Willmar MN is looking at Open Access Model with Home Town Fiber

I wrote about this project a week ago, but more info might be helpful, especially if the concept of open access network is new. Willmar Radio reports

A Maple Grove company wants to build a fiber optic network to provide high-speed broadband internet service to every home and business in the city of Willmar. Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker says it would not cost city taxpayers one cent, and the company, Home Town Fiber, would share their profits with the city, profits they would generate by renting the network to any Internet Service Provider, or ISP, that wants to use it.

Justice Walker answers a series of questions about the open access model, which is a great way to get folks interested. I’ll share the abbreviated answers that the radio station shared in writing. Check out the website for full answers

…Walker says in communities in others states where an Open Access Fiber Broadband Network exists, they are popular with ISPs…

…Home Town Fiber would bond, with the city’s help, to pay for the project and pay off the bonds through the profits they generate. The initial proposal was for 19.3 million dollars, but Walker says by working with the city to install the fiber as the city works on street projects, the costs will go down…

…Right now city officials are working on creating a contract with Home Town Fiber. If successful, Willmar would have some of the fastest internet in the state.

Need help closing the digital gaps? The Just Transition Fund supports MN and other areas

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society has a series to help folks manage the opportunity coming in to support digital equity at the local level: Pathways to Digital Equity: How Communities Can Reach Their Broadband Goals—and How Philanthropy Can Help. They are manageable bits of information that you can run with right away. Today’s chapter is about the Just Transition Fund

JTF offers grants of up to $150,000 and technical assistance to help organizations access federal and state funds to expand broadband access. This program is designed to offer flexible support for what local organizations need. Grants and technical assistance can be used for:

  • Grant writing to put together a successful application
  • Identifying grant programs that are a good fit for a community project
  • The community’s portion of infrastructure project matching funds
  • Building internal staff capacity to further develop and refine a community broadband project
  • Feasibility studies and additional project planning

The Fund prioritizes communities in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Texas.

Recipients of broadband grants or technical assistance, which are provided on a rolling basis, are invited to join JTF’s community of practice. Through ongoing open calls and relationship-building, the JTF supports communities and connects them with one another to facilitate peer learning, mentorship, and the sharing of best practices.

Duluth is looking at Open Access Fiber Options with the help of State funding

The Institue of Local Self Reliance reports on Duluth…

Last April, the Duluth Economic Development Authority signed a $65,000 contract with Entrypoint LLC to examine the possibility of building a community-owned fiber network in Duluth. The result: a new Digital Access Master Plan that proposes the city spend $7-9 million to build a pilot open access fiber network in Lincoln Park next year.

“Reliable high-speed internet is no longer a luxury,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson proclaimed in a recent state of the city address. “It’s an essential utility no less important to our future success than our roads, water, and electricity.”

Under the proposal, 75 percent of the new network would be buried fiber and 25 percent would be microtrenched along public roads. The $7 to $9 million estimated price tag is based on a 60% take rate, short-term interest at 5 percent, and a long-term interest rate of 3 percent for 20 years. The initial pilot project would bring fiber to an estimated 1,900 Duluth residents next year.

“A 60% take-rate may seem aggressive given the strong market position of the incumbent cable operator,” the plan states. “However, the survey data suggests a strong desire among residents and businesses in Duluth to see competition, choice, better pricing, and the reliability of a fiber optic network.”

The plan moving forward…

Last June, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced that the state would be doling out $95 million in broadband expansion grants, with a maximum of $5 million for each potential target community. Another $68.5 million in funding for Minnesota communities is poised to arrive via the American Rescue Plan Act.

If the pilot goes well, the city will then decide whether to embrace a full, citywide fiber network at an estimated price tag of between $76 and $80 million.

Assuming the full network were to be built over a 48 month period, the plan predicts Duluth would need to subsidize the network for 14 months. Once the network reaches 21,709 premises, the investment will be paid back by operational surpluses. The plan assumes a $79.9 million network build cost would be funded with debt at a 3 percent interest rate over 20 years.

Duluth hires EntryPoint to look at fiber open access models

Duluth News Tribune reports…

City officials have retained the services of the same firm its neighbor used to explore its options as Superior contemplates a massive investment in broadband technology .

The Duluth Economic Development Authority voted Wednesday to spend up to $65,000 to have EntryPoint LLC, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, advise it on the prospects for a publicly owned fiber-optic system.

Chris Fleege, director of Duluth’s planning and economic development department, explained that the city is considering the possibility of building an open-access broadband system.

