Lake County gets 4 bids for their fiber network

The Lake County News Chronicle reports

The Lake County Board of Commissioners learned four entities submitted bids for Lake Connections, the county’s municipal broadband project.

The initial bidding period ended Nov. 2 with Lake Partners, Hanson Communications, Mediacom Communications Corp. and Cooperative Light and Power (CLP) in Two Harbors submitting bids, along with a $100,000 deposit, for the network. They will have the opportunity to submit a “best and final offer,” according to the terms of the sale set by the county and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

The County received federal ARRA funding (loan ($56M) and grant ($10)) to build the network in 2010. After ups and downs that network was mostly completed in 2015. IN 2015, the County invested another $15 million and the FCC awarded a grant of $3.5 million.

The article continues…

In June 2017, the county entered into a deferral agreement with RUS for principal and interest on the condition the county sell the network to a private company or entity. Two months later, the county executed a memorandum of understanding with RUS in which RUS agreed to accept to the sale price of Lake Connections in full satisfaction of the county’s debt for construction of the network.

The county board is reviewing the bids, according to County Administrator Matt Huddleston, and specific bid information was not provided. Since there were fewer than five bids, Pinpoint Holdings Inc. in Cambridge, Neb., will also have a chance to make a final bid for the network.

In late July, Pinpoint offered $3.5 million for the network in an initial bid that set the baseline price for the network.

Two bidders, Mediacom and CLP, have conflicted with the network in the past.

The deadline for bids is Nov 29; the County is scheduled to make a decision on Dec 11.

Lake Connections is looking for a buyer

Minnesota Watchdog reports on the status of the Lake County community broadband network… (The Watchdog looks at public funding for projects to “expose the facts about government mismanagement and overreach.”)

 Lake County is trying to find a private provider to buy its taxpayer-funded Lake Connections network in part because the county doesn’t want to sink any more money into the business and also in part because – irony alert – county leaders believe a private provider will better be able to quickly connect eager customers.

The project received $66 million in grants and loans through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) as part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus legislation. In total, more than $80 million has been sunk into Lake Connections, including federal and local tax money.

And here are some of the most recent numbers…

After seven years of operations, Lake Connections has 2,500 customers, with 750 more interested parties waiting for service. In addition to owing the federal government (taxpayers) $48.5 million, Lake County has put $17 million of local taxpayer money into the project.

Despite those heavy costs, the county is trying to sell Lake Connections for around $20 million. To get that value, bureaucrats assume $180 in revenue per month for each customer and a cash earnings margin of 50 percent.

But they recently announced the highest bid for the network was $3.5 million from Pinpoint Holdings, Inc. of Lincoln, Nebraska. Lake County will continue to accept bids, hoping to get a higher price. If $3.5 million is the final sale price, then federal taxpayers get to eat the $45 million difference between what’s still owed to RUS due to an agreement that the sale price will fulfill the balance of the loan.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners voted in April to approve a $7.24 million general obligation judgment bond to pay off contractors it still owed for the construction of Lake Connections.

We looked at Lake County as part of the case studies we did last year on the community return on public investment. We found that in seven years, the increase in household economic benefit would surpass the debt. That doesn’t necessarily mean the households pool that money to pay off the debt but there have been economic benefits.


Dakota Broadband Board finding a home and maybe a new ED

The Farmington Independent reports…

The Dakota Broadband Board may open office space on the second floor of Farmington City Hall.

“The Dakota Broadband is moving forward and they have offered to host the executive director here in the building,” said Brenda Wendlandt, human resources director for the City of Farmington. “We would also run salary and benefits through our payroll system and manage it and the DBB would reimburse us.”

The city is currently determining what the costs of having the office at City Hall would be. City staff are working on a contract for the rental space and human resources relationship between the city and the DBB.

And there’s more…

The DBB also plans to recruit a new executive director after Jan. 1, 2019, with the intention of the having a new director by the end of May.

Will Morse township strike out on their own for broadband without Ely-Area Join Powers?

The Ely-area Community Economic Development Joint Powers Board met last month to discuss a numb of issues. The Joint Powers Board is a collection of local communities working together to expand economic opportunities in the area. But as a recent article in the Timberjay points out, there are times when the members have to balance community with regional goals and needs. That came up with broadband…

Morse Township representatives dropped a bombshell on the Joint Powers Board by announcing they could be stepping away from an area-wide broadband project and going with their own plan.

