Notes from Industry Broadband Networks Conference: Connections that Matter

Today I attended the Broadband Networks Conference hosted by Minnesota Cable Communications Association, MN Telecom Alliance, AT&T, Comcast and others. It is an industry look at broadband policy and includes local legislators, national viewpoints and stakeholders.

I tried to take pretty complete notes, which I’m going to post below with minimal proofing – mostly because I have to catch up with legislative happening and county profiles. The bird’s eye view a few themes emerged:

  • Minnesota is focused on broadband. Legislators understand it’s important and ubiquitous coverage will require state support. It’s a matter of how much support is available.
  • Rural areas without broadband will be left behind. People will not move to areas without broadband.
  • People are talking about 5G. The legislation related to 5G is the small cell access to public rights of way. National speakers recognized that 5G will be great for downtown areas and college campuses but not a solution rural areas.
  • There is interest in modernizing broadband-related regulation – such as how VoIP is handled, call completion.
  • National politics are a wildcard at this point. Everyone is hopeful that investment in infrastructure will include investment in broadband – although the timing is uncertain. Industry seems happy with the new FCC Chair – especially in terms of Net Neutrality.

Continue reading

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.

If rural broadband is too expensive how can Hiawatha Broadband 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. First to step up is Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC)– I spoke with Dan Pecarina about how they were able to support broadband in rural areas notes on that conversation.

HBC is a private company. Rural is their mission. Education, economic development and healthcare is important to their community so it is important to them. As their website states, they put people before profits – but that doesn’t mean they are a nonprofit. They are a business and they need a business case that is solvent.

What is the business case that makes sense for them?

They have done the numbers and have found that they are able to go into an area if the cost per passing is $1500 in a rural area or $1000 in a town. In a rural area, there is little competition so they have found that the are able to get 90-95 percent take rate, as opposed to 70 percent in town.

The real costs often surpass $1500/$1000. Rural areas can be tough for deployment. Some areas are built on stone, some are in valleys. The terrain can be more challenging than the distance. So they need a partner to help offset that cost. The partner could be the community or a grant like the Border to Border grant or a combination of both.

How do they decide where to go next?

  • Expansion to neighboring towns makes sense because they can more easily tie their existing infrastructure to the new community’s infrastructure.
  • Opportunities to work directly with the County help. For example HBC has worked with Dakota County to support smart-grid system. They can work together to offset setup costs.
  • A community with a drive to promote better broadband locally is also a good area for HBC. They aren’t interested in going into an area simply to provide cheaper broadband; that’s not compelling to them. But if the school, hospital, local government or even an anchor businesses is invested in making it happen that makes the area a good partner.

What is the role of wireless?

Wireless is a stop gap measure to get to areas that are not economically viable for fiber. It is a lifeline for communities where the business cane for fiber is too difficult but building wireless means building fiber middle mile to the location. It gets them closer and building a cadre of wireless customers helping build capital and future customers for fiber.

Legislation introduced on Small Cell Technology in Public Right of Way

According to the League of Minnesota Cities

Legislation introduced in both the House and Senate would restrict local authority to regulate companies seeking to install small cell wireless technology in public rights of way. The bill is being pushed by wireless carriers.

The bill, HF 739 (Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska) and SF 561 (Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound), would allow equipment to be placed on utility poles and “any other property a local government unit has an interest in and has made available for commercial purposes.” Additionally, it prevents cities from negotiating zoning, rates, permit timelines, and maintenance as it relates to the installation of emerging wireless infrastructure.

I didn’t attend that session, but I heard the folks at AT&T talk a lot about the need to deploy small cells when the industry spoke to the Minnesota House Commerce Regulatory and Reform committee. From an industry perspective, it makes sense to want to smooth the road for deploying equipment. The League offers the perspective of the local governments…

Wireless companies, including AT&T and Verizon, are lobbying for similar legislation state by state as they and other carriers prepare to install infrastructure to create a new 5G cellular network. Standards and a timeline for 5G implementation have not been set.

“Small cell facilities” is a broad term for the types of cell sites that support antennas plus other equipment to add data capacity. Small cell equipment and distributed antenna systems (DAS) transmit wireless signals to and from a defined area. They need to be powered continuously and require fiber backhaul.

