Lumen (CenturyLink) is looking at intercity fiber upgrades not much mention of rural

Always thankful when Doug Dawson does a deep dive into broadband news that impacts us in Minnesota. Last week he reported on Lumen (aka CenturyLink)…

Lumen is taking a different path forward than the other big telcos. AT&T continues to build fiber in selected clusters, mostly in cities, rather than concentrate on building entire markets. Frontier, Windstream, and Consolidated are all concentrating on upgrading existing telco DSL networks to fiber.

Lumen has a different path forward. In a recent press release, the company announced a major upgrade to its long-haul fiber routes that cross the country. The company’s main fiber strategy is to beef up the intercity network with plans to add six million miles of fiber to existing fiber routes by 2026. In case you are wondering how there can possibly be six million route miles of fiber in the country – that count is miles of individual fibers. This is a marketing trick that long-haul fiber providers have been using for years to make networks seem gigantic.

The existing Lumen long-haul fiber network came to the company in two acquisitions. The original network came when CenturyLink bought US West, which had earlier merged with Qwest, a major builder of long-haul networks. The network was strengthened when CenturyLink purchased Level 3 Communications.

Maybe good news in Minneapolis…

Lumen is also pursuing a last-mile fiber expansion. In August, the company announced fiber expansion plans in Denver, Minneapolis, and Seattle. The company had a target for this year to pass one million locations with fiber but has fallen a little behind due to supply chain and logistics.

Not as much good news being presented for rural areas…

Unlike the other telcos, Lumen hasn’t been talking much about the upcoming rural grant funding. This doesn’t mean the company might not pursue those opportunities since rural fiber expansion creates monopolies. But major residential expansion does not seem to be a key part of the Lumen plan, at least compared to plans for companies like Frontier, which says it plans to pass 12 million homes with fiber.

Another big unknown is if the company is still trying to sell any of its remaining copper networks like it did with sale of the twenty easternmost states to Apollo Global Management. It would be a more drastic affair to liquidate last-mile customers in the states where US West was formally the Bell company incumbent provider.

ISP changes in Alexandria MN as ALP Utilities sells its fiber to Arvig

The Institute for Local Self Reliance (Muninetworks) reports

In an announcement last week, Alexandria, Minnesota’s (pop. 15,000) electric and water utility (ALP Utilities) announced it would be selling its business-facing fiber network to Arvig, a 40-percent employee-owned Internet Service Provider (ISP) that has 54,000 subscribers across urban and rural Minnesota. The deal was for 130 business accounts, including 77 routes miles of fiber and 13 additional miles of conduit, for a total of $3.25 million. Consideration of the move goes at least back to October of last year.

The move sunsets the last of the city’s retail municipal network infrastructure, which began as a joint project with Runestone Electric Association in the 1990s that offered DSL service to homes and businesses before expanding to include some fiber offered to local businesses in the early 2000s, and continued today with some additional dark fiber offerings as part of its portfolio. The goal, then as now, was to see how the utility could intervene to improve connectivity options for residents in the area. Christopher spoke with General Manager Al Cowser in 2016 about the efforts’ origins and progress in its first two decades of life.

So what does that mean?

The sale to Arvig allows ALP Utilities to continue to focus on its core services (electric and water), while doing what it can to use its assets to partner with a provider with a good track record of working in the area. Business subscribers should see no interruption of service, and Arvig has indicated plans to expand in the area, including out beyond town limits where options are considerably fewer. Arvig and the utility, Cash shared, also plan joint trenching projects as the utility continues to underground its electric services over the coming years. Arvig also provides some network services to the city at present.

Independence will be seeking a Border to Border grant (Hennepin County)

Lake Pioneer reports

For years, the city of Independence has looked at ways to expand broadband access to more of its residents.

At the city council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17, city administrator Mark Kaltsas asked the council to support a plan to seek grant money to help expand broadband services to 434 additional homes in the area. The council unanimously approved the motion.

Kaltsas told the council that Midco Communications has the potential to expand services to Independence residents. Midco would like to apply in March for the state’s Border to Border grant funds though the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to expand broadband services by 2025. The proposed expansion would be fiber-to-the-home and capable of 5 gb symmetrical speeds.

In addition to that grant, the city of Independence would also apply for a grant through the Hennepin County Broadband grant program that is accepting applications through Jan. 31. Kaltsas said that the city would apply for a $250,000 grant with Hennepin County.

