Pipestone County proceeds with broadband feasibility study

We’re getting the regional stud report from all angle – but I think it’s helpful to get the varied points of views. Today from the Pipestone County Star

Pipestone County will participate in a multi-county study to find out what it would take to provide broadband internet access to under-served parts of the county.

The county board during its Feb. 14 meeting voted unanimously to accept a proposal from Finley Engineering and CCG Consulting to conduct the feasibility study for Pipestone, Chippewa, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray and Yellow Medicine counties.

According to the proposal, the study will include at least three scenarios: Building a complete fiber system; building a fiber backbone and using towers to provide wireless service; and building fiber only where it’s economically feasible and using wireless everywhere else.

How does Northern MN get broadband? Cooperatives, community and government support

Business North recently ran an article outlining some of the reasons Northern Minnesota needs broadband and some parts of do not have it.

Broadband is good for the economy…

In a recent opinion piece penned by Jordan Feyerherm of the Center for Rural Affairs, the author notes that rural regions with one to three broadband providers experience employment growth that’s more than 6 percent higher than areas that lack broadband access.

Rural broadband is expensive…

The primary driver behind the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural areas is simple economics – it costs more per customer to deliver. Broadband companies can see a rapid return on hardwire investment on a high-density street in Duluth. In a rural township, that same company might not see a profit for their efforts for decades – if ever.

Cooperatives make a difference…

“Where there are co-ops there’s broadband. Where there are incumbent providers, there’s not,” said Bernadine Joselyn, the Blandin Foundation’s director of public policy and engagement.

The Foundation has been a strong advocate for high-speed Internet expansion to rural areas through its Blandin Community Broadband Program. Now, however, Joselyn said the work has become more difficult. “What was easy to do has been done,” she said.

One of the most aggressive co-ops when it comes to broadband expansion has been Paul Bunyan. Based in Bemidji, the co-op has expanded broadband availability to a number of townships in northeastern Minnesota. Just last year, 1,200 residents of Balsam Township, a rural township in Itasca County, had broadband access for the first time.

The community needs to be ready…

Proximity to a co-op or company planning expansion is certainly key, but some communities have been more prepared to jump on board.

In a column analyzing the recently unveiled list of Border-to-Border projects, Brown noted a lack of funded projects in rural St. Louis County.

“The only project in St. Louis County is a small Mediacom expansion in Fayal Township south of Eveleth. Why was there only one small project in St. Louis County? In short, there were few projects to fund… Localities in rural St. Louis County haven’t organized the way they have in Itasca County and other places in Minnesota,” wrote Brown.

[I might step in and say that actually the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative has been active in St Louis County.)

Government support…

Programs like the state’s Border-to-Border grant initiative, for now at least, seem to be the best shot rural residents have for broadband connection. …

In late January, northern Minnesota legislators joined forces to promote an expansion of the Border-to-Border program. They’re proposing a $100 million appropriation for the broadband program. The bill’s chief authors are Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL – Hibbing, in the House and Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL – Duluth, in the Senate.

FCC Chair’s Digital Empowerment Agenda – does it empower rural areas?

Yesterday I wrote about new FCC Chair Ajit Pai’s actions since taking the helm at the FCC. Generally I don’t go into detail about federal broadband policy because it’s all I can do to keep up with Minnesota policies and progress! But changes at the FCC will have an impact on rural broadband in Minnesota so I think it’s worth talking about it.

Before he became Chair, Pai published a Digital Empowerment Agenda, which outlines his recommendations for

  1. Gigabit Opportunity Zones (bringing broadband and digital opportunity to economically challenged areas)
  2. Mobile Broadband for Rural America
  3. Remove Regulatory Barriers to Broadband Deployment
  4. Promote Entrepreneurship and Innovation

There are a couple of themes in his plans – and to be fair this is an outline not a detail strategy but I think the themes are worth consideration.

Theme: Lessen Government Restrictions

Pai suggests that state and local lawmakers must adopt streamlined, broadband deployment-friendly policies, FCC should reform its pole attachment rules to reduce the costs of deployment, Congress should give the agency additional authority over poles owned by governments and railroads and  federal government should speed the deployment of broadband on federal lands and the FCC should use its existing authority to remove state and local barriers to deployment, such as unfair and unreasonable fees.

Theme: Tax cuts for Businesses

Pai recommends significant tax incentives to spur private-sector gigabit broadband deployment, tax credits to offsets the employer’s share of payroll taxes, a “rural dividend” to supplement existing funding sources and  promoting entrepreneurs’ access to capital. I’d like to see greater detail on these incentives. Pai led the FCC to vote to provide $170 million in CAF 2 funding to NY. I applaud the funding but CAF 2 only requires a provider to build to 10 Mbps down and 1 up. It’s like giving a 10 speed bike to a 16 year old who really wants and needs a car. The bike is better than nothing but it will limit what they can do – like where they can work or go to college.

