Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) talks small rural towns and broadband

This week on the Community Networks podcast, Christopher Mitchell spoke with Travis Thies, General Manager at Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) about how small towns can work together to create a market opportunity…

The network started with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and has continued to make improvements and upgrades to serve folks who were once stuck with antiquated Internet access. Before SMBS, several communities had been told by the incumbent Internet access provider that the best they could ever expect was dial-up service. Now, subscribers can sign-up for gigabit connections. With intelligent partnerships, they’re also able to provide service to farms and rural premises beyond town limits.

Travis and Christopher discuss the history of the project, the challenges that community leaders and network officials have faced and overcome, and how the area’s demographics have helped them determine the best ways to serve subscribers. They also discuss their partnership with a local fixed wireless Internet service provider and the how better connectivity has attracted people and businesses to the region.

Kandiyohi County doing feasibility study to investigate broadband grant options

Lakeland Broadcsting reports…

The Willmar and Kandiyohi County Economic Development Commission says a contract with Compass Consultants Inc. for an engineering study will determine fiber broadband feasibility in rural Kandiyohi County townships, including Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships. Pending the study outcomes and a positive response from the township constituents, the EDC will submit a Border-to-Border application to the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD) by August 2020.

They also provide a little history…

Kandiyohi County was granted a 4.9 million dollar Border-to-Border grant in 2017 to improve broadband in an area north of Willmar but the project fell through when the contractor, Consolidated Telephone, decided not to do the work out of fears there wasn’t enough interest.

More details on the previous grant – CTC was looking for 50 percent of potential customers to sign up for service. And competitor TDS announced plans to expand (using A-CAM funding) to parts of Kandiyohi County.

Sen Klobuchar team talks to Windom about broadband, housing, transportation and childcare (video included)

 There were about a dozen people at the meeting in Windom on Dec 17, in part because the meeting in Mankato went so well that they decided not to have a double header. The conversation extends beyond broadband. I only took notes on the broadband portions but they also discussed housing, transportation and childcare.

Intro on broadband from Chuck Ackman from Klobuchar’s Office:

Broadband was infrastructure (historically) until the Senator realized it’s a rural issue. So in 2016, it came to Chuck.

Working on Deployment, data and mapping – the details of broadband. We are working on getting the facts to make better decisions. Minnesota already does a good job with broadband data – we’re looking to bring that MN model to the rest of the country.

Farming has gotten very high tech. We toured a robotic dairy far. The internet got cut – which meant the cows weren’t going to get milked.

Notes from participants and questions:

Rumor has it there’s a online portal to get rights of way permission from Wisconsin’s version of MNDOT. It seems permits can be an issue. There’s a backlog and it depends on the location of the need for permit is determining the impact on slow down.

The FAA can be an issue for getting permits. We needed a permit to remove rock from a local airport and that was going to take 3-5 years if they approved it.

Local control of permits and control of local assets would be helpful.

Windomnet – business is still growing. We have worked with other providers in the area to help

Julie Foote:

MVTV covers 30,000 miles in southern MN with fixed wireless. We don’t go into areas that don’t need us. We are working ourselves out of a community. We bring fixed wireless into a community (25 Mbps for residential). That helps to build demand and we hope they get fiber. We will always be there for the folks outside of towns. And we have fiber to our towers.

We are a member-owned cooperative. So we strive for equal service for all. We are working on being LTE capable.

Mapping is one of our struggles.


Rural Cottonwood County – the problem with wireless is that line of sight is tough there. I live near Westbrook. I can get services from Woodstock I get 10 Mbps from CenturyLink. I had 1.5 Mbps – I kept it because their brought fiber to the node. They serve 150 homes in the areas with the new fiber. I am 4400 ft from the node, so I get 10 Mbps. If I were 4000 I could get 20 Mbps. The wireless is usually faster but less reliable.

What would it take to get broadband to everyone?

We need funding to help serve the hard to serve areas. We’d nee dot partner up with a private entity to get state funding.

It’s hard for us because we are a municipality.

