How do we define success of a community network? Is Lake County a model or cautionary tale?

In 2010, the MN Broadband Task Force report ranked Minnesota Counties broadband access; Lake County was #16 on the least served list with an average download speed of 3.2 Mbps. Speed wasn’t their only issue, they also had problems with reliability. Prior to July 2012, there had been two incidents where flooding left parts of the county without service – no broadband, no 911. (And Lake County is a US border county! Imagine the Homeland Security concerns!)

Lake County had Internet service providers but the service they offered didn’t meet the county’s needs and providers were talking about 10-15 years to build out a fiber network (back in 2009). So, when Congress responded to the Great Recession of 2010 by passing the America Recovery and Reconstruction Act, which included funding for rural broadband networks, Lake County applied for funding and was awarded $66 million in ARRA stimulus funds; about $10 million of the award was an outright grant; the rest was a low-interest loan.

Lake County’s journey to better broadband has been a bumpy one. (I’ve listed all of the ups and downs I could remember below.)

The good news? Lake County is now well served. As of last reporting, 94.3 percent of Lake County had access to broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 up (100/20), which is the MN 2026 state goal, making them the #11 top ranked county in Minnesota. Quite a leap from #72 in 2010.

The bad news? The network is now on the market. And as Annette Meeks (from Freedom Foundation of Minnesota) points out, there are bills to be paid.

So is it a success? Or is a better question, is it a success yet?

They have a network – and a recent Lake County News article points out, that was the goal…

“Seven years ago when we did get involved in this, it wasn’t for the goal of owning a broadband network,” Commissioner Rick Goutermont said during the meeting. “The reason we got involved was that none of the incumbents would go after these funds and none of the incumbents were looking to provide our constituents with the service that we felt they needed, that’s why we got involved.”

An article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune seems to second that sentiment…

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.  …. 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.

There is debt as Meeks points out…

Currently, Lake County taxpayer funding for the project totals $17 million.

To put this in perspective, remember that many of the state funded broadband projects involve local match often through the County Boards (Itasca, Fillmore and others). Sunrise Township project’s state grant match includes CenturyLink’s CAF 2 money and public funding. (Total cost of the project is $2.39 million, the grant is for $1.07 million, the rest is split evenly between CAF 2 and public money.)

A quick reminder of their story: Sunrise held meetings because they wanted better broadband. One provider showed up; one didn’t. At public meetings, CenturyLink said they would use CAF 2 money to upgrade to “at least” 10/1, but the township wanted world class broadband instead.

So they talked. About getting a grant. About how much CenturyLink needed. About how much (and how) residents could chip in.

Turns out the project would be $2.39. In public meetings they talked about getting $500,000 from taxpayers – to be divvied up between 532 households in CenturyLink’s territory – roughly $1000/household. They are looking at paying that back over 10-15 years and the number bandied around was $100/year/household.

With this additional community investment, and state broadband grant, CenturyLink agreed to use their awarded CAF2 dollars to build a world-class fiber-to-the-home network capable of delivering speeds that exceed state broadband goals.

The Sunrise Township residents said yes because they felt the increase in taxes would be offset with a myriad of benefits, from the ability to operate a home-based business, to access to distance learning, to increased home values.

I don’t know that Lake County residents are any different. There was some back and forth on rumors that they wouldn’t have to pay back the loan but seemed like more smoke than fire. They signed onto a loan and folks know what that means. Sounds like the remaining cost is $17 million – there are 5000 households in Lake County. I know this is very sloppy math but that sounds like $3400/household. It’s 3.4 times the cost in Sunrise – but paid back over time I wonder if residents feel broadband was worth it. (Also in this scenario taxpayers investment should be offset by subscription proceeds.)

One very big difference is competition. Because Sunrise is working with the incumbent provider they are unlikely to run into legal issues and negative campaigns that challenged Lake County. (See examples on timeline below.) Perhaps that what Meeks means when she says…

Market-based forces will always come into play when municipalities decide to compete against private telecom providers.