Minnesota Border to Border grants require that projects are “scalable to 100 Mbps” so improvement builds to more improvement. CAF 2 doesn’t require scalable improvements. For these reasons, many people argue that CAF 2 isn’t a good use of taxpayer funds.

Theme: Wireless is Good Enough for Rural

All of Pai’s upgrades for rural areas are based on mobile technology. I have said before there will always be a place for wireless. But mobile broadband is not a good permanent solution for rural areas. There are d Distance limitations and data caps make mobile unaffordable to the end user. Some wireless providers are talking about 5G as a solution but 5G is still an undefined standard with greater distance restrictions than 4G and it requires greater infrastructure.

There are some providers who have figured out how to serve the current and future needs of rural area. (Hiawatha Broadband and Paul Bunyan to name just two.) And they aren’t focusing on mobile. We need to find a way to get the right incentives to the folks who are deploying long term broadband solutions to rural areas.

Absent Theme: Public-Private Partnership

Bucking every trend and recommendation I’ve seen related to rural broadband – public-private partnership is not mentioned once in his agenda. His solution is provider driven. It requires motivated providers.  For communities where the provider is not interested they need better tools to make it happen than tax incentives and broadband-friendly policies.

Tell the National Rural Assembly what’s important to you

This may or may not be broadband related – but it is an opportunity to speak your piece…

The National Rural Assembly needs YOUR input now!  We are working on a “big ideas” initiative with support from The Duke Endowment. We are convening a diverse group of 40 rural leaders, February 21-23, for some creative and intense brainstorming. We’ll ask them to put forward their best thinking around how we achieve a stronger, more just nation, and we hope to emerge with one or more “big ideas” that can be carried forward in rural America.

You can participate in this initiative and in the ensuing work from your desk! Please complete one or all of these steps:

  1. Fill out the initial participant questionnaire. Your responses will be shared on the Rural Assembly Big Ideas webpage and with those gathering in February.

  2. Give us your big idea: Just open with, “What If We…” and email it to us. We’ll share your Big Ideas with meeting participants, and we may ask you to expand it as a blog post.

  3. Follow the Big Ideas Forum on ourFacebookand Twitter platforms. Use #ruralbigideas

If rural broadband is too expensive how can Paul Bunyan be doing it?

heat-mapMyth: It’s too expensive to bring high speed broadband to rural areas.
Reality: Providers are bringing high speed broadband to rural areas!

At the right is a map of broadband in Minnesota. You can see that there are communities in rural Minnesota with good broadband (colored in blue). There are a handful of providers who offer that service. Some have been kind enough to agree to talk to me about how they are able to deploy, expand and upgrade broadband networks in rural Minnesota. I spoke with Brian Bissonette at Paul Bunyan Communications about how they were able to support broadband in rural areas notes on that conversation.

Paul Bunyan is a cooperative and “meeting the needs and expectations of our members and other customers” is a top priority. They began to upgrade their network in 2004 – 13 years ago! – and are nearly finished now. As a cooperative they are willing to invest in their communities and they have a different threshold for success than commercial providers and they have different parameters than larger national providers.

What is the business case?

Paul Bunyan is not focused on high or fast profit margin. They’re goal is to break even in 10+ years. Their investment is in the community as well as the business – supporting customer retention also supports business (and resident) retention and economic development for the community. Federal support, largely in the form of RUS (Rural Utility Service) low interest loans have made a difference. The Minnesota Border to Border grants have been essential for the very hard to each places.

Paul Bunyan has received Minnesota grants and without them probably would not have been able to make the business case to go into areas south of Park Rapids or Northern Itasca County. Paul Bunyan (and Minnesota) are getting to the stage where a larger percentage of unserved areas are unserved because they are the highest cost areas – due to distance, population density, difficult terrain, natural barriers and permitting issues (dealing with railroad crossings, forestry issues…). In those cases the state funding is necessary.

How do you decide where to go next?

Paul Bunyan focuses on a contiguous footprint. It’s much easier to extend a network than build in a new area – although they have looked at some new projects recently. And building is only one portion of the cost of expansion. Paul Bunyan wants to make sure they have people in the area to be responsive to customer needs, which means customer support and technicians nearby.

