Rural Broadband Association asks policymakers to invest in symmetrical broadband for the future

In a recent post from Shirley Bloomfield at the NTCA Rural Broadband Association, she asks policymakers and industry to think about investing in the future rather than short term fixes…

An infrastructure package is a chance to be bold and build something for a generation – not to fill potholes with patches.

I was particularly disappointed to read an industry posting recently that argued against the need for rural symmetrical fiber broadband and instead set a standard that is clearly aimed at little more than making sure fixed wireless can “play in the game” too. Does fixed wireless have a role to play in terms of closing the service gaps? Of course, but watching large national providers making this pitch so aggressively – and asking taxpayers to back their short-term network deployment plans – also clearly shows the intention of serving any of their remaining rural service territories with an inferior product instead of technology that will meet the needs of consumers not only today but well into the future. It’s all the more telling that some play loosely with discussions of broadband speeds, confusing what speeds will define unserved areas on the one hand with the very separate and distinct issue of what speeds will be required of new networks to be built in the areas that are currently unserved – those are two different questions, and conflating them does nothing other than cloud a meaningful debate over how to best address our infrastructure challenges.

MN Report on Automated Vehicles mentioned 10 year investment in fiber

Transportation Today reports on the Minnesota Gov’s Advisory Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles 2020 annual report…

The Minnesota Governor’s Advisory Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles said in its annual report Monday that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the state was able to move forward toward readiness for Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAV).

Also…

The report noted that the state was able to test new cellular vehicle communications technologies that connect snowplows and avoid collisions by preventing red-light running. Additionally, the Advisory Council completed a 10-year investment plan for fiberoptic cable that will support CAVs and broadband and conducted the nation’s largest CAV survey to determine the attitudes Minnesotans’ have about CAVs.

I was interested in the 10-year investment in fiber so I checked out the report. Here’s what I was able to find…

  • Fiber and broadband: MnDOT, MnIT and Department of Employment and Economic Development are completing a 10-year investment plan for fiber optic that supports CAVs and broadband. The state also met with the private telecommunications industry to understand their broadband expansion goals and learn how to partner in future pilots.
  • Connectivity & Work Zone Safety: The FHWA granted Minnesota funding to test connected vehicle work zone safety applications. With the FCC ruling, the state is also looking into new cellular connected vehicle technologies, including those being piloted in Ramsey County in Roseville. DEED, MnIT and MnDOT are also partnering to deploy fiber and broadband in key areas of the state to advance CAV and rural connectivity goals.

I remember that MnDOT, MnIT and DEED had a broadband commission a few years ago that, as far as I knew, did not have public meetings. I don’t know if they are still around and I think it only included the commissions of each department. I also don’t know much about the 10 year investment in fiber and I wonder why the MN Broadband Task Force doesn’t factor that into the plans to get everyone connected.

Broadband is happening around Ely with CTC, Midco and Treehouse Broadband expansions

There’s a lot of broadband activity happening in Ely these days between CTC, Midco and wireless options (Treehouse Broadband). Ely Timber Jay reports

Existing cable and internet customers who are frustrated with all-too-common service disruptions recently learned that Midco activated more than 200 additional miles of fiber to create a northern Minnesota fiber ring that adds diverse network paths for the Ely area.
The expansion and investment by the cable provider is an effort to reduce or eliminate service disruptions caused by fiber cuts and other sources of internet and business connections. Their recent investment announcement also appears to give the cable provider a bigger piece of the broadband pie in the immediate Ely area.

CTC is also building in the area…

CTC is in the midst of installing a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network in the city’s downtown corridor and is actively selling business services. In their first phase, CTC offers broadband technology to homes and businesses along Sheridan Street, and looks to offer business and residents internet, phone, and TV services along with business phone systems and IT services.
“We are scheduling a meeting with Midco at some point,” Langowski said. “We want to discuss where our project is and where their project is. I was a little concerned when I talked with (Midco’s) government affairs representative, who wasn’t aware of what we are doing or what our project is. I told him he must have been living under a rock. If he had read our local newspapers, he would have seen that we have been working on this for the last decade-plus.”
The first phase of the city of Ely’s CTC Broadband project is limited to the downtown area. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m not excited about (Midco’s) investment,” Langowski said. “I just want to make sure they don’t come in and overlay what we just did and cut us out of the market.”
Midco also announced that crews will begin installing FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) to homes and businesses in Ely and Winton in early 2022 capable of up to five Gbps. Connections can be upgraded to 10 Gbps, according to the cable provider.
The neighboring communities of Tower, Soudan and Babbitt will see similar construction activity with full FTTP network upgrades in 2023, company officials said.

