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