MInnesota is looking for Minnesota E-health Advisory Committee members

The Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State today released notice of vacancies for various state boards, councils and committees that are accepting applications. Minnesotans are encouraged to apply and serve in demonstration of public service. Here are the positions that I thought might be of interest to readers…

Minnesota E-health Advisory Committee
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Academics and Research
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Community Clinics/Fed Qual. Health Centers
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Experts in Quality Improvement and Clinical Guideline Development
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Health Care Administrator
Vacancies: 2 Seats -Health Plans Representatives
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Health System Chief Information Officer
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Hospital Representatives
Vacancies: 2 Seats -Licensed Health Professionals (Physician/Nurse)
Vacancies: 1 Seat -Local Public Health
Vacancies: 2 Seats -Rotating Professionals – Additional Health Settings (Dentists, Pharmacists, Behavior Health Laboratory, Home Health, Social Services, etc)

Learn more and apply online.

Broadband as a utility. What does that mean for rural areas?

I had a few emails last week asking me about what it means to define broadband as a utility. So I thought I’d try to tackle the question, which came up after the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) meeting on broadband.

At the meeting, someone compared the drive for border to border broadband to the Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans for installation of electricity to rural areas, often through cooperative electric power companies. Someone else asked if that was really what the country needed.

Here’s the catch 22 – metro areas are often angling for competition while rural and remote places are hoping for one, good solution. When visiting Minnesota last year, FCC Chairman Wheeler talked about competition being ingrained in the American psyche.

But in very rural areas, where it’s difficult to make a business case to serve so few homes in such large geographic areas, competition can be detrimental. For example, someone at the conference mentioned FirstNet as way to bring better broadband to anchor institutions in rural areas. On the one hand, it’s a great way to serve those institutions and maybe save money by allowing government entities to share connectivity. On the other hand, you risk taking away a “big” customer from a potential broadband provider who might also serve local homes and businesses. The amount they can charge the big guy offsets the cost they charge home users.

It might be easier in such a case to think of broadband as a utility. Share the connection not only with anchor institutions but local residents and businesses as well. (And there is a growing interest in using a cooperative model to provide services.)

Looking at that conundrum, there aren’t many rules or regulations that lead to an answer. Universal Service Funding (Connect American Fund) strives to fund only one provider in any given area. But recent open internet regulation promotes competition in several ways – for example striving to regulate broadband similarly regardless of platform (wired, wireless). And in practice it certainly seems that while there is often not enough business for one provider to upgrade connectivity, there’s business for two! (One example is Monticello. They have had issues but the local provider was not interested in providing fiber until the local government expressed an interest.)

In February, the FCC declared that broadband is a utility. So how does that fit in with the discussion of rural deployment? It doesn’t much. Weeks before the decision Chairman Wheeler lined out his plan

“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.”

The decision provides protections to customers. It treats wired and wireless similarly to wired broadband. One goal was to promote competition. But it really focuses on making sure that the providers offer and maintain unfettered access through broadband more than to broadband. It ensures that once online, each user shall have equal access to materials, services and each other. BUT it doesn’t as directly address the folks who can’t get online. To build on the analogy of the superhighway, it prohibits providers from creating tolls roads or privileged pay-lanes but it doesn’t push roads everywhere and it expressly does not address price. It does safeguard against the idea of an “Internet Junior” for some areas but it doesn’t promote more infrastructure.

To add more fodder for thought…

Doug Dawson makes the point today that the competition is shrinking. I don’t know if that will help promote better service in markets that are served or better access to unserved areas. I can remember discussions with the original Minnesota Task Force on broadband as a natural monopoly. They refer to one provider more than unfettered access…

Need to think of the future – we’re setting a goal to be reached in the future, not immediately. In you look out 10 years, there’s going to be 1 pipe into houses and that’s going to be fiber. The notion of building 2 mediocre networks for the sake competition is short sighted. The pipe is a natural monopoly. We need to set the goals for the future – not next year. We need to be aggressive – we need to protect consumers. Consumers have been screwed by provides for so long that we need to protect them.

No we don’t have a monopoly; it’s just not true. We have more than one pipe in the house now. There are implications in the statement that will have an impact on policy.

From the rural perspective I think communities and policymakers need to think about who and how promote access. It seems like funding helps – again at the MSBA both providers and policymakers alluded to the collaboration occurring because of the State Broadband Funds maybe a hybrid solution is best – a little bit utility, a little bit free market. BUT these issues are different than the issues addressed by the FCC in their Open Internet policy.

Update on Northeast Service Coop Middle Mile Fiber Project

The Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) recently posted a presentation that they have been giving to the project with area community leaders. It’s an nice update on what’s has happened with the project and what is planned or 2012.