The recently-completed broadband feasibility study, partially funded through the Blandin Foundation, is moving into the next phase, according to Novak, to determine costs and coverage area.

“We are looking at getting this off the ground quickly and offering a basic core of fiber optic service tied to the Northeast Service Co-op, and run the fiber to some poles and provide wireless broadband across the lake to Burntside and within the school district, and later on, as revenues come in, to start reinvesting and running fiber all over,” he said.

“As we were all participants in that study, it is upon us as leaders to make a decision if you are going to continue to be in (the co-op) or not be in,” Novak said.

Morse Supervisor Len Cersine announced that the township is planning to move forward on broadband alone. “We are going to try and run some broadband into the township, because right now we have nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.

“The whole feasibility study was completed to lay out the best way to put broadband in,” Novak said.

“They have it running from Babbitt to Ely,” Berrini said, “but it doesn’t go to anybody’s house.”

Novak clarified that the project Berrini was referring to was the defunct Lake Connections plan that ran out of funding several years ago. “This is a totally different project,” he said.

“So is ours,” Berrini shot back. “We have six different poles. We put in for a grant. It will cost about $36,000 per pole, and they cover something like two miles. We can make a circle completely around Ely with ours.”

Novak pushed for a confirmation that Morse Township is going with their own broadband plan.

“We’re going to check on it. We’ll see what happens. We can’t wait. We can’t just have one part and the rest get nothing,” Berrini said.

Cersine said the “high-speed” internet project under consideration by Morse officials is through Frontier Communications.

“I wouldn’t put any faith in Frontier,” Novak said.

Cersine asserted, “Chuck, we are not abandoning your project, but we are checking on what we can do.”

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa start a broadband provider

I mentioned this when MPR posted about it a couple weeks ago, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently posted about the new tribal provider up in Fond du Lac

The band has created a corporation, Aaniin, to build and provide fiber-optic service to all residents of the reservation, whether or not they’re tribal members. Main lines are in the process of being laid and should be completed sometime in November; workers then will begin the process of running fiber-optic lines to as many as 1,800 households on the roughly 39,000-acre reservation.

Only a handful of tribes nationwide have created their own broadband providers, said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development. But the trend toward rural communities providing their own broadband service is growing, she said.

“We are seeing communities and providers leaning in and finding a lot of good solutions,” MacKenzie said. “And others are getting even more creative in looking at ways to solve what they see as their community needs on their own.”

The state has a goal of seeing that every Minnesota resident has access to broadband service with a minimum download speed of 25 megabits (Mb) per second and upload speed of 3 Mb by 2022. By 2026, the goal is to make upload speed of 100 Mb and download speed of 20 Mb available to all.

Currently, about 82,000 rural households lack access to the broadband speeds set in the 2022 goals, according to data from MacKenzie’s office. About 243,000 households don’t meet the 2026 standards.

Broadband access will provide a wide array of benefits to Fond du Lac residents, Hollinday said.

The agony of rural broadband, the thrill of making it happen

This week City Pages has a nice feature on rural broadband. A good wake up for those of us in the Cities who aren’t living on the frontlines of slow Internet. They do a good job telling the stories…

Outside nearby Gibbon, Linda Kramer endured a similar fix. Her family grows corn, soybeans, and wheat, while her husband also works as a crop consultant. He’d attempt to send field data to clients, only to watch it take days to upload. So he’d find himself driving 40 miles just to deliver thumb drives.

“We weren’t being able to accomplish what people in the cities or other rural areas were able to accomplish,” Kramer says.

Their problems weren’t unique. Across hulking swaths of Minnesota, gas stations struggle to run credit cards. Counties see scant hope of nursing new businesses. And everyone worries the evacuation of their young will only accelerate. Forgive college grads who can’t see futures in places where it takes hours to load an Instagram photo.

They highlight a solution that is working in Renville and Sibley Counties…

Winthrop—population 1,399—was too small to build a high-speed fiber system on its own. So it resorted to a spirit of socialism practiced a century ago, the kind that brought electricity, phone lines, and farm cooperatives to the Minnesota backcountry.

It would seem a despairing quest. Sibley County is in the heart of Trumpland. “Out here, we’re quite conservative,” says Erickson. “When the Republican Party says something, people listen.”

Yet the resulting campaign would exhibit a savvy and insistence few lefty activists could match. It involved 10 cities and 17 townships across Renville and Sibley counties. Over 100 educational meetings spanning two years. Seventy volunteers to carry the load.

