Broadband hot topic at MN Association of Townships

bill rightIn the midst of rain and snow and wind, township officials met in St. Cloud last week for their annual conference.  Broadband was the topic of choice.  I stared with the following introductory presentation…

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Danna MacKenzie and two panels of presenters talked about rural broadband challenges and solutions.  Blandin Foundation community partners Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Chisago County and Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative were all featured as was the USDA and Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative.  It was great to hear of the winning solutions that will result in Fiber to the Home networks at Fond du Lac and north central Minnesota.  The value of partial solutions was also highlighted recognizing that more work and some luck will be required to reach a full solution.  The Minnesota Association of Townships has been a strong partner in an alliance of rural stakeholder groups, all of which recognize the foundational necessity of rural broadband services.

Southwestern Minnesota Counties Working Together on Broadband

bill rightLincoln, Murray and Pipestone Counties are three rural counties that have decided to work together on better broadband.  The counties share a similar mix of small communities and big farms on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.  They also see a growing number of neighboring counties getting fiber to their homes and farms, including Lac qui Parle, Swift, Big Stone and Rock Counties.

The leadership of these counties, staff and elected leaders alike, are worried that current broadband is hindering economic growth and detracting from their ability to attract manufacturing firms, other businesses and, most importantly, people due to the lack of broadband services.  More than 60 people attended one or more of three meetings held in Ivanhoe, Pipestone and Slayton, including a variety of broadband providers.

Attendees learned about the financial and technical challenges of providing high speed broadband in areas with such low population densities.  Those who live behind trees or in low valleys talked about their discussions with providers and challenges of even receiving wireless services.  They learned about the promise of the Connect America Fund 2 and when improvements might be coming.  In the future days, leadership teams from the three counties will meet to discuss the meetings, the input from residents and businesses and next steps.  Each county had 15 or more volunteers ready to team with county staff and elected officials on prospective solutions, including investing their own dollars to make expanded broadband possible.

Minnesota’s Mark Erickson on promoting Community Broadband in a Trump-Era

CLIC (Coalition for Local Internet Choice) ran an open letter from RS Fiber’s Mark Erickson giving hope to community network proponents in a President Trump world….

In very rural Sibley county, in Minnesota, where I live, the vote was nearly 3 to 1 in favor of Donald Trump.

Our incumbent Republicans were re-elected with ease.

Yet in this very conservative county, 10 city councils and 17 of 21 rural townships have come together to support putting their tax dollars at risk to build a fiber optic network to everyone in those communities and to all area farms. (By means of an update, the four townships that voted not to participate in the project have indicated they might want back into the project.)

I don’t even find it ironic that in the middle of this Trump heartland the overwhelming majority of voters believe broadband is so important that it transcends local, state and national politics.

Why? Because they get it. They understand they will need bigger and better broadband to survive and grow.

And this isn’t the situation only in Minnesota…

In Maine, as in Minnesota, when people realized providers are unable to make the necessary investments in their communities, they began to advocate for solutions that involve local government.

Like rural voters across the nation, they understand the only real way to ensure timely (in their lifetime) access to ultra high speed broadband networks is to take the initiative and make something happen.

I am convinced that sentiment is common throughout under- and unserved rural America.

Let’s take the opportunity this sea change in national leadership presents and raise our voices even louder about the need for effective solutions to what I believe is a growing rural broadband crisis.

Broadband Recommendations: What can Minnesota learn from North Carolina?

The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) recently unveiled a report on Broadband Connectivity in North Carolina. Here’s a quick summary…

Recognizing the state’s need for better Internet connectivity, the Broadband Infrastructure Office issued a report in mid-2016 entitled, “Connecting North Carolina State Broadband Plan.”

That plan is essentially a “one-hand-on-deck” policy that naively pins the future of the state on the big telephone and cable companies. North Carolina should adopt an “all-hands-ondeck” approach that recognizes the need for a mix of business models in providing essential infrastructure across the state.

Local leaders are better equipped to solve their problems than micro-managers from Raleigh. Some communities will embrace cooperatives, some may find ways of attracting private companies, and some may choose to work with Wilson or duplicate it. This report recommends that North Carolina remove its barriers to local choice and focus on encouraging more sources of investment rather than focusing largely on firms based outside of the state.