Wireless is coming to the area too…

A wireless broadband project is also moving forward in the Town of Morse around the Ely area. Isaac Olson of Treehouse Broadband uses directional antennas operating on the radio frequency spectrum to provide high bandwidth internet service. With direct line of sight to their towers and repeater locations, they service customers in the Ely area. Unlike traditional satellite service, according to Olson, rain, snow and other weather has no impact on the frequencies and short-range transmissions he uses to deploy broadband.

Midco is expanding in other areas too…

In addition to the network redundancy and FTTP upgrades in the Ely area, the northern Minnesota communities of International Falls, Ranier and Littlefork will see faster data speeds from Midco in the coming year.
“All three communities will have access to Midco Gig in 2021. Midco Gig is 35 times faster than the average high-speed internet,” McAdaragh said.

Rural fiber penetration now stands at 23%

Telecompetitor reports

Rural fiber penetration now stands at 23%, according to a study conducted by Pivot Group (parent company of Telecompetitor) and sponsored by Innovative Systems.

In comparison to national numbers, market research firm RVA, LLC reported just over 20 million homes were connected to fiber in 2019, or 44% of homes passed.

Rural Broadband Access Technology Penetration (Source: 6th Annual Rural Video & Broadband Study)

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.”

Ely and International Falls part of new Midco fiber ring (St Louis & Koochiching Counties)

Good news for Ely and International Falls, as Midco reports

Fast and reliable connectivity is coming to Northern Minnesota. Recently, Midco activated more than 200 additional miles of fiber to create a Northern Minnesota fiber ring that adds diverse network paths for both Ely and International Falls, protecting against fiber cuts and other unexpected disruptions of Internet and business connections.

In addition, Midco crews will begin installing FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) to homes and businesses in Ely and Winton in early 2022 with best-in-the-world symmetrical, low-latency connections capable of up to 5 Gbps. With future needs in mind, connections can be upgraded to 10 Gbps, which will keep Ely at the epicenter of network performance.

“This significant expansion has been a high priority for us and our customers in Northern Minnesota who have been awaiting greater capacity, faster speeds and enhanced reliability,” said Midco President & CEO Pat McAdaragh. “With a capital investment of $3.75M, this expansion will allow for all of Midco’s services and products.”

Neighboring towns will be upgraded this year too…

In addition to the network redundancy and FTTP upgrades in the Ely area, the northern MN communities of International Falls, Ranier and Littlefork will see faster data speeds in the coming year. All three communities will have access to Midco Gig in 2021. Midco Gig is 35 times faster than the average high-speed internet and available at an affordable price.

EVENTS: NTIA Broadband Grant Programs Webinar Series

From the NTIA

(NTIA) will host a webinar series in April through July 2021 in connection with the three new broadband grant programs authorized and funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021: The Broadband Infrastructure Program, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and the Connecting Minority Communities Program. The webinars are designed to help prospective applicants understand the grant programs and to assist applicants to prepare high quality grant applications.

NTIA will hold the webinars based on the following schedule:

1. Broadband Infrastructure Program: The second Wednesday and Thursday of each month, 2:30–4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET), starting April 14, 2021.

2. Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program: The third Wednesday and Thursday of each month, 2:30–4:00 p.m. ET, starting April 21, 2021.

3. Connecting Minority Communities: The fourth Wednesday and Thursday of each month, 2:30–4:00 p.m. ET, starting April 28, 2021.

These are virtual meetings. NTIA will post the registration information on its BroadbandUSA website, https:// broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov, under Events.

