooperatives to use existing and future held easements for broadband. Brian Krambeer is President and Ceo of My Energy Cooperative and he says the bill could help cities, especially those in Greater Minnesota, improve access to broadband.

“Electric co-ops are non-profit organizations. we’re looking for an opportunity to help and benefit our members, we want all of our members to be able to have broadband because it’s an important quality of life thing just like electrification was in the 1930s.”

EVENT Mar 24: Blandin Broadband Lunch Smart Cities – and Update on Broadband Day on the Hill

Just a reminder for folks that this conversation is happening on Wednesday…

Smart tactics for cities, suburbs and town (March 24 noon to 1pm CST)
Join to talk about smart tactics for cities, suburbs and town. I’m excited to have a few experts from Smart North join us.  Smart North is a coalition of public, private, civic, education, and entrepreneurial individuals and organizations looking to drive Smart City initiatives throughout Minnesota. (They are looking for partners, especially in rural areas!)

A few weeks ago, I got a chance to talk to founders Sabina Saksena (CytiLife), Ben Wallace (Minify Energy) and Thomas Fisher (U of M School of Architecture College of Design). You can watch the video for a quick take on what they do – from autonomous cars, big data and energy!

Also Wednesday is Broadband Day on the Hill, which ends just as we start. I’m hoping/expecting a few of folks to hop on over to let us how it went and maybe we can celebrate lifting broadband in the eyes of the legislature.

Should be a full day! Register here.

St Louis Park (MN) invests ahead to build better broadband for the community

The Institute for Local Self Reliance recently featured St Louis Park and they decades-long approach to building a better broadband plan. The early numbers communities that bite the bullet are always impressive. Instead of paying to use someone else’s network for $45,000 a year, they invested $380,000 in their own. There are ongoing costs and the price to rent would have fluctuated but also owning opens doors. I’ll just share the start of the story, you can check out Community Networks for the whole story…

St. Louis Park (pop. 49,000), a suburb west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has demonstrated commitment and creativity in bringing broadband access to the region over the last two decades. They’ve done so by connecting community anchor institutions and school district buildings, in supporting ongoing infrastructure via a dig once policy, by working with developers to pre-wire buildings with gigabit-or-better-capable connections, and by using simple, easy-to-understand contracts to lease extra dark fiber to private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to improve connectivity options for local residents.

Conversations about improving broadband in St. Louis Park began in the 1990s, when local government officials and the St. Louis Park School District began talking about replacing the aging copper infrastructure it was leasing from the cable and telephone companies with fiber to support educational use and municipal services. At the time the city was paying about $45,000/year to stay connected and online. A 2003 projection suggested it could invest $380,000 to build its own network instead, take ownership of its infrastructure, and see a full return on investment in less than a decade.

Fiber, both the city and the school district decided, offered the best path forward for the range of tools and bandwidth that would bring success. The school district led off in connecting its structures, but by 2004 both were done, with each contributing to joint maintenance and operational costs. The city thereafter decided to keep going and expand its infrastructure wherever it made the most sense. In 2006 it advanced this agenda by adopting a dig-once policy by adding conduit — and sometimes fiber — any time a street was slated for repairs.

House Republicans introduce legislation to ban on municipal broadband in the US

The Register reports

House Republicans this week proposed legislation that would ban the creation of municipal broadband networks at a federal level, and shutter networks in areas where some private competition exists – purportedly to improve internet access across the US.

Dubbed the CONNECT Act (Communities Overregulating Networks Need Economic Competition Today), the bill [PDF] says: “A State or political subdivision thereof may not provide or offer for sale to the public, a telecommunications provider, or to a commercial provider of broadband internet access service, retail or wholesale broadband internet access service.”

The CONNECT Act would also ban states from operating municipal broadband networks in areas where two or more private operators exist. The language here is fairly vague, and it doesn’t state how affected operators should dispose of their existing infrastructure. It’s also fairly limited about what constitutes a “private operator”, deferring only to the barebones definition in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

The CFR doesn’t define any particular infrastructure technology, other than saying dial-up does not constitute broadband. Plausibly, satellite connections (like those offered by ViaSat and HughesNet, as well as newcomer Starlink) would be included in this catch-all, despite coming with higher costs and lower data caps than traditional fixed-line networks.

