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…

NESC update in Northeastern Minnesota

The Lake County New Chronicle posted an update on the Northeast Service Cooperative’s plan to bring fiber that would pass through St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Koochiching, Carlton, Pine, Itasca and Aitkin counties.

NSC received $43.5 million in ARRA broadband funding to expand broadband in 8 counties and more than 221 key sites, with the potential to stimulate public-private partnerships long-term across the region. They are currently in the engineering phase. As the Chronicle reports…

Representatives of the Northeast Service Cooperative told local officials on Thursday that the group is in the engineering phase of the project to bring broadband to agencies such as medical facilities, counties and schools throughout Northeastern Minnesota.

They also report that they anticipate getting started with building about a year from now. They plan is to build the network for those key sites but then to open the infrastructure up to other providers to service residents and local businesses.

Breaking the Broadband Monopoly: a municipal network perspective

Thanks to Chris Mitchell, from Institute for Local Self Reliance, for the heads up on his recent report: Breaking the Broadband Monopoly: How Communities are Building the Networks They Need. I think few people are as well versed or passionate about publicly owned, run or supported networks as Chris. The report is thorough and provides a great history and perspective of municipal networks – and while I say municipal, I should explicitly expand that to county, regions and other geographic scopes.

Chris draws on example from all over the country – including Minnesota. Scott County is noted for their fiber-optic network built to connect all the county facilities, including libraries, 800MHz towers, public safety buildings, schools, and some additional assets (pg 16). The Monticello saga is described (pg 26). A couple of Minnesota businesses/employers get a nod for their support – even promotion – of remote working programs for employees (pg 5). Windom also gets a nod for the superior customer service of their community-owned provider – even when the customer belonged to the commercial provider in town (in other words, their competitors) (pg 6). But it’s not all good – Anoka County is called out with surveys from residents who said they would not have bought or built houses where they did if they knew access to the Internet was so limited (pg 6) and Minnesota’s super majority referendum rules (communities must pass a referendum with 65% support in order to build a triple-play broadband network) is also mentioned.

One thing I really like is the recognition that each town is different and so each solution is different that is one of the big advantages of getting the town involved in the solution – it means custom-made solutions. There’s also a section on open access networks that I found especially interesting partially because I find the idea of broadband as a natural monopoly compelling…

In economic terms, FTTH networks are almost a perfect natural monopoly due to the large up front expense but decreasing costs to add subscribers. An established network can underprice any new competitors. However, there is no technical reason multiple competitors cannot offer services on the same fiber infrastructure (pg 8). I think that notion may grow as people start thinking of broadband more as a utility.

Two more MN projects get ARRA funding

Great news for two more Minnesota regions! One project is fiber, one is wireless. One is Northeast, one is South Central. Here’s the info from the press release, I’ve included only the most pertinent parts for the Minnesota readers – you can get details on other states’ projects on the release…

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Announces Rural Broadband Projects to Bring Economic Opportunity to Communities In Eight States

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the selection of broadband infrastructure projects to give rural residents in 8 states access to improved economic and educational opportunities. Funding for the projects is being provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“The broadband projects announced today will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to attract new businesses, educational opportunities and jobs,” Vilsack said. “The Obama Administration understands that bringing broadband to rural America provides a gateway for businesses and key anchor institutions – such as libraries, schools, public buildings and community centers to provide services to thousands of Americans. These projects will create jobs building these networks, and the completed systems will provide a platform for rural economic growth for years to come.”

In all, $150 million will be invested in 12 projects through funding made available by Congress in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. An additional $68.2 million in private investment will be provided in matching funds, bringing the total funds invested to $218.2 million. To date, $1.05 billion has been provided to construct 67 broadband projects in 30 states and one territory.

• Northeast Service Cooperative: The Northeast Minnesota Middle Mile Project; $21,749,110 loan and $21,749,110 grant. The funding will provide middle-mile, dark fiber, wavelength services to private-sector providers in rural areas of northeast Minnesota.
• Minnesota Valley Television Improvement Corporation: The Minnesota Wireless Expansion Project; $562,776 loan and $562,776 grant, and $281,388 of private investment. The funding will provide a two-way broadband internet network to unserved and underserved areas of west central and south central Minnesota, providing 34 additional wireless (WiMAX) access points.

