Fond du Lac Break ground on $8.2 million FTTH Project

This summer, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa broke ground on their fiber to the home project. Yay! Sadly, I wasn’t able to make the event. Thankfully Zachary N. Dunaiski from the Fond du Lac newspaper was willing to share notes and a picture with me.

I have done training on Fond du Lac. I have worked with entrepreneurs who run their businesses from their smartphone. I’ve worked with Elders on how to use Facebook to share (and tag) historical photos to help put names to faces. I’ve worked with people who want to use broadband to help their kids learn and help themselves earn a living. Earning a living may come from setting up an eBay shop or putting a profile on LinkedIn. In fact, one of my favorite teaching stories is the father and son duo who came to class. In class they decided to join LinkedIn – mostly on the premise that the father’s connections could be good for the son’s job search. BUT before the end of the class, the father (a pipe fitter) had a hit on his profile and a likely job lead!

In other words – this is a community that has built up demand. And now broadband supply is in the making.

The network cost is projected at $8.2 million. Two $3 million grants were secured from the USDA, Rural Development – Community Connect program. Fond du Lac Band is contributing $2.2 million to match.

Construction began last month (July 2017) and is expected to end October 2018. The project covers most of the Fond du Lac Reservation. The installation will include 160 miles of the main line fiber and 78 miles of drops or connections to the home. Also, there will be two Central offices located in Sawyer and Brookston. The project can provide connectivity to 1000 homes for both Band and Non-Band members.

Fond do Lac will benefit from this project with more than just business; it will also open up many opportunities such as Telemedicine, home health care, electronic health records, online schooling, and more. Additionally, the system is designed for voice, video, and data.

Nobles County board approves $1 million gift for broadband

According to the Daily Globe

Commissioner Gene Metz stepped away from his seat on the Nobles County board Tuesday morning to wear his second hat — that of vice president of Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co. (LCTC) — to ask the board to financially support the completion of Nobles County’s broadband project, to the tune of nearly $1 million.

After some discussion, it passed on a 4-0 vote with Metz abstaining.

Earlier this year, LCTC was awarded a $2.94 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, but another $1 million in anticipated grant funding fell through. In need of additional funding to complete the project, representatives from the cooperative appeared before commissioners in April seeking a $3 million loan. Discussion later turned to bonding for the money.

The article details the reasons why the commissioners decided to support the work of the cooperative…

“If you feel strongly enough, it’s economic development for the county,” he added.

Commissioner Justin Ahlers said he wanted to go on record saying the broadband project is essentially “building a library.”

“We’re not investing in bricks and mortar, but it’s impacting everyone in the county,” Ahlers said. “Internet is the way it is now. I can’t see us going backwards.”

US median broadband price is $80/month

Telecompetitor reports…

The U.S. residential median broadband price was $80 per month during the second quarter of 2017, according to research from Point Topic.

Globally, the average residential download speed was 135 Mbps and the average monthly charge was $105. The best value was provided by fiber (208 Mbps for $94) and the worst by copper (14 Mbps for $68).

I was surprised at $80/month. I suspect that Telecompetitor isn’t talking to the folks who are using their mobile hotspot for connectivity – or maybe they aren’t factoring in data caps.

It reminds me of the story of the Rock County radio station from a Task Force meeting earlier this summer. Their connection went from $1800/month to $85 once they got fiber. The $1800 appears to have been a combination of solutions, which included subscriptions with data caps.

Regardless, the discrepancy is clear.

HBC Services Now Available in New Trier

Good news from HBC, especially for New Trier…

Hiawatha Broadband Communications, Inc., (HBC) announces its high-speed broadband services are now available in New Trier.

HBC officials state that residents and businesses can now begin connecting to the state-of-the-art fiber-optic network.  HBC President and CEO, Dan Pecarina, said New Trier customers will be able to enjoy the full range of the company’s services.

“We are excited to be able to provide our new customers access to super-fast Internet with speeds up to one Gigabit as well as high-definition Video, and crystal-clear Phone service. The service will truly be something they have not experienced before,” he said.

All three HBC services: Internet, Video, and Phone are available to New Trier residents. Internet service features speeds up to one Gigabit. HBC Video offers up to 350 channels including nearly 130 HD channels and local programming produced by HBC Studios. Phone service options include Unlimited Local and Long Distance Calling and other home phone options. Customers will be able to keep their current phone number upon switching services.

Anyone interested in HBC services is encouraged to call (888) 474-9995 to speak with a Customer Care Representative.

New Trier customers are also eligible for HBC’s Cornerstone program. Any customer choosing 100 Mbps Internet service will have the option of upgrading to Gigabit speeds with no increase to their monthly bill.

Construction of the high-speed HBC broadband network is currently underway in Miesville and Cannon Falls. Services will be available in those communities this fall.

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.