Christopher Ali outlines broadband options for rural areas

Benton recently posted a column from Christopher Ali about the importance of cooperatives. He promotes cooperatives as broadband providers because they are local and they have infrastructure. He also quotes Bernadine…

Long story short, and to use a quote from Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, “everything is better with better broadband.”

 

But perhaps even more valuable is a succinct description of different types of broadband…

With wires, DSL, or digital subscriber line, is the most deployed broadband access technology in rural America. DSL connections are the copper wires owned and operated by telephone companies like CenturyLink. Despite its prevalence, the problem is that these types of connections are slow and outdated, oftentimes not able to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. More than this, DSL gets worse the further you are away from the network node. So once you’re about 3 miles from the access point, your internet is going to slow down considerably. AT&T and other providers have also begun phasing out their DSL networks, leaving many in rural America without an alternative.

Cable internet, or coaxial, or coax-hybrid internet is the most deployed type of connectivity in urban areas. These connections are owned and operated by cable companies like Comcast Xfinity. The benefit of cable internet is that you get blazing fast download speeds, which is great for binging Netflix. The problem is that the upload speed, which is so important for business and for video conferencing like we’re doing, is slower. More than this, cable internet suffers from something called “network congestion” – the more people on the network at the same time, the slower it becomes. Here in Charlottesville, my husband and I have Comcast, and we have definitely noticed slower service during peak working hours when everyone in our neighborhood is trying to make a Zoom call. It can make teaching really difficult!

Then there’s fiber optics, the “future-proof” and “gold standard” technology. It offers blazing-fast download and upload speeds, doesn’t degrade with distance, and is not impacted by how many people are on the network at the same time. The problem? It is expensive: Upwards of $27,000 per mile. And this is where counties and cooperatives and localities tend to struggle – how to raise the money necessary for fiber-to-the-home?

On the wireless side, counties like Culpeper are deploying towers with fiber-optic connections that transmit broadband wirelessly. This is known as “fixed wireless” and is provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers or “WISPs.” Fixed wireless has proven to be an important form of connectivity on its own, and for some counties, a mid-point towards fiber-to-the-home. It’s not as fast as fiber, and certainly comes with drawbacks like suffering from inclement weather and requiring line of sight, but many counties, particularly rural ones, are erecting a series of towers that are connected at the back end with fiber optics so that residents have meaningful connectivity. Fixed wireless is particularly useful for rural communities and agricultural spaces since one tower can cover a rather large distance. Others, however, say that nothing short of fiber for all will suffice. Again, the type of connectivity should be in tune with the community and the community’s needs.

Also on the wireless side is satellite, which many people don’t even consider viable because it is so problematic. Hughes and ViaSat are the two satellite internet providers in the country. Often times when I bring up satellite in rural areas, people roll their eyes at me, because it is expensive, slow, suffers from lag and inclement weather interruptions, and comes with tiny data caps. Still, the FCC considers satellite a viable complement to wireline broadband. It is available to almost everyone in the country, perhaps 99% or so. That said, I know of many residents who have to augment their satellite connections with mobile hotspots to ensure they are always connected, but at tremendous expense – sometimes $300 a month.

Many of you may have also heard about StarLink – Elon Musk’s SpaceX broadband service. StarLink is a type of satellite broadband called LEO or “Low Earth Orbital,” where the satellite sits closer to the Earth than traditional geosynchronous satellites like from Hughes or ViaSat. Theoretically, this proximity allows LEOs to provide faster and stronger service. Trials suggest StarLink is providing faster service, upwards of 100/20 in certain communities, but this pales in comparison to the original hype around LEOs, which promised speeds of gigabits per second. StarLink and others like it are just getting going, and the technology is still unproven at scale. A recent study, for instance, suggested that StarLink will reach capacity in only 8 short years. There’s still so much we don’t know about these networks. Despite this, the FCC recently awarded StarLink almost $900 million in funding. StarLink’s competitors are challenging this award, claiming that it overexaggerated its capabilities to the FCC.

