Broadband is happening around Ely with CTC, Midco and Treehouse Broadband expansions

There’s a lot of broadband activity happening in Ely these days between CTC, Midco and wireless options (Treehouse Broadband). Ely Timber Jay reports

Existing cable and internet customers who are frustrated with all-too-common service disruptions recently learned that Midco activated more than 200 additional miles of fiber to create a northern Minnesota fiber ring that adds diverse network paths for the Ely area.
The expansion and investment by the cable provider is an effort to reduce or eliminate service disruptions caused by fiber cuts and other sources of internet and business connections. Their recent investment announcement also appears to give the cable provider a bigger piece of the broadband pie in the immediate Ely area.

CTC is also building in the area…

CTC is in the midst of installing a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network in the city’s downtown corridor and is actively selling business services. In their first phase, CTC offers broadband technology to homes and businesses along Sheridan Street, and looks to offer business and residents internet, phone, and TV services along with business phone systems and IT services.
“We are scheduling a meeting with Midco at some point,” Langowski said. “We want to discuss where our project is and where their project is. I was a little concerned when I talked with (Midco’s) government affairs representative, who wasn’t aware of what we are doing or what our project is. I told him he must have been living under a rock. If he had read our local newspapers, he would have seen that we have been working on this for the last decade-plus.”
The first phase of the city of Ely’s CTC Broadband project is limited to the downtown area. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m not excited about (Midco’s) investment,” Langowski said. “I just want to make sure they don’t come in and overlay what we just did and cut us out of the market.”
Midco also announced that crews will begin installing FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) to homes and businesses in Ely and Winton in early 2022 capable of up to five Gbps. Connections can be upgraded to 10 Gbps, according to the cable provider.
The neighboring communities of Tower, Soudan and Babbitt will see similar construction activity with full FTTP network upgrades in 2023, company officials said.

Wireless is coming to the area too…

A wireless broadband project is also moving forward in the Town of Morse around the Ely area. Isaac Olson of Treehouse Broadband uses directional antennas operating on the radio frequency spectrum to provide high bandwidth internet service. With direct line of sight to their towers and repeater locations, they service customers in the Ely area. Unlike traditional satellite service, according to Olson, rain, snow and other weather has no impact on the frequencies and short-range transmissions he uses to deploy broadband.

Midco is expanding in other areas too…

In addition to the network redundancy and FTTP upgrades in the Ely area, the northern Minnesota communities of International Falls, Ranier and Littlefork will see faster data speeds from Midco in the coming year.
“All three communities will have access to Midco Gig in 2021. Midco Gig is 35 times faster than the average high-speed internet,” McAdaragh said.

Broadband providers need sustained funding

Mankato Free Press reports

Industry leaders say Minnesota’s broadband access is growing on its own — a combination of federal, state and community funds has spurred projects throughout the state over the past 10 years — but federal action could mean better access far quicker than what internet service providers could normally accomplish.

“If nothing else, the pandemic showed us how much we need rural broadband,” said Brent Christensen, president and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance.

Folks are working on fiber…

Christensen and other advocates say providers are working to address those disparities during the next few years by planning more wired fiber-optic networks. While those projects are more expensive than installing wireless broadband options, industry experts say wired connections are more reliable and better prepared for future technology.

In Madelia, where Christensen runs the local communications company, the community is set to build a fiber optic network to every home.

Bill Eckles, the CEO of Blue Earth-based BEVCOMM, said the south-central Minnesota internet provider has about half of its customers served through a fiber optic network. The company plans to have all of its customers served through wired broadband connections in seven years, and all of the farms BEVCOMM serves in the next three years.

Those projects need sustained funding, Christensen said. Broadband providers in Minnesota have a short construction season each year and many building supplies for broadband networks are in high demand, making them difficult to find.

“Whatever we do needs to be spread out over a longer term, over a couple years, so we have a chance to plan and order and get stuff in,” he said.

AT&T looks at definition of broadband: are they looking forward enough for everyone?

A recent AT&T blog looks at broadband speeds, policy and funding. I’m going to jump to what I think is the purpose of the post…

While the pandemic has redefined connectivity demands, those demands are not uniform, and the economics of serving every household in the country will require reliance on multiple technology solutions.  Policymakers seeking to re-define modern broadband speeds should take into consideration technological capabilities, economic considerations, geographic characteristics and affordability concerns.  Getting the definition right is critical to ensuring that broadband dollars are effectively targeted to where they are needed most.