A quick reminder for folks, I will borrow from NESC’s description of their project- adding that they received ARRA funding…

The Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project will make broadband services viable for a vast geographic region, creating an initial backbone that will serve hundreds of sites along 915 miles of fiber within eight counties including St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Koochiching, Carlton, Pine, Itasca, and Aitkin. A number of anchor institutions will participate in the Project including state and municipal agencies, the Arrowhead Library System, SISU Medical System, Minnesota Association of Mental Health Programs, and twenty-eight public school districts. Overall, the project will impact 613,092 residents, 244,574 households, thousands of businesses and governmental agencies and 35,855 public school students from across Northeast Minnesota.

And now a couple of highlights from the presentation

  • 415 miles constructed in 2011 – including the following areas – Built into communities within Carlton, Lake & St. Louis County including: Aurora, Carlton, Cloquet, Cromwell, Duluth, Ely, Thomson, Floodwood, Hermantown, Hibbing, Moose Lake, Mountain Iron, Proctor, Silver Bay, Soudan, Two Harbors, Virginia, Willow River, Wrenshall, Gilbert, Eveleth Eveleth Tower Barnum , To we r, Barnum.
  • Areas slated for constructed in 2012 – McGregor, Orr, International Falls, Cotton, Chisholm, Buhl, Keewatin, Cook, New Duluth, Gary, Biwabik, Nett Lake, Fond du Lac, North Shore Communities (Grand Marais, Grand Portage, Portage, Lutsen, Schroeder Tofte).

They also look at what is means to be connected – from a community perspective. I think the presentation is very good – even if you’re not in Northeast MN – although the possible solution they elaborate upon may not be available in other areas.

Northern Regional Broadband Networks Forum Notes & Presentations

Today I attended the Northern Regional Broadband Networks Forum in Duluth. The interest in broadband in the business community in Duluth is clearly high – as demonstrated by the standing room only situation in the room.

It was a nice look at all aspects of broadband of the community and a nice eye opener for folks who may not be using broadband, cloud computing or social media as often (or maybe as well) as the speakers. I think it will spur folks to go home and look at how they can implement broadband tools in work, home and community.

Below are the presentations. [Added 10/5/2011 – you can access materials from the event online too. http://www.northlandconnection.com/uploads/BroadbandNetworkForumPacket2.pdf]

(Danna used a great tool called Prezi – fun to see, great for the presentation but tougher to embed in the blog. Please click to view her presentation.)

And here are the questions, which I think are always valuable. (As fun to see what folks ask as to hear the answers.)

Continue reading

Open Internet discussion at NATOA

As a reminder – this week I am at the NATOA (National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors) Conference in San Francisco.

Interesting panel at NATOA discussion the open internet and net neutrality.  Google thinks that Net Neutrality is essential because it means that the user is in control.  Richard Bennett of ITIF says that this is easy to say, hard to regulate.  The discussion is now moving towards the new FCC rules announced yesterday.

Eagan is thinking Fiber

Well, they’re more than thinking. According to a recently posted RFP for fiber optic cabling

It is City of Eagan’s intent to obtain and own a fiber cable plant to be used for city purposes, wholesale access to telecommunications providers, or open access to telecommunications providers within the corporate limits of the City of Eagan.

They are looking for proposals by September 13, 2011. The contract will be awarded September 20 and the project should be completed by November 18. You can get all of the details on the RFP. Good luck to those who will propose!

Senators Klobuchar & Franken attend Carver County Groundbreaking

One of the best thing about being back in Minnesota is that I’m able to attend some of the fun groundbreaking events to celebrate new broadband deployment (much of it sponsored by ARRA funding). Yesterday I was able to attend the groundbreaking in Cologne, Minnesota. They were celebrating the beginning of their new fiber optic ring, which will be over 122 miles long and will connect 86 entities at 56 sites throughout Carver County, including city, county and township governments, schools, fire departments, public safety towers and law enforcement agencies.

Both Senators Franken and Klobuchar attended. I caught some video of the event…

Construction begins on the Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project

It really is construction season in Minnesota – especially now that some of the ARRA-funded projects are coming to fruition. Monday we reported on construction in southern Minnesota, today it’s northern Minnesota. CivSource reports

Work begins today [July 26] on a new broadband network in Minnesota designed to connect anchor institutions like public offices, schools and libraries. The Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project is a $24 million broadband network that will provide greater access throughout the state. Enventis, a subsidiary of HickoryTech, will be managing the build out. The project will extend a middle-mile network to anchor institutions and provide public offices and agencies with a high capacity network.