We could say the same thing about 5G. While urban areas are getting a taste of what 5G can do – like blazing-fast mobile connections and the potential to replace your home broadband network – it is still in its trial stages and the type of 5G found in urban areas, known as millimeter-wave 5G or high-band 5G, is unavailable to the rest of the country. So far, 5G has not lived up to the hype mobile providers like Verizon and T-Mobile have promised us.

I get worried when I hear counties say that they are considering pausing their broadband plans in hopes that StarLink or 5G will arrive soon. Truth be told, these technologies are years away from being deployed in rural areas across our country. There is also uncertainty around cost, in addition to time. Communities that decide to pause will be waiting for something that may never come. In contrast, there are very real solutions available to counties today.

OPPORTUNITY: Bemidji’s 218 Relocate campaign calls and rewards new telecommuters to the area

The Bemidji Pioneer reports on a new telework program called  218 Relocate…

On Monday, a new local program was launched to encourage workers to make their home in Bemidji.

The initiative, titled 218 Relocate, is a relocation incentive program created by Greater Bemidji Economic Development inviting professionals who telecommute to the area. According to the organization’s Assistant Director Erin Echternach, the concept was based on the increase of people working from home last year.

Broadband features highly in the campaign…

After having dialogue with telecommuters in the summer and fall months, Greater Bemidji decided in December that a campaign was necessary to inform teleworkers about the local internet infrastructure. “It’s to make sure they understand that Bemidji is not only a great place to live, but an amazing place to work,” Echternach said. “The difference between this relocation campaign and others in Minnesota is it’s really capitalizing on the fiber optic, gigabit internet service that we have. We want people to understand that this is an amazing place to work because of the amazing internet service we have available.”

The program’s launch comes nearly five months after Beltrami County was recognized by Gov. Tim Walz as a telecommuter-friendly community. The communities are labeled as those that coordinate and partner with broadband providers, realtors, economic development professionals and other stakeholders to promote telecommuting options.

Additionally, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, more than 98.78% of Beltrami County has access to internet speeds of up to a gigabit per second.

Telecommuters get support and reward…

As part of the program, telecommuters who apply and meet the eligibility criteria will receive:

  • Up to $2,500 in reimbursed moving expenses and/or qualifying telecommuter expenses not already covered by the employer or company, including internet services.

  • A one year membership at the LaunchPad, an entrepreneurship support program with co-working space at the Mayflower Building in downtown Bemidji, estimated at $1,500 in value.

  • Teleworking support and tools through a program called Effective Remote Work for digital employees.

Four reasons to choose FTTH from POTs and PANs

Doug Dawson always asks and answers the questions that are floating around.  But he does it as an engineer and someone on the frontlines, which lends credibility. Today’s question comes at a time when policymakers (especially in Minnesota) are wrestling with state and federal funding and how to invest. Here’s an abbreviated take on his list

Somebody asked me the question recently and I immediately knew I had never answered the question. If you’re going to build broadband and have a choice of technologies, why is fiber the best choice?

Future-proofed.

Fiber Has Solved the Upload Problem.

Is the Easiest to Operate.

Lower Life Cycle Costs.

Chattanooga sees $2.69 billion in community benefit over 10 years from Gig Network

EPB reports

Newly-released, independent research documents $2.69 billion in community benefit during the first ten years since EPB of Chattanooga built America’s first Gig-speed community-wide network and used it to establish the nation’s most advanced smart grid power distribution system.

Here’s how they come up with that number…

Key Community Benefits from Chattanooga’s Advanced Infrastructure:

  • Job creation and retention: The fiber optic infrastructure directly supported the creation and retention of 9,516 jobs which is about 40% of all jobs created in Hamilton County during the study period.
  • Lower unemployment rate: According to the study, since Chattanooga’s fiber optic network was deployed, it has helped keep the local unemployment rate lower. This effect has been magnified since the outset of the COVID crisis when fiber optics helped many businesses transition their employees to remote work very quickly. According to the latest available numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hamilton County’s unemployment rate was 4.7% in November which is significantly lower than Tennessee’s rate (5.3%) and two percentage points lower than the U.S. unemployment rate (6.7%) for the same period.
  • Bridging the digital divide for education: Having Chattanooga’s fiber optic network in place allowed EPB to join with Hamilton County Schools and other local and state partners in launching HCS EdConnect, a fiber optic broadband internet service provided at no charge to economically challenged families with K-12 students. Designed to continue providing the service for at least 10 years, HCS EdConnect represents a lasting solution for bridging the digital divide among students. Currently more than 12,000 students have internet access to continue their studies from home through HCS EdConnect.
  • Reduced power outages: Related to the smart grid’s ability to quickly re-route power around storm damage and other problems, the study documents a 40-55% annual decrease in outage minutes providing EPB customers with an average of $26.6 million in savings each year by helping them avoid spoilage, lost productivity, and other negative impacts.
  • Decreased environmental damage: The smart grid has helped EPB decrease carbon emissions by 7,900 tons through demand management and reduced truck-miles.
  • $110 million in Smart City research: In 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy designated Chattanooga as a Smart Grid Living Laboratory. Since then, EPB has partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a range of other national and local research partners, like the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Center for Urban Informatics and Progress, to play a significant role in more than $110 million in Smart City Research.

It’s hard to put your arms around the benefits of a broadband network. How much do I save doing my banking online rather than drive to the building? I save time and gas. My work is entirely online – how much do I get paid. Just two examples. Now multiply that by households throughout a community and think about every occasion during the day you save/make time and money by going online. Ironically, this is easier to do during a pandemic and never have we missed going to the bank more – but you get what I’m saying.

It’s helpful to see how Chattanooga has done this and it’s amazing to see the results. Ten years gives enough time for the statistics to catch up to the street value.

Arvig extends FTTH to 10,000 households in St Cloud, Rochester and Twin Cities

Presswire reports (shares a press release)…

Today, telecommunications and broadband provider Arvig has announced it has installed a fiber optic connection into more than 10,000 townhome, condo and apartment units within the Twin Cities, St. Cloud, and Rochester area. The telecommunications provider continues to grow its high-speed internet connectivity offerings, a service that has become increasingly important with many now working and learning from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Le Sueur County gets Fiber from MetroNet thanks to CARES

From Business Wire press releases…

MetroNet is bringing the power of ultra-fast 100 percent fiber optic to cities in Le Sueur County, Mn., including Le Center, Le Sueur, Montgomery, Cleveland, St Peter, and Waterville. The Evansville, IN.-based company announced that construction of its fiber network in these markets is now underway, with connections to homes and businesses expected to begin soon.

MetroNet has worked closely with LeSueur County officials to utilize funding available through the CARES Act, which has provided local governments with financial support during COVID-19. MetroNet service will help to ensure that the community has quicker access to gigabit speeds and future-proof services for fiber internet, phone and IPTV. Residents may confirm that their address will be serviceable and view services and pricing at www.MetroNetInc.com

“We are very excited to provide these communities with fiber-to-the-home services,” stated Albert Brand, MetroNet’s area Market Manager. “The cities of Le Sueur County, Mn. have been great partners through this process. Barbara Kline and Carl Menk of the Le Sueur County Commission have worked with us closely to set up the infrastructure that will be the foundation for extremely fast, reliable fiber optic internet.”

“The residents and businesses of Le Sueur County were left behind with access to DSL and satellite services. The community was struggling to keep up with surrounding communities who had access to higher-speeds,” Brand said. “At MetroNet, we were proud to partner with city officials to bring this community cutting-edge fiber optic communication system, which will enhance the quality of life in the areas of education, retention and economic development.”

As MetroNet finalizes the installation of their fiber optic network, making these communities Gigabit Cities, customers in the construction areas are likely seeing MetroNet vehicles in their neighborhoods. Residents have received communication by mail about construction activity in their neighborhood 30 days prior to starting. MetroNet has provided additional messaging, such as yard signs, to let residents know when the temporary construction process is beginning in their neighborhood. MetroNet crews are marked by ID tags and branded vehicles.

 

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.”