Here’s a little more info on each project:

Applicant Northeast Service Cooperative
  Mountain Iron, MN
Contact Lyle MacVey
Project title Northeast Minnesota Middle Mile Project
Program BIP/BTOP
Project type Middle Mile
Grant request* $ 32,135,681
Loan request $ 11,362,539
Status Received
Description The Northeast Service Cooperative in partnership with state & local agencies, schools & health care organizations will implement a middle mile project to make dark fiber, wavelength services available to private sector providers in rural areas of northeast Minnesota. The project will improve access to critical education & health care services to 20,000 households which lack broadband services.
Applicant Minnesota Valley Television Improvement Corporation
Contact Daniel Richter
Project title Minnesota Wireless Expansion
Program BIP
Project type Last Mile Non-Remote Area
Grant request $ 562,776
Loan request $ 562,776
Status Received
Description MVTV Wireless is proposing to continue building out it’s two-way broadband internet network to un-served and underserved areas of west central and south central Minnesota. The proposed project will add 34 additional WIMAX Access Points in 34 un-served and underserved communities adjacent and contiguous to its current service area.

Sorry this is a little slow off the mark. I have learned a valuable lesson about working remotely – it saves time and hassles. It took me 37 hours to get from Dublin to St Paul this week. I’m in town for a presentation. Next time I think I’ll offer to present online. (Although sunshine wise I picked a great week to come home!)

Blaine not going for broadband

Anoka County has been working on an ARRA broadband stimulus grant. According to ABC Newspapers, Blaine will not be moving forward with the County to seek funding for broadband.

The article outlines many of the potential advantages Blaine would reap if they were part of the project, assuming they got money. But the City Council voted it down. There seemed to be great concerns about public funding getting into private business and/or providing an unfair advantage to one business.

Anoka County will be working with Zayo Broadband. They will be providing an open access network, which many readers will recognize means that other providers will be able to take advantage of the infrastructure. Zayo will be in more of a wholesale position.

One resident seemed to speak for many when she said…

“It’s the carrot and stick [approach],” she said. “I’m against public and private partnerships. We need to allow the private sector to provide Internet services.”

Also there seemed to be frustration with the whole NTIA/RUS broadband stimulus initiative…

[Mayor] Ryan said he was dissatisfied with the federal stimulus process but pointed out if local government entities didn’t apply, any money awards would go elsewhere.

[Councilmember] Hovland disagreed with Ryan’s view.

“I don’t see where this will stimulate the economy and create jobs,” Hovland said. “Somewhere, we have to stand up and say no.”

[Councilmember] Clark said if the county’s broadband initiative had been presented at part of a national policy initiative, he would have had a better understanding of why the city would be support it.

In the end the City Council voted unanimously against it.

St Paul moves a step ahead with plans for BTOP funding

Yesterday, the St Paul City Council consented to Resolution – 10-242 – Authorizing the Office of Technology and Communications to submit an ARRA NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant request. (GS 3099816-Ward 7).

So what does that mean? According to the Pioneer Press, the plan (for St Paul and Ramsey County) will “link the governments in a truly high-speed Internet network and, proponents say, lay a base infrastructure that eventually could lead to the same top-quality service to businesses and residents, as well as needed support for growing 4G wireless networks.”

I don’t want to say the first step – as I know many hours of work has gone into getting the application this far – but this is a step towards requesting ARRA broadband stimulus funds and loans to build the infrastructure. It also cements a relationship with two local businesses, UniTek Global Services and Minnesota Fiber Exchange. They would build and manage the network.

According to Minnesota Fiber Exchange

Our goal is to provide carrier neutral-dark fiber-open access networks to carriers and ISPs to allow them to expand their business base in the community. Especially in an area such as St. Paul and Ramsey County where currently there is a dearth of fiber assets for lease; we believe that this will be an exciting way for providers to increase customer reach. Our goal is to provide a competitively priced dark fiber service that will allow ISPs to grow business. The new network will replace the existing network in St Paul, which is a free network provided by Comcast.

Why are they doing this?

Again according to the Pioneer Press…

Hoping to save taxpayers money in the long run and boost the region’s march into the digital age, a host of officials from throughout Ramsey County are pushing a $30 million plan to build a new network of fiber-optic communication cable.

Open Wireless Network?

The St Cloud Times featured a story on NewCore, a company that has a plan to help stretch broadband into more remote areas. Rather than try to rephrase and potential misrepresent something I’m going to borrow heavily from the St Cloud story:

NewCore invested $5 million in infrastructure so rural telephone companies, local entrepreneurs and others can offer wireless through NewCore’s equipment. The infrastructure is actually computer equipment that — once connected to a cell phone tower or radio transmitter owned by one of its customers — allows people to use the Internet and make cell phone calls.