Eventis started the working on the network in July in Superior, Wisconsin and will extend fiber over nearly 430 miles throughout northern Minnesota. Along with anchor institutions and public offices residents of the area will have the opportunity to subscribe to broadband access.

We wrote a little more about the Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project when they received funding

Enventis Telecom – This approximately $16.8 million award, with more than $7.2 million in matching contributions, will allow Enventis Telecom to offer affordable middle-mile broadband service in Minnesota. The project plans to directly connect 70 community institutions to broadband. As many as 350,400 people stand to benefit as do 28,000 businesses. Enventis estimates that the project will create more than 250 jobs.

I’ve been paying more attention to that jobs factor lately. I’ll be eager to see how many jobs are created.

Carver County Fiber Construction RFB

Last fall, Carver County got the good news on their ARRA application – they received almost $6 million to build a fiber optic ring. According to their web site

The fiber ring will be nearly 89 miles long, run directly through all 11 cities in the county, and have an additional 32 miles of lateral connections connecting over 80 public partners. These partners represent city, county and township governments, fire departments, schools, public safety towers and law enforcement agencies as well as a regional healthcare center.

The ring is an open network, which will enable private service providers to offer broadband services on this network to homes and businesses.

The project seems to be rolling along. Last week, they issued a request for bid for the construction portion of the project. For folks who might be interested they are offering a few training/demonstration events in the next few weeks that will help. The bids are due April 5, 2011.

The Carver County Fiber web site is a wealth of information! There was one paragraph that caught my eye…

Carver County currently spends about $290,000 a year to lease T1 copper lines and will result in a 5 year payback relative to the $1.5 million in county match funds. Once the ring is complete, Carver County will realize a reduction in annual expenses and contain future costs.

Last week at the TISP meeting we heard from three counties who are working on countywide broadband. Hard numbers, like the cost of T1 lines, help me put in perspective the definition of profitable. Sometime it’s not how much you make, it’s how much you save!

Lake County Reshuffles the deck

Last night the Lake County Board of Commissioners met to discuss the Lake County Fiber project. (As you may recall Lake County received almost $70 million for a FTTH project. More recently, the have run into issues with some of the project partners.) According to the Lake County News Chronicle the Board made some big decisions last night…

Lake County could not reach agreement on a permanent contract with National Public Broadband, its consultant firm for nearly two years. The two sides battled for nearly two months and couldn’t resolve differences on bonus payments and the county’s option to fire NPB without cause and without penalty. The negotiations had bogged down work on the actual project, Commissioner Paul Bergman said, and the board wanted a fresh start.

The project is being funded by federal money approved in September and handled by the Rural Utilities Service branch of the Department of Agriculture.

Board members said it was the Rural Utilities Service that forced its hand in making changes in the approach to the fiber project, including the third surprise resolution passed by the County Board on Tuesday — authorization to use $3.5 million in public money for the project.

The decision to use public funding had to have been difficult, given they had been saying that the project would not require public financing. But it sounds as if the RUS required it. I think the public funding will help the project – there’s nothing like a little skin in the game to increase interest and motivation. Christopher Mitchell from Institute for Local Self Reliance seems to agree…

The County had long maintained that no public money would be used. However, most people will likely not care as long as the project keeps its promise to deliver fast, reliable, and affordable broadband to the community. This is the need — and people need to stay focused on achieving this goal.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. The ARRA funding went to the county. So the project is still on, they are just looking to reshuffle the deck a little. Perhaps they will get a hand that better suits them in the next few weeks. This project along with fiber being in stalled in the area by Arrowhead Electric, as well as Duluth’s bid for the Google Gig and Cook County’s ongoing use of technology could really be a game changer for NE Minnesota. So I hope that Lake County will find a solution that works.

Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group Update

The Jackson County Pilot recently ran an update from the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group. As you may recall the SWMBG received an ARRA award to serve eight communities in SW Minnesota. Their project appears to be progressing nicely. According to the Jackson County Pilot…

With staking of the fiber network completed and plans and specifications currently being drawn up, the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services Board turned its attention to marketing during a meeting last Thursday.

John Schultz, who is working with the SWMBG, provided me with a few more details on the latest meeting

  1. There was a long discussion on what community events and groups we should be targeting
  2. We spoke about both traditional media and on-line media to reach our perspective customer base; SMBS will be utilizing a combination of both
  3. We are on the time to go directly to the customer base-we need to alert them that the incumbents will be starting (and are already) starting to run the typical multiple year contract campaigns to lock customers into their service.
  4. Everything is on target, looking at beginning of spring construction build.