Economics are also important – they need to meet that 10+ year time for return on investment. They look a issues that define the high cost areas: distance, population density, difficult terrain and natural barriers and permitting issues (dealing with railroad crossings, forestry issues … and opportunities for low interest loans or grants as they plan.

Finally, a key driver is  engagement with a group or community that has done their homework, measured their needs and interest levels, and can provide Paul Bunyan with both valuable data on interest as well as the sense that they will be our partner in making it happen rather than a barrier.  Investment by that partner is likely important as well.

Ultimately, it works for them because they are more willing to take financial risk, borrow, make long term investments, etc., to continue the mission of providing services to those that need it.  As they said – That’s why we were formed in the first place and that continues to be our DNA.

Why does it work for Paul Bunyan?

Geography helps Paul Bunyan stay focused and committed. They served about 5,000 square miles. They are growing but managing the growth of their area so that they are able to keep customers happy. Larger providers are in a more difficult position because they have so much more ground to cover and so many more customers to keep happy, which requires a lot more upgrade/expansion projects. And they have difficult decisions on where to upgrade and serve areas where the business case is much easier than rural Minnesota.

Even for Paul Bunyan it is difficult to make long term plans because so much depends on current upgrades. One rainy month can set a project back. A hike in the cost of fiber, a delay in required permit, surprisingly tough terrain all slow down a project, which delays future projects. There’s only so much they can do at a time and again that’s where their size and ability to manage growth are assets.

Rural Minnesota communities can get broadband if we all help do it ourselves

Lori Sturdevant (Minneapolis Star Tribune) takes on rural broadband this week – starting with reasons to continue support to get rural areas better broadband.

My hunch: When Greater Minnesotans say they feel “left behind,” the complaint that’s top of mind is insufficient broadband. They may fume as they drive on bumpy two-lane highways and fret about aging water infrastructure. But they’ll leave — or their kids will — if the internet service is lousy.

And they’ll warm to politicians who credibly promise to make it better.

Why is it taking so long to get fiber to rural areas?

“At first, it was because the technology had to mature,” he [Mark Erickson of RS Fiber] said. “When fiber to the home became cost-efficient, in about 2005 and 2006, it began to work.” The notion that wireless technology will eventually be an affordable high-speed alternative for sparsely populated places is in question, Erickson added. “Wireless works well in high-density places, not in the country.”

But installing fiber cables to every farm and hamlet involves a major upfront investment that’s ill-suited to the business plans of large shareholder-owned telecom companies, Erickson said. The return on those investments is too low and slow. That’s why small local companies, cooperatives and municipal providers have outstripped companies like CenturyLink and Frontier in bringing broadband to rural places, where upfront costs can exceed $10,000 per premise.

How can they get there? With state support such as the Office of Broadband Development and Border to Border Grants. Sturdevant explains the ethos that makes it possible for both sides of the political fence to see that state support makes sense.

Erickson said something that might help those who are torn. He related that when selling would-be rural subscribers on establishing the RS Fiber co-op, he often says, “If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

He isn’t referring only to individual effort. In Greater Minnesota, “do it yourself” has always meant “do it yourselves, with your neighbors.” It’s meant marketing cooperatives, rural electrification associations, municipal liquor stores, township roads, county parks. It’s meant pooling resources with one’s fellow citizens to solve a shared problem.

Think of state government as just another, bigger neighborhood pool.

Update on State Grant funded project in Fillmore County (Lanesboro)

Here’s an update on the Border to Border grant in Fillmore County from Bluff Country Reader

In less than 24 months, approximately 475 more homes, businesses and a government building will be included in Acentek’s high-speed internet system. It was announced last month that the Houston-based company received a $1.78 million grant to add 159 miles of fiber optics to residents living in the village of Whalan and Carrolton and Holt townships. The grant is through the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

The $1.78 million grant for Acentek is part of a new round of grants, totaling approximately $34 million, that will expand high-speed internet access to 16,627 households, 2,240 businesses and 71 community institutions in greater Minnesota.

“With this grant, which will pay for 39 percent of the project, we will be able to offer better services to many of our rural costumers,” said Darren Moser, Acentek’s chief financial officer (CFO).

The total cost to install nearly 160 miles of fiber optics to Fillmore County residents is $4.68 million. The local match for the project is $2.9 million. Moser noted Acentek was awarded $75,000 from Fillmore County.

Moser noted that with the topography of Fillmore County, the cost to dig 159 miles of fiber optics through hills, valleys, cliff, limestone formations and wooded land is quite a challenge.

It’s interesting to hear about the struggle to get through the terrain in Fillmore County. Not all rural is the same. I remember visiting Northeast Minnesota to see fiber installs there – lots of drilling through rock!