HBC Expands Broadband in Rural Winona and Dakota Counties

Big news for HBC as well as Rural Winona and Dakota Counties …

Construction is underway in parts of rural Winona and Dakota county to expand rural broadband Internet through monies provided by the CARES Act.
Hiawatha Broadband Communications, Inc. (HBC) president, Dan Pecarina, announced HBC is expanding existing networks near Pickwick and Rollingstone in Winona County. And in Dakota County, construction is underway in Nininger Township and an area near Highway 46 and 160th Street.
“HBC is proud to be partnering with Winona and Dakota counties on these projects. Each project helps us in our commitment to expand broadband to the underserved and unserved areas of our region,” said Pecarina. “The COVID-19 pandemic has really underscored how important a broadband connection is in today’s world. When completed, these projects will help provide services that will not only help students learn from home but allow their parents to work remotely.”
Construction in the Pickwick area and Nininger township is currently underway. Michael Barker, Director of Technical Operations at HBC, said the plan is to finish all construction by year’s end.
“Right now, crews are actively working near Pickwick and Nininger (township),” he said. “If the weather holds, we should complete construction operations by the end of the year.”
In addition to the fiber-optic network expansion, HBC has already activated a broadband fixed wireless tower near Nodine in Winona County. HBC will also be activating five broadband fixed wireless towers in Dakota County.
Winona County has allotted $1 million in CARES funding to pay for rural broadband expansion projects. Dakota County has earmarked $800,000 for its broadband expansion projects.
“When work is completed,” Pecarina said, “more than 800 homes that previously had no highspeed broadband access will now have the access they need for learning and working from home.”

EVENT Nov 20: Minnesota Broadband Coalition Strategy Session

From the MN Broadband Coalition…

Save the Date!
Minnesota Broadband Coalition Strategy Session

Friday, November 20, 2020
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Via Zoom
This meeting will  include a professional facilitator to help us develop a cohesive strategy for the organization moving forward.  Agenda coming soon!
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 974 7436 8831
Passcode: 564934
Join by phone:
Meeting ID: 974 7436 8831
Passcode: 564934
Find your local number: https://zoom.us/u/abeMvqZnAp

Please RSVP by replying to this email or Emily Murray to indicate attendance or absence.

CTC proposes better broadband in Greenwood Township for $6.3 million

The Ely Timber Jay reports…

A preliminary proposal from CTC, a broadband (high speed internet) supplier, puts the cost of bringing broadband-level service to as many as 1,370 residences in the Greenwood Township area at around $6.3 million dollars. The project would include the installation of almost 106 miles of fiber optic cable, which would be buried underground.
Greenwood is currently served by Frontier Communications, offering a lower-speed DSL service, which is not sufficient for those wishing to telecommute. The company is also unreliable, often requiring long wait times for repairs.
Chairman Mike Ralston said costs for similar projects in northeastern Minnesota were in the same ballpark. One recent project, he said, was funded almost entirely with grant dollars, with a cost of just $100,000 to the township.
The cost estimate, Ralston said, is preliminary, and would change once actual groundwork and mapping is done.
Ralston said estimates of monthly costs for broadband customers would be between $60 and $100, depending on the speed of service.
The project would be done in conjunction with expansion of broadband service to the Vermilion Reservation.
The board, at Tuesday’s meeting, passed a motion to continue working with CTC. They also passed a motion to search for and hire a grant writer to work with the township to apply for available federal, state, and local grant programs.
The proposal would not include bringing broadband service to island properties.
“This is a starting point,” said Ralston. “We can use these numbers in our grant application to move forward….this is a good first step.”
The township had initially been soliciting proposals from a second company, Paul Bunyan from Bemidji, but they hadn’t yet responded to township requests for preliminary cost estimates, Ralston said.
Byron Beihoffer pushed back against reports that he was against broadband.
At last month’s meeting, Beihoffer said he wasn’t hearing any enthusiasm for broadband, and he speculated that the community wasn’t “gung-ho” on proceeding, and that “a lot of people…are happy with the internet they have.”
Beihoffer called the reporting that he was against broadband “fake news.”
“I was in support of the $50,000 proposed in the levy for broadband,” he said. “The people who voted against the $50,000 are against it.”
“I will continue to work for it,” he said.