Here are some of the details…

Kaltas also provided some numbers behind the project: Total homes covered would 434 (considered currently unserved by MN DEED), with the total cost of $2.9 million. Midco would contribute $1.49 million with an addition $1.49 million from the Border to Border grant. The Hennepin County Broadband grant would be applied to reduce the DEED request.

“There really is no risk or cost to the city to do it, other than staff time,” Kaltsas said of applying for the grants. “It really is that western area which we’ve so badly tried to get served with broadband, I think this is a good opportunity.”

Arvig buys network to serve 130 businesses in Alexandria MN

Telecompetitor reports

Minnesota broadband provider Arvig has completed an agreement to buy a fiber network from ALP Utilities. The network serves about 130 businesses in the city of Alexandria, MN.

ALP Utilities is a community-owned municipal utility that provides residential and commercial electric and water services to the area in and around Alexandria. The company had partnered with Runestone Electric Association to build the network in the late 1990s, starting with dial up service and later expanding into fiber for local businesses.

Arvig will assume ownership and management of the fiber network, which includes 77 route miles of fiber throughout the city and another 13 miles of conduit, while also retaining all of the network’s existing business customers.

MN PUC notes on LTD Broadband situation: stayed ruling, ILSR may intervene, LTD counsel withdraws

This is an ongoing saga that many of us are watching closely and some might want a little recap…

The Minnesota PUC decided to continue to move forward looking at revoking LTD Broadband’s ETC designation. (Background: LTD was awarded an opportunity to apply for$311 million in federal RDOF funding. They needed the ETC designation from the MN PUC to qualify; industry folks asked the MN PUC to rethink their designation because there were concerns about LTD being able to fulfill the contract. Last month, their application for RDOF was rejected.)

Here’s the latest update

LTD requested that this matter be stayed pending LTD’s appeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) denial of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) long-form application. Minnesota Telecom Alliance (MTA) and Minnesota Rural Electric Association (MREA) (together, Petitioners), the Minnesota Department of Commerce and the Office of the Attorney General-Residential Utilities Division argue that this matter should proceed to hearing. The parties filed letters in support of their respective positions and the record on the parties’ requests closed on October 18, 2022, the date the last letter was filed.

On January 18, 2023, the MN PUC decided…

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT: 1. These proceedings are STAYED pending a ruling by FCC on LTD’s appeal of the denial of its long-form application. 2. LTD shall serve and file a status report every 120 days beginning on February 1, 2023. 3. A prehearing conference will be held by telephone on March 6, 2023, at 2:30 p.m. to review the status of the case. A

They also decided (also Jan 18) …

On September 16, 2022, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) filed a Motion to Intervene (Motion). LTD filed an objection to the Motion on September 23, 2022. Based on all the files and proceedings of the matter, the Administrative Law Judge makes the following: [185245/1] 2 ORDER 1. The Motion of Institute for Local Self-Reliance is GRANTED. 2. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is admitted to this proceeding as a full party. 3. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance will file a Notice of Appearance at its earliest convenience but in no event later than January 27, 2023.

And on January 19, Taft et al withdrew as LTD Broadband’s Counsel

Please take notice that as of January 19, 2023, and pursuant to Minn. R. 1400.5700, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP hereby withdraws as counsel for LTD Broadband, LLC. LTD Broadband, LLC’s address is PO Box 3064, Blooming Prairie, MN 55917 and its phone number is (507) 369-2669.

Is a Community Phone really a landline replacement?

Telecompetitor reports on a new phone solution for folks who want a landline or maybe more for providers who don’t want to offer that option…

As providers begin to decommission copper networks, startup Community Phone sees an opportunity to cash in by serving people who would prefer not to make any big changes. Telecompetitor talked to Community Phone CEO and founder James Graham to learn more about how the landline replacement service works and who buys it. …

The offering works over a cellular connection but works with an existing landline phone and doesn’t require internet connectivity, Graham explained. The company has agreements with multiple cellular providers and can provide service even in rural areas where people may think cellular doesn’t work, thanks to the company’s antenna design and because service isn’t mobile, he said.

The timing seems serendipitous. I just heard a national provider tell a MN House Committee that 75 percent of their revenue does not come from residential services. The undercurrent I understood to be, we’re losing interest in serving phone and broadband services to rural areas. At a time when recent survey showed 80+ percent of MN homes and businesses with landlines wanted to keep them.