They are right – getting the definition right is critical. But it reminds me of the old adage, never ask your barber if you need a haircut. Or more apt here, don’t ask car companies about seat belt laws.

Of course AT&T and other providers should chime in with their technical expertise and of course they are entitled to their educated opinions – but at the end of the day – they are selling something and we are buying – and as a country we are spending lots of money – so much money that don’t need to buy off the shelf. It’s our job as customers to tell them what we want and need.

I think a top consideration when spending government money is investment. Are we building solutions that will last or will they become outdated immediately? Are we renting this space or do we own it? We want to own it; we want to make decisions like we’re not moving next year.

It’s one of the best things about the MN Broadband Border to Border grants. They only fund projects that are scalable to 100 Mbps symmetrical. That doesn’t mean it needs to scale tomorrow – but it needs to scale eventually.

The AT&T blog recognizes that 25/3 (current federal definition of broadband) is too slow…

Let’s turn first to the definitional problem.  The pandemic has broadened the consensus opinion that it’s time to revisit the FCC’s current broadband definition of 25/3 Mbps.  To be clear, service at that speed is sufficient to support zoom working and remote learning.  According to Zoom’s website, a group call using high quality video requires speeds of 1 Mbps up / 600 kbps down.

But we know zooming isn’t the only thing users have been doing during quarantine and most homes now need to support multiple streams. Sandvine reports that video, gaming and social media together consumed 80% of total network capacity during 2020, with Netflix alone accounting for 11% of global traffic.  That traffic profile demands significant download performance.  For example, Netflix recommends speeds of at least 5Mbps down for HD video streaming, and 25Mbps down to stream in 4K for optimum quality viewing.

When zooming, streaming and tweeting is combined in an average household of four, it’s easy to conclude that download speeds must increase.  Notably, the results of the recent FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction tilted toward players bidding in the 100/20 Mbps or better service tiers, with gigabit bids winning approximately 85% of all locations.

What is less clear is whether we need to increase upload speeds to the same level as download speeds for the purpose of defining “unserved” areas.  A definition built on symmetrical speeds could dramatically expand the locations deemed “unserved”, leading to some areas being unnecessarily overbuilt while leaving fewer dollars to support areas in greater need, which tend to be rural.

For reasons, I explained last week when the MN Legislature looked at including “wireless” networks to state goals, changing the definition of unserved/underserved/served only changes the definition. It doesn’t impact the household. You can call me anything you want, but if I can’t get broadband, I’m going to be calling my provider and if necessary my legislator to complain. We can’t artificially keep the definition low just to keep our stats up. It just deepens the divide between served and unserved and in this context it most often means rural versus urban and suburban.

In a recent letter from senators asking President Biden to reevaluate broadband speeds with an eye to 100/100, they mention average speeds in urban and suburban areas…

While we recognize that in truly hard-to-reach areas, we need to be flexible in order to reach unserved Americans, we should strive to ensure that all members of a typical family can use these applications simultaneously. There is no reason federal funding to rural areas should not support the type of speeds used by households in typical well-served urban and suburban areas (e.g., according to speedtest.net’s January 2021 analysis, average service is currently 180Mbps download/65Mbps upload with 24 millisecond latency.

Those are average so they include the single person watching Netflix, they include the family of five with three going to school and two working and watching Netflix. There’s no reason government funding should go to build networks in rural areas that wouldn’t meet the needs of the average household in urban and suburban areas. COVID may have pushed the use disproportionately in the last year, but it also opened doors that won’t be closing again. To invest wisely, we need to consider these numbers and look at a linear growth based on it, but prepare for nonlinear growth too, because now we know a new world of possible pandemics. And that makes broadband, not a problem, but a life-saving, livelihood-saving, sanity-saving tool.

OpenVault finds big increase in upload broadband traffic in 2020

OpenVault optimizes networks. The just releases their Q4 2020 broadband network report. A lot of what they deal with is a deep dive for non-broadband providers and much of what they look at is volume, not speed but there are some interesting points. At a high level here are some of the high level observations:

  • The pandemic driven year of 2020 saw dramatic increases in both bandwidth usage and new subscriber growth. The combination has driven as much as 51% of additional on-net traffic on networks observed by OpenVault.
  • The continued growth in upstream bandwidth, up 63% year-over-year at the end of 2020, is particularly noteworthy for network operators who are challenged with managing upstream bandwidth on their network.
  • For the first time, over half (50.6%) of all subscribers are now provisioned for the 100 – 200 Mbps speed tier. Lower speed tiers of less than 100 Mbps are now seeing penetration of only 21.5%.
  • Growth in median usage, up 54% year-over-year at the end of 2020, demonstrates that bandwidth usage growth defined by the pandemic is distributed evenly across most users and not driven by outliers or extreme users.