Here are the specific recommendations…

North Carolina should embrace an all-handson-deck philosophy. Given the tremendous need for improved Internet access, the state should welcome all manner of investment rather than restricting those most impacted: communities themselves. We offer the following recommendations:

  1. Remove barriers to cooperative investment.
  2. Allow communities to decide for themselves if a municipal investment is appropriate, and if so, what business model most fits local needs, challenges, and culture.
  3. Expand Internet access from existing locally accountable networks.
  4. Create a state program to offer matching grants or a revolving loan fund.

mn-coops-mapMinnesota has done well to get a state matching grant to support, but at the recent Broadband Communities Conference, ILSR, handed out a very abbreviated – but helpful – one-sheet on how Cooperatives and Local Governments Can Solve Rural Digital Divide that included some Minnesota Statues that they say discourage local governments from investing in next-generation infrastructure…

Minnesota Statue 237.19 (from the year 1915) requires that a municipality receive a majority vote of at least 65% in order to “operate a telephone exchange.” Referendums are often one-sided affairs where incumbents outspend community network advocates anywhere from 10:1 to 60:1.

Minnesota Statue 429.021 Section 19 only allows a municipality to build Internet access infrastructure if those services are not available and will not soon become available and the service will not compete with private services.

These two laws strong discourage local investment in next-generation  networks, even where the private sector is not investing, because their vague definitions open governments to lawsuits.

Ely enthusiastically pursues Blandin Broadband opportunity

The Blandin foundation is working with the IRRRB to select four communities in the IRRRB area to focus on improving broadband.

According to the Ely Echo, Ely is striving to be one of those four…

Numerous area entities, ranging from the Ely School District and Morse Township to Vermilion Community College, have endorsed Ely’s efforts to become one of a handful of regional communities to obtain Blandin funding.

Fedo talked of a set-up in which the city of Ely could take the lead, perhaps in accord with a private partner who could use the city utility and provide the service.

It’s a proactive approach, said Fedo, “rather than waiting for somebody to propose a solution on our behalf.”

Fedo indicated a successful application could lead to “some sort of providing service within the downtown corridor” within six-to-12 months.

Mayor Chuck Novak strongly endorsed the effort, noting his own involvement in various efforts to bring broadband to Ely, including a fiber-to-the-premise initiative that was squelched several years ago after other participating communities dropped out.

“I actually have some hope now,” said Novak.

It’s interesting to hear the strong and widespread desire for the community to “take the lead” in their broadband future. They seem interested in a private partner but that idea of being part of the decision-making is strong.

St Louis Park slowly but surely builds a fiber network

St Louis Park was recently featured on the Community Broadband Network Podcast. It’s interesting to hear how they have moved forward to build a fiber network that is sure to make buying a place in new buildings in town an easier call. Here’s an intro from Community Broadband Networks – but it’s worth the listen to the podcast too…

In one of our longest episodes, we discuss how Saint Louis Park started by partnering with other key entities to start its own fiber network, connecting key anchor institutions. Years later, it partnered with a firm for citywide solar-powered Wi-Fi but that partner failed to perform, leaving the community a bit disheartened, but in no way cowed.

They continued to place conduit in the ground wherever possible and began striking deals with ISPs and landlords that began using the fiber and conduit to improve access for local businesses and residents. And they so impressed our previous podcast guest Travis Carter of US Internet, that he suggested we interview them for this show.

Clint Pires has learned many lessons over the years and now we hope other communities will take his wisdom to heart. Well-managed communities can make smart investments that will save taxpayer dollars and drive investment in better networks.

Sunrise Township moves forward to petition for Subordinate service district bond

Last night I attended the township meeting in Sunrise Township to discuss the next steps for their better broadband plan. Spoiler alert – the residents are going to work on a petition to get 50 percent of the 532 households in CenturyLink territory to say they are interested in bonding for $500,000. That money along with CenturyLink using CAF 2 funding will be used as match for a Minnesota Border to Border grant application.

They are interested in using a subordinate service district bond, which means only the houses that qualify for the service will play back the bond. The payback will be around $100/year for each household.

The town board agreed to continue with the grant application.

CenturyLink says they are excited to work on the project. If the funding doesn’t come through they still will use CAF 2 funds in the area to do fiber to the node – but with fiber to the node they will also coil fiber at intervals (650 ft) to streamline a FTTH upgrade in the future or to allow someone to upgrade themselves – although the cost of the individual upgrade will be on the customer. (That seems like a step to scalability to me. Although there wasn’t a promise of that next step without grant funding.)

Good news – the partnership seems strong, the local residents are invested (there were at least 50 people at the meeting, not bad for community of 532 homes) and they are willing to work to demonstrate public interest in the project. Also – with CenturyLink as a partner, it seems they will fly by the challenge process.

Bad news – CenturyLink doesn’t serve the whole township; Frontier is the other local provider they apparently did not respond to invitations to discuss such a partnership.

Lessons – The subordinate service district bond seems like a good way to have only households that experience the upgrade pay back the loan. The petition cannot be internet-based.

Read on or watch the videos for more info…

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