I applaud improvements in technology, and I understand the market wanting landlines is shrinking and the market cutting the cord is growing but it’s called a “lifeline” for a reason and people need to have access, especially in remote areas.

Another hiccup it seems that this new solution requires power. As I recall having access to a phone even during a power outage was one reason people lived landlines.

“They open the box, take it out of the box, plug it into a power outlet and take their phone out of the RJ-11 jack and plug it into our hardware,” he explained.

Delta Airlines will soon offer free WiFi on flights

MPR News reports…

Delta Air Lines will provide free Wi-Fi service on most of its U.S. flights starting in February.

The airline said Thursday that by the end of the year it will outfit more than 700 planes with high-speed, satellite-based broadband service from T-Mobile and plans to expand free Wi-Fi to international and Delta Connection flights by the end of 2024.

The service will use equipment from Viasat, a U.S.-based satellite broadband provider.

MVTV is a rural wireless provider with staying power in MN

West Central Tribune reports

While millions of dollars in federal and state grants are helping bring fiber optic cable for broadband service to ever more rural locations, a wireless internet provider serving them remains confident of its future.

MVTV Wireless Internet has continued to grow its customer base ever since it began offering wireless internet service in 1999. It anticipates seeing continued, albeit slow, growth as it continues to reinvest in equipment and new technology to remain a state-of-the-art provider, representatives of the company told the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 27.

Tim Johnson, operations manager, told the commissioners that the company continues to add new members. “(We’re) not growing by leaps and bounds, but (we) are growing hundreds of customers every year,” he said.

Johnson and Pam Rosenau, the company’s marketing director, said MVTV continues to serve and add customers in some rural areas where new fiber optic cable has been installed for broadband services. Costs remain an important factor for customers deciding to link to fiber optic, and some rural areas are seeing new residential development after fiber was installed to existing sites, they pointed out.

Fiber is the ultimate goal for every community, but not for every customer. MVTV has and ethos that demonstrates that understanding…

MVTV is a nonprofit organization owned by its members who subscribe to its wireless internet services. Headquartered in Granite Falls, its licensed, basic trade area includes Yellow Medicine, Chippewa, Renville, Lincoln and Lyon counties. It is the dominant rural provider in this area, with 25 to 30% of the rural households, according to Johnson.

Minnesotans who have landlines want to keep them

Minnesota Commerce Department reports

Most Minnesota residents, businesses and city governments that still use landline telephones report being highly satisfied, and the vast majority say they’re unlikely to drop their service, according to survey findings released today by the Department of Commerce.

Commerce’s survey found that 82 percent of residents and 89 percent of businesses that currently use landlines expect to continue. Landlines are viewed as critical for safety and emergencies, with 60 percent of residents and 78 percent of city governments citing that as an important reason for maintaining service.

More detail…

Minnesota has 400,000 residential landlines and 400,000 landlines that serve businesses or governments. The survey, conducted by Wilder Research, attracted 2,015 responses from residents, city governments, and businesses. High satisfaction levels were found across rural, small town, large town, and urban populations.

The survey covered all regions of the state, which is served by more than 100 landline providers. Despite the high levels of satisfaction reported generally, Commerce still regularly receives and investigates complaints about service failures from customers.

Respondents with landlines do not discount the utility of cell phones. Among residential respondents, 79 percent said they also see cell phones as very important.

Other findings from Commerce’s survey:

  • More than 8 in 10 business and city government users said their operations would be impacted if they stopped using landline phone service. The majority reported the impacts would be significant.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 residential respondents do not have broadband internet. Many believe it is unnecessary or too expensive.

  • Residents, businesses, and city governments all reported being more satisfied with their landline service than with their cell phone service.

Commerce asks PUC to order improvements to CenturyLink service

From the Minnesota Commerce Department

Prompted by continuing service complaints from Minnesota consumers, the Department of Commerce last week filed a brief asking the Public Utilities Commission to order telephone service provider CenturyLink to submit plans to fix a pattern of service deficiencies and to upgrade processes for responding to outages.

PUC rules require CenturyLink and other landline phone providers to maintain adequate service levels. In its brief, Commerce emphasized that CenturyLink has reduced investment in equipment maintenance even as the company’s own data show service has deteriorated.

“Despite these obligations, the company has failed to maintain its plant and equipment consistent with adequate service by several measures, resulting in harm to CenturyLink’s customers, including many elderly and vulnerable customers who rely on dependable landline service,” Commerce said in the brief.