The growth in upload speed is especially interesting to me. Open Vault talks about the strain that increased upload has had on the network

100 Households in Iona MN getting broadband (Murray County)

The Worthington Globe reports on broadband in Iona, MN (population 129) …

By the end of the year, about 100 Iona households, farms, businesses and community facilities should have access to broadband internet.

The primary internet service for the community, Lismore Cooperative Telephone Company, received a border-to-border broadband grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in the amount of $732,831 to expand the fiber network. Lismore Coop will provide $512,667 in matching funds, and Murray County is contributing $100,000.

To date, Iona customers have had wireless internet, Lismore Coop General Manager Bill Loonan explained. However, with so many folks on the wireless network, bandwidth is limited, and speeds average about 25 megabytes per second (mbps).

U.S. Senators Tina Smith, John Hoeven Reintroduce Bill to Improve Financial Stability of Electric Coops, Small Rural Broadband Providers

From the office of Senator Tina Smith (the bill is supported by Senator Klobuchar)…

U.S. Senators Tina Smith, John Hoeven Reintroduce Bill to Improve Financial Stability of Electric Coops, Small Rural Broadband Providers Legislation Enables Rural Electric Coops, Telecom Providers to Refinance RUS Debt, Support Stronger COVID-19 Recovery

WASHINGTON, D.C. [03/26/21]—U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) reintroduced a bipartisan bill to help stabilize the finances of the nation’s rural electric cooperatives and rural broadband providers. The Flexible Financing for Rural America Act would make it possible for rural electric cooperatives and telecommunications providers to refinance their Rural Utilities Service (RUS) debt at lower interest rates. A House companion was introduced by Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.).

Sens. Smith and Hoeven said that this could help rural cooperatives and businesses better manage cash-flow, invest in rural communities, and pass savings on to customers.

“Rural electric cooperatives are critical to economic success in small towns and rural areas across Minnesota,” said Sen. Smith. “We ought to support them so they can continue to boost our infrastructure, all while supporting jobs and improving Minnesotans’ quality of life. I successfully pushed to make rural electric cooperatives eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic. And my bipartisan RURAL Act was signed into law to fix a mistake in the 2017 tax law that put the tax-exempt status of cooperatives at risk if they received government grants to expand broadband or recover from a disaster. Now, I’m focused on making sure electric cooperatives are able to refinance their Rural Utilities Service debt at lower interest rates.”

“Our legislation provides the opportunity for electric and telecommunication cooperatives to refinance their Rural Utilities Service debt at current market rates without penalty,” said Sen. Hoeven. “This is about reinvesting in our rural communities, passing savings on to consumers and further supporting efforts to continue overcoming challenges from COVID-19. Families and businesses living and working in rural communities across North Dakota and the country depend on these cooperatives and the critical services they provide.”

“It’s crucial that we address the needs of our long-overlooked rural communities, who too often encounter barriers in accessing quality, affordable utilities,” said Rep. O’Halleran. “Our Flexible Financing for Rural America Act will extend a lifeline to hundreds of electric cooperatives serving rural families and businesses.”

“In our ever-growing connected society, the need to expand rural broadband in Missouri and across America continues to be one of my top priorities in Congress,” said Rep. Hartzler. “Nearly 30 percent of rural Missourians still lack vital access to highspeed internet. The bipartisan Flexible Financing for Rural America Act will jumpstart these communities, allowing them the same essential telecommunications resources urban areas routinely enjoy in our digital age. I am proud to see strong support for our legislation and its potential benefits for Fourth District families, schools, farms, healthcare providers, and businesses.”

“Rural electric cooperatives provide vital electricity service across Minnesota,” said Darrick Moe, CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association. “They loan funds from the federal Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to make that happen, and pay those loans back with interest.  Typically loans can be adjusted when interest rates fall, but the interest rates on these RUS loans are effectively frozen due to penalties that get imposed for refinancing.  Senator Smith is introducing a bill, with broad bipartisan support, to remove this barrier. This is a common sense fix that will help keep power bills affordable and help cooperatives as they support their local communities. Senator Smith’s leadership in this area is appreciated.”  Darrick Moe, Minnesota Rural Electric Association, CEO.