Fall Lake Township is getting broadband from Zito Media (Lake County)

Ely Echo reports on a Fall Lake Township meeting earlier this week…

Fall Lake Township residents, broadband is coming. That is what T.C. Leveille with Zito Media told the supervisors and the 10 citizens attending the township meeting Tuesday night.
“The main roads will be worked on first,” said Leveille, “and then branch out from there. Year-round residents would be first, then seasonal places.”
Hopefully more residents will have broadband connection by spring. Leveille said Zito is looking for a building to store equipment. He said there may be a possibility for free services in exchange for a storage area.
He said Fall Lake has areas that are more inaccessible because of ledge rock and a pole attachment agreement would have to be reached with Lake Country Power and Minnesota Power.
Leveille was asked if there is a possibility of going under Fall Lake to access the north side of the lake. He said he would have to check into that, but Supervisor Eric Hart said it is hard to get approval from the DNR.
Sheila Gruba asked if Zito could have an article in the Ely Echo about the broadband progress for Fall Lake and have contact information for Zito so residents who are interested in connecting to broadband could get on a list.
Gruba said Town of Morse has received funds from IRRRB for broadband, and maybe Fall Lake could get funding also.
Supervisor Craig Seliskar said Ulland Brothers received the big for the Cloquet Line project, and the bid came in under the estimated cost. Seliskar had a scheduled meeting with Ulland and TKDA Engineering Thursday morning and said work would be starting on Monday, October 12. The work would include clearing, widening and culvert replacement. Ulland hopes to keep one lane of traffic open with a pilot car or flagmen.

I didn’t know Zito Media; it looks like they provide wireless and cable options.

IRRR Board supports broadband deployment projects in St Louis County

Business North reports

Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation is investing $1.5 million to improve broadband within two rural areas of northeastern Minnesota.

The IRRR Board on Tuesday recommended funding broadband projects in Pequaywan Township in the Cloquet Valley area, and in Wuori, Sandy and Pike Townships north of Virginia.

Here are some of the details…

The $4 million Pequaywan Township project, supported by a $750,000 IRRR grant, will construct fiber to 266 unserved and underserved households. Cooperative Light and Power, which will invest $3.2 million in the project, will construct, operate and provide service.

The $3.1 million Wuori, Sandy and Pike Township project, backed by a $750,000 IRRR grant, will construct fiber to 616 unserved and underserved households. Paul Bunyan Communications, which will invest $1.2 million in the project, will construct, operate and provide service.

The two projects are the latest in a number of high-speed broadband projects the IRRR has in recent supported in its service area in partnership with other funding sources.

“We’re excited about these projects,” said Phillips. “Every time we complete one of these projects, another 500 to 600 people are served. It’s significant.”

Monticello’s municipal network FiberNet is 15 years old – catch up with them via ILSR

From the unique pronunciation of Monticello (think “sello” not “chello”), the town has never been afraid to stand out. Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Chris Mitchell talks to City Planner Jeff O’Neill about FiberNet, Monticello’s municipal network. It has been the subject of talk since it started 15 years ago. Spoiler alert, it’s going well, especially in the time of COVID. Here’s the description of the conversation from ILSR -and know that it’s a fun quick listen…

Christopher and Jeff delve into the history and development of the network over the last fifteen years. They discuss how business leaders began calling for the city to look for a solution to poor Internet speeds all the way back in 2005, why the city ultimately decided to build its own network, and how FiberNet persevered in the face of an early lawsuit so that incumbent provider TDS could slow competition as it began its own fiber buildout. Jeff and Chris then talk about the network subsequently weathering a vicious price war with Charter Spectrum which contributed to the fracturing of its relationship with early partner Hiawatha Broadband, but which also brought significant savings and better customer service from incumbent providers to everyone in town.

They end by discussing the multitude of community benefits realized today by having three competing providers in Monticello — two offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in the city of 14,000 — and what it means for community savings and economic development for the city moving forward. Jeff ends by sharing some of the work he’s most proud of being involved in and what he sees as important for FiberNet in the years ahead.