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RS Fiber gets an international shout out for publicly supported broadband

Open Democracy is taking a look at the UK’s proposed takes on broadband…

T his week, the Labour Party announced a bold new policy proposal that has shaken up the election race – publicly owned broadband internet, free to all. In the words of Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, it is “a taster of the kind of fresh, transformational policies that will change your life.”

Under the plan, the government would purchase Openreach, the digital network operator that is a subsidiary of BT Group, and form a new publicly owned British Broadband company to extend high-speed internet access to every household, business, and institution in the country.

They look at what’s happening in other places…

However, in reality, governments around the world are taking the lead on developing the digital infrastructure necessary to develop thriving 21st century economies (just as they did with the electricity networks, roads, bridges, railroads, airports, and other vital economic infrastructure of the 20th century). They are doing so because in many cases the private sector, and specifically a shrinking group of giant for-profit telecommunications corporations, are unable and unwilling to equitably provide the necessary investment and service – leaving whole towns, regions, and socio-economic groups shut out of the modern economy and society.

Their examples include Minnesota’s RS Fiber…

Success stories include larger cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee (which was the first location in the US to offer 1Gbps service) where the publicly owned network added around $1 billion to the local economy in just 4 years; smaller towns such as Thomasville, Georgia, where the publicly owned network is credited with saving small businesses and maintaining a vibrant downtown area; and rural areas like south central Minnesota where RS Fiber (a cooperative supported by a joint powers agreement between 10 small cities and 17 townships) has extended broadband access to 6,200 homes, farms, and businesses across a wide geographic area.

Publicly owned broadband is not only increasingly popular in the United States, it also has demonstrated economic and social benefits.

Southwest MN Broadband Services looks at closed meetings in the future

The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) Board of Directors will meet Thursday, Nov. 21, 6:15 pm at the SMBS Office to decide whether to close future meetings. The Lakefield Standard reports…

Future meetings of the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services Board of Directors may be closed to the public, and financial reports of the multiple municipality-owned communications utility may be kept confidential.

Board members — in many cases, elected officials from member cities — may vote on the changes as early as next Thursday.

It sounds like a matter of business process…

“Over the course of the last 10 years, we’ve struggled with how to make decisions based on the type of entity we are,” said Travis Thies, SMBS general manager. “That led to us getting a legal opinion as to how we are supposed to be operating to help us make decisions at the board level.”

Formed through a joint powers agreement between a number of area municipalities, including the city of Jackson, SMBS was organized as a 317A nonprofit organization. Laws governing that type of organization allow board meetings to be closed to the public and financials to be kept confidential, Thies said.

Doing both would potentially benefit SMBS — and, by extension, member cities, local taxpayers and customers — in several different ways, Thies added. Closed meetings would allow SMBS to more effectively negotiate rates with vendors, he said, and keep competitors at arm’s length.

It also sounds as if they would be flexible about hearing from folks in the future, just want to keep business financials more closed…

“I totally expect the board to want as much transparency as possible and to always be open to answer questions,” Thies said. “Member cities would continue to have full access to all minutes and financials and, if someone wanted to address the board about something — even though meetings would not be completely open to them — I would think they could be put on the agenda.”

Franconia hosts community meeting to learn more about broadband options

Last week, the Franconia Township Communications Committee on Broadband hosted a community meeting on broadband. By meeting I mean a BBQ in a gorgeous setting with people hanging around if you had any questions. There were dozens of people there. I was very impressed.

There were people from the Committee, folks from CTC and others.

They also had info on wind gardens. Apparently wind gardens were an issue in the area. A group of local citizens got involved. I don’t know the details but rumor has it when Franconia needed a group to push forward the broadband initiative, these guys fit the bill! I add that because I think it’s good advice for other communities – need help? Find helpers with a track record.

Also I want to share the PowerPoint the showed at the event, the info packet and survey results from a broadband survey done in Chisago County. These are good models for other communities and strong building blocks in Franconia.