Few communities want to become the broadband provider. Most rural communities are open to a partnership – such as Sunrise Township – where community investment is made with an incumbent or other provider. But for communities where the local provider is uninterested in providing service the community wants, there needs to be alternatives and part of that alternative is recognizing that money spent on broadband is an investment that pays different dividends for a community than it does a provider.

A provider doesn’t have to offer services where it’s not profitable to do so.  If profit is your definition of success it would be crazy to go into some areas. But a provider should not be able to hold a community hostage to slower, unreliable broadband. We need room for public investment or those communities will be choked out of existence. And we need room for alternate definition of success – one that includes community vitality.

Lake County abridged timeline* Continue reading

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.

CenturyLink offers gigabit service to 32,827 Minnesota businesses

According to a press release from CenturyLink

CenturyLink, Inc. (NYSE: CTL) announced today that fiber-ready broadband speeds up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) are now available to 32,827 small to large business customers  in 1,131 multi-tenant unit (MTU) office buildings in Minnesota, including more than 400 MTUs in Minneapolis and 350 in St. Paul.

With 25 percent of the world’s economy expected to be digital by 2020, according to Accenture’s January 2016 Digital Economic Value Index, CenturyLink is pleased to offer MTU-based businesses gigabit service with symmetrical upload and download speeds of 1 Gbps, as well as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), cloud-based services and managed IT solutions.

“By offering fiber-ready services to multi-tenant unit office buildings across the state, CenturyLink is creating a foundation to attract new businesses and drive economic growth,” said Duane Ring, Midwest region president, CenturyLink. “Businesses can not only easily gain access to our powerful network to meet their increasing technology demands, but also utilize CenturyLink for affordable and scalable business solutions.”

“A highly robust, reliable network plays a critical role in attracting businesses of all sizes to the Twin Cities and helps us maintain our standing as one of the best markets for business,” stated Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO, Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. “CenturyLink’s continued network infrastructure investments in the Twin Cities not only strengthen our connectivity, but expand economic opportunities statewide.”

Businesses within buildings now have access to multiple wide-area network connections delivered over fiber, including multiprotocol label switching virtual private network (MPLS-VPN), metro Ethernet and the latest software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) solution. A high-speed, high-capacity fiber-enabled broadband connection delivers the highest quality business hosted voice and cloud-based solutions, even when shared among multiple business locations.

Business customers can visit www.centurylink.com/twincities to learn more about CenturyLink’s fiber-based services in Minnesota, including symmetrical speeds up to 1 Gbps, and to determine if service is available at their location.

Lake County MN decides to sell broadband business

According to Lake County New Chronicle

After seven years and millions of dollars spent, Lake County looks to be getting out of the broadband internet business.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to declare its intent to sell Lake Connections, the county’s broadband internet company, during its meeting Tuesday in Two Harbors.

The sale process will be a highly structured, collaborative process between the county and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the lender that provided the majority of the funding for the network’s construction. About 95 percent of the network’s construction is complete, with just small sections in Fall Lake Township and around Ely left to be finished. The county will try to get the best bid possible to continue quality service to Lake Connections customers and those customers will not see a change in service or pricing through the process of the sale, according to a press release from the county.

Here’s a very quick reminder/history of the project…

In 2010, the board received a $56 million loan and $10 million from RUS to construct the network and over three years more than 1,200 miles of a fiber network was built throughout Lake County and parts of eastern St. Louis County. Most of the network was completed in June 2015, and the focus shifted to connecting eligible customers to the network with the county pledging $15 million of its own money to fund “drops,” or home connections, that also included a $3.5 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission. Now the county hopes to sell the network to a private company that will continue to invest in the infrastructure to complete the portions of the network in Fall Lake.