Dakota County plans for CARES and Broadband (Meeting Aug 4)

If you have an interest in what’s happening in Dakota County or you just want to hear/see what another county is doing, you might consider attending the discussion (online and in person) in Dakota County

WHEREAS, Dakota County is committed to be a high-performing organization for the citizens of the County; and

WHEREAS, the Workshop will be an opportunity for the County Board to discuss Broadband; and

WHEREAS, staff recommends holding a workshop to allow staff to receive direction from the County Board on Broadband.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, That the Dakota County Board of Commissioners hereby schedules a County Board Workshop for Tuesday, August 4, 2020, following the General Government and Policy Committee, in the Boardroom, Administration Center, 1590 Highway 55, Hastings, MN, or via telephone or other electronic means if necessary due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to receive comments on staff direction for Broadband.

You can learn a little more about their plan (easier to read on their site)

Update On Process And Timeline For Potential COVID-19 Related Broadband Expansion Using CARES Act Funding

PURPOSE/ACTION REQUESTED
Provide an update on the process and timeline in developing COVID-19 related Broadband Expansion in Dakota County.
SUMMARY
The County is interested in learning about potential opportunities to invest CARES Act funds to better support our residents to engage in remote learning, work from home, and other activities that require a robust network of connectivity and to better meet the public service needs revealed by the pandemic. Dakota County requires broadband infrastructure built out to serve the unserved and underserved. The County is interested in exploring all technologies available to address the unserved and underserved areas of the County (Attachment A). These areas can be large or small geographically or in population.
The County will mail letters of interest (Attachment B) to all service providers (Attachment C) in the County asking them to respond with project areas that can be built out to better serve the residents of the County. Submissions must specify the unserved or underserved area(s) to be addressed, the total cost and funds requested from the County, and the timeline including the firm completion date. The Information Technology (IT) Department will review and recommend the best potential projects and setup meetings to fully develop project plans.
Proposed Time Line:
July 28, 2020 – send Letters of Interest to all service providers
August 12, 2020 – deadline for receipt of responses
Week ending August 21, 2020 reviewing responses
Request Board approval in September
Contracts for approved projects executed September
October/November buildout
Payment before December 1st
County IT will update the board with specific project locations, cost and project schedules.
RECOMMENDATION
Information only; no action requested.
EXPLANATION OF FISCAL/FTE IMPACTS
Funding for any projects, if approved, would be expected to use CARES Act funds with an amount to be
determined.

And a look at the letter that is going out…

DATE: July 28, 2020
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Dan Cater, Chief Information Officer
SUBJECT: Broadband Connectivity within Dakota County borders
Dakota County Government has an interest in expanding high speed internet throughout Dakota County as the COVID-19 situation has illustrated the need for faster more reliable connectivity for our citizens, business, and other agencies.
The County is interested in learning about potential opportunities to invest CARES Act funds to better support our residents to engage in remote learning, work from home, and other activities that require a robust network of connectivity and to better meet the public service needs revealed by the pandemic.
Dakota County requires broadband infrastructure built out to serve the unserved and underserved. The County is interested in exploring all technologies available to address the unserved and underserved areas of the County. These areas can be large or small geographically or in population.
Attached is the most recent service inventory map produced by the State of Minnesota Deed Office of Broadband. CARES Act requires an aggressive timeline. Submissions must specify the unserved or underserved area(s) to be addressed, the total cost and funds requested from the County, and the timeline including the firm completion date. Work and payment need to be completed before
December 1st of this year. A high-level timeline is below:
– July 28th – letter soliciting proposals/plans
– August 12
th – deadline for receipt of responses
– Week ending August 21st review responses, setting up zoom meetings
– Request Board approval in September
– Contracts executed in September
– October/November buildout
– Payment before December 1st
Please let us know if you have an interest in discussing in providing a solution by contacting
Dan.Ferber@co.dakota.mn.us or Dan.Cater@co.dakota.mn.us.

Dakota County is always generous with public access to documents, which I think can be a gift to counties with fewer staff working on broadband.