The bill would allow for wireless equipment up to 28 cubic feet in size in the public right of way. Right now, there are cities that have negotiated agreements with providers, mainly in dense urban developments.

The House bill was referred to the Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee. In the Senate, the bill’s first stop will be in the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.

House co-sponsors include Reps. Pat Garofalo (R- Farmington), Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls), Paul Thissen (D-Minneapolis), Linda Slocum (D-Richfield), Nolan West (R-Blaine), Dennis Smith (R-Maple Grove), and Jon Koznick (R-Lakeville). Senate co-authors include Sens. David Senjem (R-Rochester), John Hoffman (D-Champlin), Dan Sparks (D-Austin), and Dan Hall (R-Burnsville).

The GigaZone Comes to Deer River, Squaw Lake, Ball Club, Dora Lake, Inger, Wirt, Max, and Spring Lake!

gigazoneGood news for part of Itasca County from Paul Bunyan Communications…

The GigaZone Comes to Deer River, Squaw Lake, Ball Club, Dora Lake,

Inger, Wirt, Max, and Spring Lake!

Gigabit Internet speeds now available to more than 32,550 locations in northern Minnesota

(Bemidji, MN) (February 1, 2017) –The GigaZone has come to Deer River, Squaw Lake, Ball Club, Dora Lake, Inger, Wirt, Max, and Spring Lake!! As a result of continued upgrades to the cooperative’s all-fiber optic network over 3,150 locations now have access to GigaZone services including Internet speeds up to a Gigabit per second.

“We continue to make great progress on upgrading our network to incorporate even more members into the GigaZone, over 14,500 locations have been activated into the GigaZone since this past October alone. I’m very proud of all the hard work our cooperative has put in so far as we put our membership and region at the forefront of the very latest in communication networks. We will continue to do as much as we can to bring the GigaZone to all our members and the communities we serve as fast as we can.” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

The GigaZone is currently available to over 32,550 locations, making it one of the largest rural all-fiber optic networks in the United States! Check out our online map http://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/map/ showing the current areas of the GigaZone as well as those that will be constructed/upgraded in the future.

GigaZone service options include unprecedented Broadband Internet speeds of up to 1000 Mbps – a Gigabit. Members who subscribe to GigaZone Broadband can also add PBTV Fusion and/or low cost unlimited long distance service. All current service options also remain available to cooperative members within the GigaZone.

Most current wireless routers cannot support blazing GigaZone Internet speeds.  To help, the cooperative is offering GigaZone Integrated Wi-Fi that uses the latest in advanced Wi-Fi technologies to maximize the in-home wireless experience. This service is free to all new GigaZone customers for the first six months, with a minimal charge thereafter.

Paul Bunyan Communications recently mailed out information to the new locations that are now in the GigaZone and the cooperative has an online map available at http://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/map/ showing the active areas of the GigaZone as well as those areas that will be constructed/upgraded in the future.

“If you are wondering when the GigaZone will reach you, the online map of the active areas and plans for this year is a great resource.” added Brian Bissonette, Paul Bunyan Communications Marketing Supervisor.

Paul Bunyan Communications has the region’s largest and fastest all fiber optic network with over 5,000 square miles throughout most of Beltrami County and portions of Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis Counties.  The Cooperative provides Broadband High Speed Internet Service up to a Gigabit per second, digital and high definition television services, Smart Home services, digital voice services, and more.   Service availability depends upon location, some restrictions may apply.

MN House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Broadband Industry Intro: VoIP, 5G,growth and frustration

Yesterday industry folks had an opportunity to provide updates to the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee. Speakers included representative from Minnesota Cable Communications Association, Minnesota Telecom Alliance and AT&T  Wireless. The presentations were similar to those given (by the same folks) to the Senate last week. The speakers were kind enough to share those with me last week – you can see them here. All three groups mentioned a desire to get fiber closer to the home/premise.

I tried something new for this meeting – I used Facebook Live to livestream the event. Here’s the archive:

I also took notes, which I’ll include below. It seems like there were more questions yesterday. Several Representatives were concerned about changing regulation for phone calls (landline versus VoIP) at the expense of consumer protection. One of the big concerns seems to be that VoIP requires power – so when the power goes out, the VoIP phone doesn’t work. (They have some power generators, but it’s a risk.) The push back is that VoIP is much more cost effective for the provider, especially since many customers are “cutting the cord” and going with cell phone options.