And  glimpse at why local governments get into providing broadband – it’s not to make money, it’s to provide a needed service…

“Seven years ago when we did get involved in this, it wasn’t for the goal of owning a broadband network,” Commissioner Rick Goutermont said during the meeting. “The reason we got involved was that none of the incumbents would go after these funds and none of the incumbents were looking to provide our constituents with the service that we felt they needed, that’s why we got involved.”

 

Come for the fiber jobs – stay for the Lifestyle – Lac qui Parle County MN

If you got it, flaunt it. And that’s what Lac qui Parle County is doing with their fiber network through a partnershiph with Southwest MN Careers

MuniNetworks provides a quick history of LqP’s efforts to get better broadband – thanks to ARRA funding…

Back in 2009, the county began working with Farmers Mutual Telephone Cooperative to find a way to improve Internet access. Through their collaboration, the two entities received a 2010 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity and replace antiquated dial-up. At the time, about 52 percent of premises were still using their telephones to connect to the Internet.

Lac qui Parle had approached incumbent providers, but none were interested in upgrading in the sparsely populated region. Farmers Mutual Telephone Cooperative had deployed in other communities in western Minnesota and had the experience required in such a rural area. The project’s $9.6 million ARRA combined grant and loan allowed the project to be completed by the summer of 2014.

While LqP is well served most places, Madison, the county seat, does not have Fiber to the Home. Because they were considered “served” in 2009, they were not part of the original grant. They are actively seeking options for better broadband.

RS Fiber Cooperative Recognized with Broadcast Communities “Cornerstone Award”

Fun news from RS Fiber

Winthrop, MN – RS Fiber Cooperative (RS Fiber) was awarded the Cornerstone Award by the industry publication Broadcast Communities last week “for dedication, persistence, and vision in securing the benefits of broadband for their communities.”

The award was accepted on behalf of RS Fiber at the publication’s annual industry Summit held May 1-4 in Dallas, TX, by City of Winthrop Economic Development Director, Mark Erickson. The Cornerstone Award is presented each year to businesses and organizations with “outstanding accomplishments in the area of delivering telecommunications for the benefit of the end user.”

A committee of broadband industry leaders, analysts, and writers help select winners of the award. In selecting RS Fiber, the committee stated, “RS Fiber overcame more obstacles than anyone should have to overcome to get broadband for the residents of Renville and Sibley Counties. And their efforts are paying off.”

Cornerstone Awards were also presented to the City of Wilson, NC/Greenlight Community Broadband and Valley Electric Association, Pahrump, NV.

RS Fiber currently serves customers in the communities of Gaylord, Gibbon, Green Isle, Lafayette, New Auburn and Winthrop with Internet, Video, and Phone service, including Internet speeds of up to 1 Gbps over a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network. RS Air serves rural residents of Renville and Sibley counties by providing symmetrical broadband speeds up to 25 Mbps.

Phase One construction of the project is expected to be completed this fall with services being extended to the towns of Brownton, Buffalo Lake, Fairfax and Stewart.

RS Fiber starts broadband construction on final four cities Brownton, Buffalo Lake, Fairfax, and Stewart

According to the RS Fiber website

RS Fiber Cooperative (RS Fiber) begin the final stage of its state-of-the-art fiber-optic network next month.

Plans to begin construction to link the cities of Brownton, Buffalo Lake, Fairfax, and Stewart to the RS Fiber network is scheduled to start by the end of June. Those cities will join six others (Gaylord, Gibbon, Green Isle, Lafayette, New Auburn, and Winthrop) who have been connected to the network since the project began in June 2015.

To date, RS Fiber is serving more than 1,100 customers. Customers connected directly to the fiber network are receiving TV, telephone, and Internet services with speeds up to 1 Gbps. Some customers receive services through RS Air which delivers wireless broadband Internet to homes and farms in more than 17 townships over a network of 13 towers. RS Fiber general manager Toby Brummer is expecting to have over 2,000 customers connected to the network and enjoying super-fast gigabit speeds by the end of the year.