Commerce’s filing Friday follows its August recommendation that the PUC appoint an administrative law judge to convene hearings and solicit comments from CenturyLink customers. The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and the Communications Workers of America, a union representing many CenturyLink workers, joined that recommendation.

More detail…

Earlier this month, Commerce filed a complaint with the PUC after CenturyLink failed to reimburse 150 Minneapolis customers after a two-week phone outage, as the commission’s rules require. Its filing last week said customer complaints have increased significantly since 2019 and that CenturyLink is violating a requirement to restore service within 24 hours after most outage reports. “The Department’s ongoing investigation into CenturyLink’s performance has exposed serious service quality deficiencies.”

Commerce asked the PUC to give CenturyLink 45 days to explain how it will improve its responses to outages and 90 days to submit a plan to fix maintenance concerns.

New FirstNet Cell Site Launches in Grand Rapids to Support First Responders (Itasca County)

News from AT&T…

What’s the news? First responders in Northern Minnesota are getting a major boost in their wireless communications thanks to the FirstNet® network expansion currently underway by AT&T*. We’ve added a new, purpose-built cell site cell site to provide coverage for the Grand Rapids area.

This FirstNet site will provide coverage when traveling along U.S. Highways 2 and 169 in Grand Rapids. This new site is giving first responders on FirstNet – America’s public safety network – access to always-on, 24-hours-a-day priority and preemption across voice and data.

Why is this important? We consider FirstNet the most important wireless network in the country because it’s serving our first responders. And unlike commercial networks, FirstNet provides dedicated mobile broadband. To ensure AT&T and the FirstNet Authority are putting coverage and capacity where first responders need it most, the FirstNet build is being done with direct feedback from state and local public safety officials. This helps ensure Minnesota first responders connect to the critical information they need – every day and in every emergency.

FirstNet sites already launched in communities across Minnesota including Angle Inlet, Bagley, Baudette, Blackduck, Cloquet, Deer River, Ely (Echo Trail, Meander Lake), Ely (Echo Trail, Twin Lakes), Faribault, Finlayson, Gary, Graceville, Grand Marais (Gunflint Trail), Grygla, Hokah, Hovland, Isabella, Kellogg, Lewiston, Orr (Kjostad Lake), Peterson, Tofte (Lichen Lake), Togo and Williams.

More info on Paul Bunyan MN Broadband grants in Aitkin, Itasca, and St. Louis counties

More info on the Paul Bunyan Telephone grants in Aitkin, Itasca, and St. Louis counties…

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 Ball Bluff, Bearville, Cornish, French, Pike, Sandy, Verdon and Wuori Townships in Aitkin, Itasca and St Louis Counties.

As a result, the cooperative is expected to begin expansion construction to these areas in 2024. This all-fiber optic project will pass a minimum of 1,035 locations.  The project is estimated to cost $7.63 million, with the State of Minnesota Border to Border grant contributing $3.05 million and Paul Bunyan Communications and local townships investing $4.58 million.

“This is huge for our region.  Access to quality broadband service is vital to so many different facets of life including health care, education, business, and recreation.  It is why I co-authored the bill to fund the Border-to-Border Grant Program in 2022 which resulted in a record $67.6 million investment. I applaud all those involved with supporting the effort to secure this grant so we can keep our rural communities thriving and vibrant.” said current State 3A Representative Rob Ecklund.

“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.  These areas will now not only get Broadband access, they will go from slow satellite or dial up Internet to speeds of up to a 10 Gigabits 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 over the next year and will contact locations along the upcoming expansion routes in spring of 2024. The entire project will be completed by June 30, 2025.

“We are very excited about this project!  This is going to bring symmetrical fiber-optic broadband to very rural locations that desperately need it.  This will be a game changer for the residents in these areas.” added Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications Information Technology and Development Manager.  “We are thankful to the leaders of French, Pike, Sandy, and Wuori Townships who are also providing financial support to this project,” said Howard.

“I salute the hard work of our elected officials who championed the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program and thank 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.

Cooperative’s services will become available once the network is operational including GigaZone, service options like unprecedented Broadband Internet speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second 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.

Download maps for:

Comcast to extend fiber to Wayzata MN

Light Reading reports…

In addition to West Virginia, Comcast also announced it will expand its fiber network to over 2,300 homes and businesses in Wayzata, Minnesota. Network construction is slated to be finished in 2023. The Wayzata buildout will cost $2.5 million and brings the company’s statewide investment over the last few years to roughly $437 million.