The final outcome: RS Fiber, a co-op that delivers better internet than most Twin Citians receive.

And the difference fast broadband has made…

For Jacob Rieke, it means no longer fearing for his daughters’ schooling. He can now employ all the weaponry of precision farming, saving between $5,000 and $20,000 annually on seed costs alone.

For Linda Kramer, it means getting 10 times the speed of her old service for the same price, allowing her family to be “good stewards of the land.” An ability to read the subtleties of a field prevents over-fertilizing, which has left most southwest Minnesota waterways too toxic for swimming. “The technology is really allowing people to do good things.”

RS is also fostering commerce. A new 3D printer business in Gibbon can send data-heavy files to clients. An industrial electrician in Winthrop does work all over the world.

They talk about Windomnet too, another innovative approach to service in rural areas…

Fortune’s success comes courtesy of Windomnet, among the nation’s first city-owned internet concerns. The company’s databases handle orders 24/7, a task impossible in much of outstate, since time-outs and dropped connections corrupt files, turning orders into horrors.

And Paul Bunyan…

The same thing could be said of Bemidji, home to Paul Bunyan Communications. It began as a telephone co-op in the 1950s, eventually moving on to TV and internet across multiple counties. “They’re really transforming that entire region,” says Coleman. “It’s becoming a high-technology center.”

And Lake Connections…

Lake County rode to the rescue. It created Lake Connections, with the unforgiving task of bringing broadband to 11,000 residents scattered across 2,100 square miles, an enterprise no private company would attempt.


Iron Range’s Aaron Brown on the promise of broadband – including some meeting dates to help the dream come true

Arron Brown has spoken eloquently on the need for broadband on the Iron Range. He spoke at at the Fall Broadband conference last year – and I remember his joyous column when he got real broadband a few years ago. Over the weekend he had an article in the Hibbing Daily Tirbune on the promise of broadband in a rural community…

These are the promises of America, of life on the Mesabi Iron Range. The idea is that all kids get a shot, no matter how well their parents are doing. Creativity and entrepreneurship can lead us out of the dark times.

The world keeps changing but this never should. And in 2018, that means that rural kids need access to high-speed broadband internet access. So do small businesses. So does everyone.

A new initiative called Iron Range Communities Broadband now takes shape in rural areas around Hibbing, Chisholm, Cherry, Buhl and Mountain Iron. Locations that currently have no broadband internet access, or extremely slow access, may soon be hooked up to high speed service.

The need for it…

“New ventures are what is needed,” reads the background of a new report by Neo Connect for the project. “In addition to strengthening local communities with increased revenues, new businesses diversify the economy, hardening it against future downturns and ensuring sustainable long-term job creation.”

Rural residents who work full time are more likely to live in poverty than those who live in town, according to the same report. In fact, there aren’t many problems on the Iron Range — from population loss to declining

And how it can work on the Iron Range…

I’ve written before about how rural sections of central Itasca County petitioned for internet access. The county, business partners, townships and school boards banded together. The key was in showing private internet providers that a reliable customer base existed in these rural areas.

Now that same process could work for rural residents of the Hibbing, Chisholm and Mountain Iron-Buhl school districts, and Cherry Township. That means that places like Side Lake, Balkan Township, Great Scott, and vast rural areas outside Hibbing could finally see high speed internet.

And how residents can get involved…

The Iron Range Communities Broadband project is a multi-step process with many partners involved. Eventually, cities, school and township boards will need to take action. Grants and other funding sources will be won. But the most important people are citizens who would benefit from access to the new service. And if that describes you, there’s something you can do now.

Several meetings will be held where residents can support expansion of broadband service to their homes:

  • 5 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25 at Chisholm City Hall
  • 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26 at the Hibbing Economic Development Authority meeting at Hibbing City Hall
  • 6 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools office in Mt. Iron
  • 6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 at Great Scott Town Hall
  • 5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 at Mt. Iron Economic Development Authority at Mt. Iron City Hall
  • 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 at Side Lake Community Center in French Township
  • 4 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Hibbing School Board chambers at Hibbing High School
  • 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 at Cherry Township Hall

Attending meetings like this makes a huge difference in convincing public officials that the investment of time and resources is worthwhile. I can distinctly recall how a packed Balsam Township meeting made it clear to local officials there was no turning back.