“Small, community-based broadband providers have answered the call to keep their neighbors connected in the face of a global pandemic and the economic challenges that have followed,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. “Allowing providers who use RUS loans to take advantage of low interest rates is a commonsense step that will make a big impact and give providers the flexibility to continue to support their communities as they recover from the pandemic. On behalf of NTCA’s members, I thank Senators Smith and Hoeven and Representatives O’Halleran and Hartzler for reintroducing the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act.”

In addition to Sens. Smith and Hoeven, the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act is supported by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).

Ely and International Falls part of new Midco fiber ring (St Louis & Koochiching Counties)

Good news for Ely and International Falls, as Midco reports

Fast and reliable connectivity is coming to Northern Minnesota. Recently, Midco activated more than 200 additional miles of fiber to create a Northern Minnesota fiber ring that adds diverse network paths for both Ely and International Falls, protecting against fiber cuts and other unexpected disruptions of Internet and business connections.

In addition, Midco crews will begin installing FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) to homes and businesses in Ely and Winton in early 2022 with best-in-the-world symmetrical, low-latency connections capable of up to 5 Gbps. With future needs in mind, connections can be upgraded to 10 Gbps, which will keep Ely at the epicenter of network performance.

“This significant expansion has been a high priority for us and our customers in Northern Minnesota who have been awaiting greater capacity, faster speeds and enhanced reliability,” said Midco President & CEO Pat McAdaragh. “With a capital investment of $3.75M, this expansion will allow for all of Midco’s services and products.”

Neighboring towns will be upgraded this year too…

In addition to the network redundancy and FTTP upgrades in the Ely area, the northern MN communities of International Falls, Ranier and Littlefork will see faster data speeds in the coming year. All three communities will have access to Midco Gig in 2021. Midco Gig is 35 times faster than the average high-speed internet and available at an affordable price.

MN Telecom Alliance asks FCC to deny LTD’s long-form RDOF application

I have written about concerns with the LTD winning options for federal funding through RDOF. Looks like MN Telecom Alliance is taking steps to formalize those concerns. Telecompetitor reports

Two state associations representing broadband providers have asked the FCC to deny the long-form application filed by LTD Broadband in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program. LTD Broadband had the largest amount of RDOF winning bids in the program and stands to gain $1.3 billion for broadband deployments in 15 states if its long-form application is approved.

In a joint filing with the FCC, the Minnesota Telecom Alliance and the Iowa Communications Alliance argue that “there is no indication that LTD has the technical, engineering, financial, operational, management, staff, or other resources to meet RDOF build-out and service obligations.”

They get into some details…

Arguments made by the Minnesota and Iowa associations in their filing about LTD Broadband RDOF concerns:

  • LTD won funding in five states in the Connect America Fund (CAF II) auction but was fined $3,563 for defaulting on bids in one census block in Nebraska and another in Nevada. The FCC rejected LTD’s argument that it had been unable to obtain designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier in those states – a requirement for obtaining funding.
  • The company has been criticized by the Minnesota Department of Commerce for failure to comply with its obligations to advertise Lifeline service to eligible customers.
  • The Better Business Bureau gives LTD’s Minnesota operations a failing rating based on the length of time it has been operating and because the company failed to respond to a complaint filed against the business and currently has 14 complaints filed against it.
  • The associations estimate that the LTD Broadband RDOF build-out will cost the company between $5,000 to $8,000 per location, yielding estimated 15-state construction costs of $2.6 billion to $4.2 billion. Noting that the company does not likely have the required funding on hand, the petitioners argue that the FCC should “place a substantial and stringent burden of proof on LTD to demonstrate reasonable, workable and detailed technical plans for constructing and operating its RDOF broadband networks . . . and to show that it has clear and certain access to the financial resources necessary to meet the realistic and detailed costs of such technical plans.”

The filing reminds the FCC that 160 members of Congress sent a letter to the commission urging the commission to thoroughly vet winning RDOF bidders.