Pro and Cons of a community network in Lakeland FLA: debate in editorials

An interesting debate happening in Lakeland -with commentary coming from locals and people far from the town. Here’s a run down of recent articles and editorials. It’s from Florida – but interesting to see what’s happening and sometimes more instructive when the players are far away:

From Aug 19 – Lakeland Commissioners look into broadband…

Lakeland commissioners want more information before making a decision on whether to move forward with launching a municipal-owned broadband service after reviewing a business plan provided by the city’s broadband consultant…

John Honker, CEO and president of Magellan, laid out a plan calling for Lakeland to borrow $17 million to begin building the necessary infrastructure and launch operations. The full estimate for a citywide network is $97.5 million.

“On Day 1, you won’t borrow $100 million, you will borrow as you go,” Mike Brossart, the city’s financial director, said. “You are not generating any revenue for the first 2 to 2½ years.”

If Lakeland can get 38% of city residents and 41% of businesses to sign up, Honker said it would receive approximately $9.5 million in revenue a year — $1 million less than his Aug. 5 estimate.

The city would need to get at least 27.5% of residents to sign up for service to break even

From Aug 24 – more on deciding whether to fund or not fund a network…

City leaders have to ask themselves one question on becoming a “Gig City”: What matters most when trying to determine if launching an internet service is the right move for Lakeland? …

“We would measure success by what we are able to provide through services and net as a contribution to pay off the debt and to provide revenue to the city,” Mayor Bill Mutz said.

Lakeland’s cost of building a fiber optic network capable of gigabit-speed internet can’t be stated without considering the city’s potential profit.

Magellan’s latest estimate states it would take 9-10 years for the city to begin seeing a net revenue if it chose to pay down its startup debt, or loans, as quickly as possible. Once the system is fully launched, Lakeland could make $9.5 million a year in revenue. That’s providing that 38% of residents and 41% of businesses sign up with suggested pricing for internet service starting at $20 a month.

Commissioner Justin Troller said he anticipates the city will see a higher take rate, possibly capturing 50% of the market, based on preliminary interest and community feedback.

“I don’t think it will be difficult for us to get our market share,” he said. “Our community is desperate for an alternative to the current providers.”

From Aug 27 – Editorial says broadband should be a priority…

It’s agreed that investment will need to be made, and one hopes the investment will be shouldered proportionately to the profits to be realized. As to profits, I believe our telephone company and our cable company are making far too much money, as they bombard innocent citizens with incessant direct mail and television advertising. If there is a chance of losing market share, this will ramp up exponentially.

Before I discuss the percent of households needed to buy into this program, let me comment that I was told that stock corporations have a “reasonable expectation” of profits for their investors. Funny that other investors have “risk.” I will go door-to-door to find supporters for municipal internet service, and remind the powers-that-be that affordable basic internet for seniors should be their priority.

From Aug 28 – editorial against broadband funding…

Lakeland leaders should cease potential plans to build their own broadband network and avoid being unduly influenced by Magellan Advisors, the “yes men” of the broadband study industry.

Although the plan would call for the estimated $80 million cost to be paid back by subscribers, a recent poll showed that only one-third of Lakeland internet customers are unsatisfied with their current provider. And the city is not an internet desert, as both Charter and Frontier service nearly all Lakeland residents with broadband-speed internet. Satellite providers cover anyone who doesn’t have fiber access….

Lakeland residents should insist their City Commission avoid the mistakes made by cities like Provo, Utah, and Bristol, Virginia, and not build this unnecessary network.

Johnny Kampis, Vinemont, Alabama (writes for Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation)

From Sep 6 – editorial supports the broadband network…

As explained by my colleagues at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in the report “Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies,” the analysis of the “expert” quoted in this article, Christopher Yoo, contained factual errors and questionable data. Notably, Yoo misunderstood the debt structure of three cities included in his analysis, calling into serious question the accuracy and competence of his conclusions. Though Yoo admitted his mistake, he failed to correct the report and has continued to repeat his flawed findings.

Also from Sep 6 – editorial doesn’t support a community network…

Taxpayer money has been spent for expert information on the pros and cons of Lakeland’s city-run broadband system, and they should listen to the experts. Cost overruns are not uncommon; think Tigertown.

With pensions already consuming a large portion of the city budget (at present more growth, more city employees, more pensions, longer life spans, more money), it would seem unwise to proceed with any projects that could potentially become very costly.