With wireless, there were questions about timeline for 5G and distance limitations. The standards for 5G have not been set yet. But AT&T wants to hit the ground running so they are currently working on small cell deployment. (Small cells make 5G work – they also improve 4G access.) Increased small cell deployment should help with distance issues – because there are distance limitations on 5G, which does make it a better solution for urban markets. Representation Hoppe remarked that they can’t legislate faster than technology can change.

While this committee doesn’t deal with the Broadband Funds, the State broadband grants did come up. One Representative had a customer in CenturyLink territory who was frustrated with his service. Apparently he has 1.5 Mbps (so I’m guessing DSL) and he runs a business. He wondered why/how a community upgrade could be so tied to a provider’s decision to upgrade or not. Panelists remarked that the grant had been a good opportunity for partnerships between provider, community and the State. But clearly that 3-legged stool only stands when all three legs are working together. Continue reading

Update on Border to Border grants in portions of Itasca and Hubbard Counties from Paul Bunyan

Updates from Paul Bunyan…

Paul Bunyan Communications awarded State of Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Grant for portions of Itasca County, Hubbard County

Cooperative will bring Broadband network to over 1,030 locations

(Bemidji, MN) (January 16, 2017) –Paul Bunyan Communications has been awarded a Border to Border Broadband Grant from the state of Minnesota to expand its fiber optic services to portions of central Itasca County, southern Hubbard County, and a small portion of Becker County.

As a result, the cooperative will begin expansion construction this spring that will pass a minimum of 1,030 locations in portions of Arbo Township, Balsam Township, Lawrence Township, and Nashwauk Township in Itasca County, portions of Straight River Township in Hubbard County, and portions of Osage Township and Green Valley Township in Becker County.  The project is estimated to cost $3.9 million, with Paul Bunyan Communications contributing $2.16 million, $1.74 million from the State of Minnesota Border to Border Grant, and Itasca County contributing up to $75,000 towards the Itasca County portion of the project.

“We are excited to continue our expansion efforts to provide access to broadband Internet speeds to those without it in our region.  Our cooperative has a long history of expanding our network to underserved areas but it has become increasingly challenging to go it alone without grant support.  The State of Minnesota Border to Border Grant Program, Itasca County, and the Itasca Economic Development Corporation were instrumental in building community support and providing guidance through the grant application process to make this project a reality.  These areas will not only get Broadband access, they will go from slow satellite or dial up Internet to speeds of up to a Gigabit per second and become part of one of the largest rural Gigabit networks in the country!,” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

Paul Bunyan Communications expects to develop the expansion plans by early spring and will contact locations along the upcoming expansion routes shortly thereafter. Construction will start in the early summer and will be completed by June 30, 2019.  Those in the region interested in keeping up to date on the project can look for updates on the Paul Bunyan website at http://paulbunyan.net.  Those in Itasca County can also join the Paul Bunyan Communications Central Itasca Fiber Project Group on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/PBC.Itasca/

“This project will have an incredible impact on people’s lives.  Employees will be able to work from home, students will have access to educational resources, and seniors will be able to stay in their homes longer with telemedicine.” added Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications Information Technology and Development Manager.  “We are impressed by the leadership shown by Itasca County in supporting this project.  We know that government budgets are tight and the Itasca County leaders have continued to promote and support getting broadband infrastructure throughout their county.” said Howard.

“I salute the hard work of our elected officials who championed the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program.  I want to thank all of them and also the Office of Broadband Development that oversees the program.  This is going to make a world of difference in so many ways to a lot of people right here in northern Minnesota!” said Johnson.

All of the cooperative’s services will become available once the network is operational including GigaZone service options like unprecedented Broadband Internet speeds of up to 1000 Mbps – a Gigabit, PBTV Fusion and low cost unlimited local and long distance GigaZone voice service.  There is no membership fee to join Paul Bunyan Communications, membership is included by subscribing to either local phone service or GigaZone Internet service.

Paul Bunyan Communications has the region’s largest and fastest all fiber optic network with over 5,000 square miles served throughout most of Beltrami County and portions of Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis Counties.  The Cooperative provides Broadband High Speed Internet Services including the GigaZone, digital and high definition television services, Smart Home services, digital voice services, and more.