Paul Bunyan Communications’ MN Border to Border Broadband Grant for portions of the City of Cook

A deeper dive on the Border to Border grant in City of Cook From Paul Bunyan Communications

Paul Bunyan Communications has been awarded a Border to Border Broadband Grant from the State of Minnesota to help share the costs of expanding its fiber optic services to portions of the City of Cook and the surrounding area in St. Louis County.
The project is estimated to cost $691,675, with the State of Minnesota’s Border to Border grant contributing $311,254, the City of Cook investing $8,000 and Paul Bunyan Communications investing $380,421.
“We are excited to continue our efforts to bring gigabit broadband Internet to those currently without reliable Internet access in our region. Thanks to the State of Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband Grant Program we will be able to expand access to the GigaZone™ to over 300 additional locations in the area extending one of the largest rural gigabit networks in the country even further!” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.
“This is the news our community has been waiting to hear for a long time. We’ve seen and heard what those with access to Paul Bunyan’s network can do – virtually anything they want and fast! We could not be more excited to help bring this essential service to our community. It will take time to complete the project but finally we know the finish line is in sight.” said Harold Johnston, Mayor, City of Cook. Paul Bunyan Communications expects to finalize the expansion plans by spring of 2022 and will contact locations along the upcoming expansion routes shortly thereafter. Construction will start in the summer of 2022 with services expected to be available by spring of 2023.
“This is a huge service improvement for everyone in the project area. The pandemic has proven to be especially challenging to people who don’t have true high speed internet available at their home or business. As more and more students and employees work from home, many people are learning how critical upload speed is for their job or school work. Unlike many other providers, our speeds are symmetric, the same speeds are available for upload and download. This will be a game changer for
the residents of Cook.” added Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications Information Technology and Development Manager. “Access to high quality, affordable Internet has been our focus at the cooperative since 1999. Our team has built a world class all-fiber optic network and now we are will be bringing it to the City of Cook.” said Howard.
“I must salute the hard work of our elected officials who have championed the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program. I want to thank all of them and also the Office of Broadband Development that administers the program. This makes a world of difference in so many ways to a lot of people right here in northern Minnesota!” said Johnson.
The cooperative’s services will become available once the network is operational including GigaZone™ Internet with its unprecedented broadband speeds of up to 1000 Mbps – a Gigabit, and low cost unlimited local and long distance GigaZone™ voice telephone 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.

Wisconsin is using drones to bring broadband to students in Northwoods

People are so clever. I love the innovation here. It’s not a permanent fix but what a great way to reach people who currently don’t even have enough cell coverage to support students or workers trying to get online at home. I know there are areas in Minnesota that are in the same boat! Wisconsin Public Radio reports

Rural Northwoods students who lack reliable internet at home will soon be able to connect to their school networks via a drone-powered cellular signal.

A Wisconsin startup will be part of a state-funded pilot program in the Eagle River area that will test the use of drones as a way to expand internet connectivity into rural areas.

It’s a partnership between the new company Wisconsin Telelift and the Northland Pines School District. The drones will be fitted with cellphone towers, allowing students throughout the sprawling Northwoods district to get online, even in rural areas where cellphone service and broadband access are unavailable or unreliable.

It’s a real need in a district that is among the state’s largest geographically, spreading over 435 square miles in Vilas and Oneida counties.

As many as 15 percent of the district’s 1,340 students have no internet access at home, said Northland Pines administrator Scott Foster, and half of its students have unreliable connections that don’t always allow for streaming video and other tools used in educational software. The district provides Chromebooks to its students and portable hotspots to those who need them — but the hotspots can only work where there is a strong cellular signal. In much of the district, that’s just not the case.

EVENT TODAY (Mar 10) Dakota Broadband Board hosts LTD Broadband

I’m thankful to Dakota County for mentioning their meeting this afternoon with LTD Broadband…

The Dakota Broadband Board will have a representative from LTD Broadband speaking at their 4pm meeting this afternoon about their plans in MN. Here is the Zoom link:  to the public meeting:
Join Zoom Meeting https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88574743336?pwd=enlQZFRkTmUrZjdxL3NCTzdidk1Ldz09

Meeting ID: 885 7474 3336 Passcode: 103141

Rep Angie Craig introduces The Broadband Consumer Transparency Act of 2021

Representative Angie Craig reports

Today, U.S. Representative Angie Craig introduced legislation to provide consumers with transparent information on broadband services available in the marketplace. The Broadband Consumer Transparency Act of 2021 would require sellers of broadband services to display information in a uniform and clear manner at the point of sale to allow consumers to easily compare plans and to understand what they are purchasing.

