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.

Have plan, will deploy in Australia

Thanks to Mike Horwath for the heads up – while we were eating turkey leftovers, the Australian Senate passed a bill that split Telstra’s Australia’s largest ISP separating their retail and wholesale arms.

The Age echoed many other news sources when they said…

THE national broadband network has cleared another key hurdle, after Parliament signed off on major changes designed to help consumers by splitting Telstra’s retail and wholesale arms.

The same article goes on to say that plans are in the works to block the path, while other promising to block the blocks – but a step has been taken. Ars Technica gives a brief summary of the route to deploying the national broadband plan…

The government let go of Telstra in the late 1990s. But, over the coming eight years, Australia’s taxpayers will fork over AUS$43 billion (US$38 billion) to build a “world-class broadband infrastructure.” The project will deliver fiber-to-the-home to 93 percent of all households. We’re talking open access and wholesale only. Every ISP will be able to tap into the system.

I hear people claim that the US can’t commit to ubiquitous broadband because we’re so big with so many areas of low population density. I know that size and population density matter – but I think Australia is showing that where there’s a will, there’s a way. As you may recall, access to broadband was a big issue in the elections this year. The people wanted broadband and now the government is stepping in to make it happen. Unfortunately surveys are showing the opposite in the US. Pew recently reported that more than half of Americans polled say they do not believe that the spread of affordable broadband should be a major government priority. Even Blandin Foundation’s own Rural Pulse survey indicated that…

Fifty three percent of rural residents strongly agreed and 33 percent somewhat agreed that their community has adequate access to technology, with 13 percent disagreeing with that belief.

And numerous surveys have indicated that one of the top reasons people don’t have home broadband is because they don’t see a value. It’s an indicator that we need to convince people of the value of broadband – because as Australia has demonstrated – it can be (or at least is being) done.

Sibley County broadband for farms: fair or foul?

Dave Peters has a great article today about Sibley County and their conundrum about providing fiber. His article is definitely worth reading in its entirety but I’m going to borrow his succinct description of the issue…

Here are the questions: Should the county of 15,000 (18,000 if you add the neighboring town of Fairfax) create a project to serve eight small towns with Internet speed far greater than what is available now through phone and cable companies? Assume it would borrow about $34 million and have an expected breakeven in five years. Or should it build a project offering the same service to the same towns plus all the farms in the county, borrowing $61 million, finding another $2 million in equity and breaking even in seven years?

And — here’s the really interesting part for residents to tussle with — if they lay fiber to all the farms, should farmers pay more?

Chris Mitchell gave a heads up on this issue earlier this fall when he spoke about the Sibley community meetings to talk about broadband. And it is an issue that will be familiar to anyone who thinks a lot about broadband in rural areas – but just because we’ve been thinking about it doesn’t mean there’s a good answer.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of providers at the Minnesota Broadband Advisory Task Force meeting. As Dave points out – the providers in Sibley County are part of the landscape as well. In his article, Dave alludes to the Sibley project needed 70 percent of the residents to use the service. Funny enough yesterday we were talking about take rates (not in Sibley County) and we noted that a 70 percent take rate was very desirable, but perhaps not realistic, especially when there’s competition.

An Open Access model might be worth considering – where the cost of building the network could be shared. I don’t know that all providers are interested in the open access model, but some are. I know that both the State Report and National Broadband Plan encourage public-private partnerships. A definite step in the right direction is the community meetings that Sibley County is hosting in the area.

Lake County’s search for funds

The Heartland Institute recently featured Lake County’s efforts to deploy fiber in an article that ironically seems to promote letting the market lead broadband deployment. The Heartland Institute’s tagline is free market solutions, so I understand their position. It just seems as if Lake County is an interesting choice for an example community.

As the Heartland reports…

Lake County, Minnesota, is hoping for a federal grant to fund its proposed $70 million municipal broadband service—and, lacking that, will hope Google or municipal bonds will get the long-delayed project underway.

Gary Fields, CFO of Minneapolis-based National Public Broadband, a firm that facilitates municipal broadband services across the country, said in May the chances Lake County will see its project come together without local funding are uncertain.

Heartland warns of the dangers of municipalities getting involved with telecommunications projects…

Scott Testa, professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, says municipalities like Lake County, Minnesota, should rethink the idea of using taxpayers’ money to get into the broadband business.

“The idea is that these projects are supposed to promote economic growth, but municipalities have not done a very good job from a profitability standpoint,” Testa said. “When it comes to a bond issue, maybe the money could be better spent in other areas.

“If history tells us anything, it tells us that municipalities don’t do these things as well as the for-profit sector,” he added. “Cities have to hire engineers and others for these projects, whereas companies like Verizon work on them day in, day out.”

But there are a couple of reasons that I think Lake County was an interesting choice here. First, according to the Lake County Fiber web site, the county will not be building or running the network…

The County Board issued a Request for Proposals for qualified companies to build and operate the network. They selected National Public Broadband, Inc., a non-profit company comprised of a team of people who have already built and operated publicly-owned networks.

And that network will use the open access model…

Private voice, video, data and other service providers will be able to purchase wholesale access and use the networks to offer competitive services.

Also pursuing financing from taxpayers does not appear to be Plan A for Lake County…

National Public Broadband is developing financing applications for federal stimulus funding as well as other sources. No taxpayer funds will be pledged to fund the network.

Finally Lake County is pursuing public funds for the network because they are underserved, which would indicate to me that the market is not serving their needs…

This stimulus money is to help underserved areas to be able to compete with areas that already have the fiber in place. Because we are a county with a small population we decided instead of waiting Lake County would take advantage of the stimulus money and build a fiber network and have a first class informational highway.

Also the Connect Minnesota broadband coverage maps indicate that there are unserved areas in Lake County…