Kandiyohi is frustrated with broadband flurries but moving forward where they can

West Central Tribune reports…

Frustrations about broadband boiled over recently during a meeting of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission ‘s joint powers board.

Opportunity seems to be drawing more attention than action…

The EDC is currently working with cooperatives from neighboring counties to build out the broadband network in order to get fiber to homes everywhere. Two major projects the broadband committee was able to secure will have ribbon-cutting ceremonies in December, according to EDC Executive Director Aaron Backman.

The main frustration among members of the EDC joint powers board is that private entities — which have promised in the past to increase broadband access to rural areas and then not followed through — are suddenly commencing projects during a time when government funding is available due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has created problems with the planning of grant-funded, cooperative projects on which the EDC staff and broadband committee are actively working, and has wasted the time and energy of EDC staff and the broadband committee.

A little background on Kandiyohi might help explain why they are concerned. Back in 2017, they (with CTC) were awarded a Border to Border grant to deploy fiber but in the end, the project never happened. The quick version was that CTC needed community support in the form of subscriptions with a down payment. They didn’t get the support they needed, although it was very close. One factor is that an incumbent provider (TDS) campaigned heavily against the project. They have been frustrated by provider intervention in the past.

Some of the projects are going…

Updating his fellow joint powers board members about the progress of border-to-border broadband in the county, Kandiyohi County Commissioner Rollie Nissen noted there is a lot of activity happening for broadband, especially around Nest Lake in New London.

He also noted that additional broadband projects for Arctander, Mamre and Dovre townships have been submitted to Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which funds the expansion of broadband service to areas of Minnesota that are unserved or underserved.

Some are not…

Another project the broadband committee had been working on that was all ready to go was in Lake Andrew and Norway Lake townships. That work turned out to have been wasted effort with the announcement of a project by TDS.

“TDS came along with a plan and kind of blew that apart, I’ll put it that way,” Nissen said, noting TDS had put out a news release regarding that project.

Will BEAD fund unlicensed spectrum? Good question and it will matter in Minnesota!

So many posts about the FCC maps and funding and details because the details will impact how much money communities will receive for broadband in the next few years. The issue this post – unlicensed spectrum versus licensed spectrum. Telecompetitor reports

The BEAD program is designed to cover some of the costs of deploying broadband to unserved rural areas. In establishing rules for the program, NTIA omitted fixed wireless service that relies totally on unlicensed spectrum for last mile connectivity from its definition of reliable service – a decision that impacts the BEAD program in two ways.

It makes FWA deployments using unlicensed spectrum ineligible for funding. And it makes areas that have high-speed broadband eligible for overbuilds if the only high-speed broadband available is FWA that relies on unlicensed spectrum.

But some folks want that changed…

Seven U.S. senators sent a letter to Alan Davidson, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, today urging NTIA to revise its definition of reliable broadband for the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

So what’s the difference between licensed and unlicensed spectrums?

Here’s a definition from IotaComm. I was hoping for a less commercial perspective but also high level enough to take in easily.

Most of the radio spectrum is licensed by the FCC to certain users, for example, television and radio broadcasters. Individual companies pay a licensing fee for the exclusive right to transmit on an assigned frequency within a certain geographical area. In exchange, those users can be assured that nothing will interfere with their transmission.

Alternatively, organizations can still use the airwaves to transmit communications without getting permission from the FCC, but they must transmit within those parts of the spectrum that are designated for unlicensed users. The amount of spectrum that is available for public and unlicensed use is very small—only a few bands. Both the size of the area and the lack of exclusivity mean there’s greater potential for interference from other users located nearby. (It’s like the “wild west” of radio communication.)

The Telecompetitor article touches on it a little…

NTIA hasn’t said much about why it defined reliable broadband as it did. But David Zumwalt, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) told Telecompetitor a few months ago that NTIA’s primary concern was the future availability of unlicensed spectrum.

WISPA is particularly concerned about whether areas that already have unlicensed high-speed FWA will be eligible for overbuilding through the BEAD program, as many WISPA members already have made high-speed FWA deployments that rely on unlicensed spectrum.

Folks in Minnesota may have a special interest in this issue. According to the FCC map, LTD Broadband is serving a large portion Southern Minnesota with unlicensed spectrum, as the map below indicates.