Roughly 7 in 10 U.S. adults surveyed by Consumer Reports who have used a cable, internet, or phone service provider in the past two years said they experienced unexpected or hidden fees. In 2016, the FCC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau together rolled out an easily-readable label to help standardize the information meaningful to consumers as they compare plans. However, in 2017, President Trump’s newly installed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, abandoned the proposal. This concept also passed the House in 2020 during consideration of a broader infrastructure package.

“As we work to ensure that every family in Minnesota has access to affordable, high-speed internet, we also must ensure that consumers have the information necessary to select the best services for their needs,” said Representative Angie Craig. “The Broadband Consumer Transparency Act would require straightforward disclosures in an easily understandable format to help consumers better understand the services they are purchasing and protect against hidden fees and sub-standard internet performance. With record investments in broadband connectivity, including the Emergency Broadband Benefit, it is more important now than ever that we have accurate data to understand the true cost of internet services.”

Christopher Ali outlines broadband options for rural areas

Benton recently posted a column from Christopher Ali about the importance of cooperatives. He promotes cooperatives as broadband providers because they are local and they have infrastructure. He also quotes Bernadine…

Long story short, and to use a quote from Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, “everything is better with better broadband.”

 

But perhaps even more valuable is a succinct description of different types of broadband…

With wires, DSL, or digital subscriber line, is the most deployed broadband access technology in rural America. DSL connections are the copper wires owned and operated by telephone companies like CenturyLink. Despite its prevalence, the problem is that these types of connections are slow and outdated, oftentimes not able to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. More than this, DSL gets worse the further you are away from the network node. So once you’re about 3 miles from the access point, your internet is going to slow down considerably. AT&T and other providers have also begun phasing out their DSL networks, leaving many in rural America without an alternative.

Cable internet, or coaxial, or coax-hybrid internet is the most deployed type of connectivity in urban areas. These connections are owned and operated by cable companies like Comcast Xfinity. The benefit of cable internet is that you get blazing fast download speeds, which is great for binging Netflix. The problem is that the upload speed, which is so important for business and for video conferencing like we’re doing, is slower. More than this, cable internet suffers from something called “network congestion” – the more people on the network at the same time, the slower it becomes. Here in Charlottesville, my husband and I have Comcast, and we have definitely noticed slower service during peak working hours when everyone in our neighborhood is trying to make a Zoom call. It can make teaching really difficult!

Then there’s fiber optics, the “future-proof” and “gold standard” technology. It offers blazing-fast download and upload speeds, doesn’t degrade with distance, and is not impacted by how many people are on the network at the same time. The problem? It is expensive: Upwards of $27,000 per mile. And this is where counties and cooperatives and localities tend to struggle – how to raise the money necessary for fiber-to-the-home?

On the wireless side, counties like Culpeper are deploying towers with fiber-optic connections that transmit broadband wirelessly. This is known as “fixed wireless” and is provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers or “WISPs.” Fixed wireless has proven to be an important form of connectivity on its own, and for some counties, a mid-point towards fiber-to-the-home. It’s not as fast as fiber, and certainly comes with drawbacks like suffering from inclement weather and requiring line of sight, but many counties, particularly rural ones, are erecting a series of towers that are connected at the back end with fiber optics so that residents have meaningful connectivity. Fixed wireless is particularly useful for rural communities and agricultural spaces since one tower can cover a rather large distance. Others, however, say that nothing short of fiber for all will suffice. Again, the type of connectivity should be in tune with the community and the community’s needs.

Also on the wireless side is satellite, which many people don’t even consider viable because it is so problematic. Hughes and ViaSat are the two satellite internet providers in the country. Often times when I bring up satellite in rural areas, people roll their eyes at me, because it is expensive, slow, suffers from lag and inclement weather interruptions, and comes with tiny data caps. Still, the FCC considers satellite a viable complement to wireline broadband. It is available to almost everyone in the country, perhaps 99% or so. That said, I know of many residents who have to augment their satellite connections with mobile hotspots to ensure they are always connected, but at tremendous expense – sometimes $300 a month.

Many of you may have also heard about StarLink – Elon Musk’s SpaceX broadband service. StarLink is a type of satellite broadband called LEO or “Low Earth Orbital,” where the satellite sits closer to the Earth than traditional geosynchronous satellites like from Hughes or ViaSat. Theoretically, this proximity allows LEOs to provide faster and stronger service. Trials suggest StarLink is providing faster service, upwards of 100/20 in certain communities, but this pales in comparison to the original hype around LEOs, which promised speeds of gigabits per second. StarLink and others like it are just getting going, and the technology is still unproven at scale. A recent study, for instance, suggested that StarLink will reach capacity in only 8 short years. There’s still so much we don’t know about these networks. Despite this, the FCC recently awarded StarLink almost $900 million in funding. StarLink’s competitors are challenging this award, claiming that it overexaggerated its capabilities to the FCC.