But it doesn’t connect directly with wireless users. Rather, companies and entrepreneurs buy the ability to use NewCore’s infrastructure so they can offer Internet and cell phone service to consumers.

NewCore is taking something usually found through large companies and making it available to any provider. Often the equipment is too expensive for small or rural companies to buy, Kangas said. And wireless Internet and cell phone coverage through larger companies can be spotty in rural areas, he said, because bigger businesses often focus on the nation’s top 50 markets.

So far NewCore has signed five deals with customers. Three are with Central Minnesota companies — Albany Mutual Telephone Association, Benton Cooperative Telephone Co. and Palmer Wireless. The other two are companies people will recognize, Kangas said, but NewCore can’t name them until finalizing contract details.

It sounds like an open source wireless network to me. What’s nice is this is the kind of innovation that broadband technology can spur. The company plans to have 3-40 employees in the next year and the average salary is $50,000 to $90,000. So it’s a win-win story. People create good jobs providing broadband to remote areas.

I don’t know what speed we’re talking about here – but it seems to me that for unserved areas wireless broadband is a great deal and for underserved areas, wireless broadband might be just the competition the incumbents need to bump up their own service.

More on the Minnesota Broadband Stimulus Applications

The list/database of NTIA applications for broadband stimulus funding came out late last week. Minnesotans submitted 28 applications in the hopper. Chris Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self Reliance took a look at the applications in terms of who best deserves the money to bring last mile connectivity to rural Minnesota. Chris, who would lean heavily towards community-based networks, put Lake County, Cook County, and City of Windom. He also favorably mentions the applying cooperatives and Jaguar Communication, which uses an open network. Chris has done a good job analyzing and distilling the infrastructure applications in Minnesota – so I thought I’d look at the broader picture.

There are 31 applications that are either submitted from Minnesota or plan to cover at least a part of Minnesota. (Applications received from outside Minnesota are listed below – where it says click for more info.)

How much?
Total grant funds requested: $306,655,771
Total loans requested: $107,641,221
Total when combined: $414,269,992

Who is submitting?
Applications from businesses: 18
Applications from government entities (counties, cities, schools): 5
Applications from cooperatives: 2
Applications from nonprofits: 2
Applications from private/public partnerships: 2
Applications from tribal entities: 2

What type of technology will they use?
Fiber: 13
Wireless: 6
DSL: 3
Not specified (in the summary provided): 3
Adoption focused: 5

Where are they?
Twin Cities: 4
Not specified: 1
ND: 2
WI (and partial MN): 1
The rest are in rural Minnesota. I was going to look for counties represented but too many summaries were too broad. When or if I can get more details I look into it.

Anyone going for more than one?
Donny Smith: 4
Hastad Telephone: 4
TDS: 2
John Schultz: 3
City of Minneapolis: 2 Continue reading

Fiber in Lake County

Lake County Minnesota has engaged Tim Nulty and Gary Fields for a fiber to the Home project in Lake County. The project would include fiber for each home and business throughout Lake County.

Tim Nulty and Gary Fields will provide the study, design, build, and operation of the network. Lake County will own the asset but will not operate the network.

You can learn more about the project from a recent article in the Lake County News Chronicle; they covered a recent Lake County Board meeting. (Or you can learn a little bit about Tim and Gary’s history with the Iron Range’s former FiberNet project.)

Rural Internet and Broadband Policy Group

Thanks to Amalia Anderson for sharing the Rural Internet and Broadband Policy Group’s Rural Broadband Principles and Policy Recommendations with me.

So the story is a bunch of smart people, who clearly understand the issues in rural America got together to talk about the implications of broadband in rural areas.

They came up with two straightforward goals:

The Rural Internet and Broadband Policy Group has two goals: 1) to articulate national broadband policies that provide opportunities for rural communities to participate fully in the nation’s democracy, economy, culture, and society, and 2) to spark national collaboration among rural broadband advocates.

And then they backed it up with principles and policy recommendations, “based on four main needs of rural communities: 1) accurate data on service availability and adoption, 2) locally‐owned infrastructure, 3) assistance in technology adoption, and 4) uniform and transparent federal policies.”

Here’s the refreshing thing – the big answer isn’t more money. Instead many of the recommendations revolve around sharing info and resources that already exist, or would not monumental to create such as accurate mapping, upping minimum speed defined as broadband, creating a database of transportation projects to allow broadband providers to recognize opportunities for open conduit. They are pro open access networks, pro net neutrality and pro transparency.

The report is only six pages and is well worth the time – it definitely cuts to the chase.

Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force February 20, 2009

Here are my notes from yesterday’s Broadband Task Force meeting. I had to leave early – but this morning I saw that they now have video archives of the last few meetings available online. So, I was able to catch up a little – it’s very difficult at times to hear the conversation on the recording. In fairness, it can be hard in person too.

One quick aside, I had to leave to present at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, New Times – New Technology conference. While there I met a woman from the Minnesota Commission Serving Deaf & Hard of Hearing People. She was curious about BB Task Force and how they would be considering the needs of her constituents. As she pointed out remote classes by video is great – but without subtitles or sign interpreters, they close the door to some students. I don’t know if this is an issue for the Task Force; I don’t know that it isn’t. I know it’s an issue worth addressing.

OK back to the meeting…

Continue reading

Minnesota Broadband Task Force Special Meeting

It was tougher to take notes at today’s meeting than it has been at previous Task Force meetings – especially when they discussed the shovel-ready projects because there was a lot of back and forth dialog and I’m a blogger not a stenographer. I’m going to include all of my notes – but I wanted to add a couple of notes.

First – I didn’t take great notes on the Broadband Mapping presentation because it was remarkably similar to the sneak preview I wrote about on Thursday. I just added notes and questions that were new.

Second – I just read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Broadband task force drops plan to get stimulus funds). I think the tone of the article is misleading. I don’t think the Task Force dropped the list of projects so much as they decided that realistically they couldn’t be the ones to decide which projects should be funded – and if they handed over a list of projects that the powers that be would assume that the Task Force had made some qualitative decisions to create the list.

They couldn’t decide which projects should be funded because (1) they don’t know the rules for funding yet because Congress is still creating rules and (2) they don’t have the time to delve into these projects and create a recommendation for the future of broadband in Minnesota, which is their primary goal. So instead of providing a list, it sounded to me at if the Task Force decided to provide benchmarks or guidelines for Legislators to decide which projects to fund after they gather their own list of potential projects.

Third, the Star Tribune article did pick up on the tension in the room between potentially opposing views on how and where to increase broadband in Minnesota. I think we saw a touch of this last month – I think we’re going to see a lot more as the group moves forward to make recommendations on how and where to increase broadband in Minnesota.

On with the meeting notes… Continue reading

February Blandin eNews

Blandin Get Broadband CommunitiesHere’s the news from our latest newsletter. It’s mostly a compilation of Minnesota-related stories from the blog in the last month – but sometimes it’s nice to have it compiled.

Broadband News from around Minnesota

Carver County
The Carver County board approved a fiber optic project linking the county’s cities, schools and libraries, and ultimately businesses and homeowners.

Verizon Wireless launched its high-speed wireless broadband Internet service in northern Minnesota.

Grand Rapids
Bill Coleman and Ann Treacy on behalf of the Blandin Foundation have been working with nonprofit executive directors in Grand Rapids to assess shared technology needs and collaborate on solutions. They are also working specifically with arts organizations in Grand Rapids to create a community arts blog, which should be unveiled later this month.

The Willmar Economic Development Commission is extending their Blandin-sponsored Get Broadband grant by offering a second ground of grants and more classes to local business working on their web sites.

Forbes names Minneapolis number 7 of their top 30 Most Wired Cities.

The NATOA (National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors) recently filed an Amicus brief in support of the City of Monticello and their quest for FTTH.

North St Paul
On February 24, North St Paul will hold a special election on an $18.5 million bond to build a fiber-optic network to provide high-speed Internet, telephone and cable services.

Olmsted County
Olmsted County supports 140 telecommuters.

St Cloud
A St Cloud man has come up with a better wireless solution based on light, not radio waves.

The Windom Schools have benefitted greatly from broadband technology enhanced by funding from the Blandin Foundation’s Light Speed program.

(Many stories are gathered from local online newspaper. Unfortunately each newspaper has a different policy in regards to archive news and therefore we cannot guarantee access to all articles cited.)

Coleman’s Corner

As a big Bruce Springsteen fan, last night’s Super Bowl halftime show was a bonus for me. I am now watching the clock so I can go online and purchase tickets for his upcoming St. Paul show. I have seen Springsteen shows many times over the years and through the usual three hour shows, Bruce orchestrates the band and the crowd through a well choreographed outpouring of energy and emotion. Watching him play a 12 minute set was fun, but a bit unreal. When his set was over, I wondered how many attendees would have voted to skip the second half just to have the E Street Band keep playing. Luckily for the NFL, the game turned into a thriller.