We could say the same thing about 5G. While urban areas are getting a taste of what 5G can do – like blazing-fast mobile connections and the potential to replace your home broadband network – it is still in its trial stages and the type of 5G found in urban areas, known as millimeter-wave 5G or high-band 5G, is unavailable to the rest of the country. So far, 5G has not lived up to the hype mobile providers like Verizon and T-Mobile have promised us.

I get worried when I hear counties say that they are considering pausing their broadband plans in hopes that StarLink or 5G will arrive soon. Truth be told, these technologies are years away from being deployed in rural areas across our country. There is also uncertainty around cost, in addition to time. Communities that decide to pause will be waiting for something that may never come. In contrast, there are very real solutions available to counties today.

Minnesota customer (and Communications Workers of America Local 7270) ask PUC to hold Frontier accountable

MinnPost publishes a letter to the editor from Mark Doffing, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7270 asking the PUC to hold Frontier accountable; Minnesota PUC is scheduled to reconsider its approval of Frontier’s bankruptcy plan today (Feb. 18, 2021).

He describes the situation for customers in rural areas…

We are now approaching a full year of living with the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and it has become clear that high quality phone and internet service are a necessity for all of us to continue any semblance of a normal life. People across the country rely on these services for their jobs, education, health care, and to maintain contact with family and friends in this difficult and isolating time. Here in Minnesota, many of us rely on Frontier Communications to provide those services, and as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) considers approving Frontier’s emergence from bankruptcy, we have an opportunity to ensure that Minnesota residents receive the improved service they deserve.

Frontier, Minnesota’s second-largest phone service provider covering 250,000 households in the state, filed for bankruptcy on April 14 of last year after taking on billions of dollars in debt and driving away customers by refusing to invest in their network or their workforce.

He adds that Minnesota does not appear to be on Frontier’s priority list…

In its December quarterly update to Wall Street, Frontier reported on its post-bankruptcy “Modernization Plan,” which includes nearly 3 million customers who will receive high-speed, fiber optic internet service over the next 10 years. Frontier’s plan identified 10 states in line for new fiber deployment, not one of which was Minnesota.

In addition, Frontier recently bid to receive federal grants under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to provide high-speed broadband in rural areas and won more than $37 million in federal funding to support more than 125,000 customers in eight states. Not one of those customers is in Minnesota. This is very concerning because significant investment is required from Frontier to bring Minnesota residents the quality of telecommunication services they deserve.

He offers a way that the MN PUC could hold them accountable…

Other states — including California, West Virginia, and Connecticut — have reviewed Frontier’s bankruptcy plan and have secured settlements or have ordered Frontier to comply with commitments that include new investment in fiber, capital expenditures to improve their ailing network, and workforce commitments to ensure that the job gets done right. These states have taken the critical step in holding  Frontier accountable.

LTD Broadband partners with Aviat for wireless platform system

PRNewswire reports

Aviat Networks, Inc. (NASDAQ: AVNW), the leading expert in wireless transport solutions, today announced that LTD Broadband, an internet service provider (ISP) and top recipient in the US government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction with a total of $1.3 billion in funding, will deploy Aviat’s WTM 4000 microwave and multi-band platform systems in its network middle mile and for fiber redundancy. The company has already deployed these Aviat systems in its current network, which delivers high-speed connectivity to commercial and residential subscribers in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, with other states in planning as part of the company’s RDOF expansion.

“Our experience with Aviat has been exceptional,” said Corey Hauer, Chief Executive Officer, LTD Broadband. “The company’s WTM systems deliver the multi-gigabit fixed wireless performance we need, and Aviat Design enables solid link planning with no surprises. We are able to order the systems from the Aviat Store and take delivery within a couple of weeks, something no other radio manufacturer can offer us, accelerating our time to market. These capabilities will become even more critical as we roll out our RDOF plans.”

LTD Broadband was selected to submit a long form RDOF proposal to build FTTH; they were the biggest winner of potential funding in Minnesota. There is some concern that they are better versed in building wireless network than the fiber they are committed to building in Minnesota.