In a pre-game interview, Bob Costas asked Bruce why, after all these years of being asked, the band agreed to play at the Super Bowl. Springsteen laughed and said “’Cause I have a record to promote!” The title song of the album is “Working on a Dream.”

Communities pursuing a better future through broadband might well adopt “Working on a Dream” as their theme song. The opening lyrics, “Out here the nights are long, the days are lonely” and later, “I am working on a dream, though sometimes it feels so far away” and finally “My hands are rough from working on a dream” capture the challenge of community transformation whether pursuing a fiber to the home network or stimulating technology adoption by hesitant or budget stretched community organizations. As with many Springsteen songs that speak to challenge, “Working on a Dream” has a hopeful conclusion that is the outcome of hard work and perseverance. So keep up the good work and the benefits of technology transformation will emerge!

Featured Article – Minnesota broadband mapping unveiled

This is a big week for Minnesota broadband for two reasons. First, Connected Nation will be unveiling a preview of their maps this week. Second, the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force is holding a special meeting to look at the mapping and shovel-ready broadband projects around the state.

Over the past few months, Connected Nation ( has been working with broadband providers across the state to create a map of broadband availability and speed. They primarily use the information supplied by the providers to create the maps.

To double check the speeds supplied by providers, Connected Nation has created a speed test and they are asking everyone in Minnesota to test and record their speeds by visiting the site.

Unfortunately, one of our local ISPs (ipHouse) found a hiccup in the Speed Test (  Apparently the test is skewed for any connections other than DSL or cable, it’s limited to 10mpbs connection and the tests are run out of Texas. Connected Nation has been criticized for their strong relationship to providers in the past ( The speed tests are a way to balance provider-supplied data so I look forward to hearing how this can be rectified and/or how this affects the results.

Also I’m anxious to see the maps. I suspect we’ll see holes up North and I wonder if we’ll see patchy areas closer to the Twin Cities. I’m curious to see how areas where the large businesses can pay top dollar for broadband but homes and small businesses cannot get access are represented on the map.

Even in their preliminary state, I suspect these maps will be put to work immediately to gauge which areas in Minnesota might be most in need of shovel-ready projects. The Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force will be discussing shovel-ready projects and the mapping on February 6, 2009.

There are three ways to add your two cents to the mapping project and the economic stimulus proposals:

  1. Visit the Connected Minnesota site to test and record the speed of your connection. (
  2. Submit a shovel-ready project idea to the Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force. (
  3. Come to view the meeting on February 6, 2009 (

The broadband maps will also be unveiled to Senate on February 5 at 3:00 ( and the House at 8:30 am on February 6 (

House Stimulus Package and Broadband

I’ve put it off long enough – I have to tackle the House Stimulus package in regards to broadband. The super quick take (borrowed from PC World) – “A U.S. House of Representatives committee has recommended the U.S. government give out US$6 billion in grants for wireless and broadband roll-out in a $825 billion economic stimulus package to be considered in Congress.” There are also some pockets where broadband could fit in – such as $20 billion for health IT programs.

So some of the big questions have been – what are the details and is it enough (or too much)? I guess the biggest question is – how can we get some of that? The best answer I have for local folks is to contact the Ultra High-Speed Task Force – not because I think they will be making decisions but because they are the ones in Minnesota asking for ideas right now.

So what are the details?

Here are details I’ve garnered from different places:

  • The overall focus is projects that will have an immediate economic impact, with a goal of using at least 50% of the funding for projects that can be initiated in 120 days.
  • The broadband infrastructure funding is for “open-access” networks.
  • The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) would get $2.825 in rural Broadband
    Infrastructure Recovery Funding. They are looking for under-served areas, they are looking for repeat customers (folks who have worked with the RUS before), and they want a quick start date.
  • NTIA would get $2.825 billion for the Wireless and Broadband Deployment Grant Programs to subsidize the development of broadband and wireless services in un-served and underserved areas. About half to go to voice service and broadband (mobile broadband I think); half would go to fixed wireless. They want to have at last one project per state, need matching funds and again call for open access networks.
  • NTIA will get $350 million for broadband mapping.

So is it enough?

I know this part gets longer than I intended – but think of it as the Cliff Notes version of what the scuttlebutt is. Continue reading

Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee Notes from Jan 13, 2009

Earlier this week the Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee met to talk about how to take advantage of President Elect Obama’s stimulus package.

I wasn’t able to attend on January 13 – but I was able to watch and take notes today. You can watch it online too or you can read my notes… Continue reading