TDS expands service in Minnesota using federal funds for speeds ranging from 25/3 to 4/1

According to Telecompetitor

The FCC A-CAM program is helping fund TDS broadband expansion in Minnesota, the carrier announced. Engineering and design work is beginning, that will set the stage to bring broadband to more than 2,200 locations throughout western Minnesota. Construction is expected to begin this Fall or in 2018, according to TDS.

The A-CAM program, part of the FCC’s Connect America Fund program, will provide $5.1 million for this particular project and TDS says hundreds of additional nearby locations not covered by this funding will also benefit. Depending on location, most of these residents will see speeds of 25/3 Mbps, with others getting 10/1 Mbps or 4/1 Mbps. TDS owns four telephone companies in Minnesota and employs about 225 people in the state.

One the one hand it will be a good thing for folks who see faster speeds, on the other hand it’s federal funding being spent on expansion on speeds ranging from 25/3 to 4/1 speeds. That is a far cry from state goal of 100/20 by 2026.

I noticed in Telecomparer that the expansion is specifically noted Kandiyohi County (in the headline and) …

TDS Telecom (TDS) began design work earlier in 2017 in the Mid-State Telephone service area that includes part of Kandiyohi County as well as portions of Pope, Swift, Stearns and Chippewa counties.

The mentione of Kandiyohi caught my eye because Kandiyohi County and CTC have partnered on a $10 million broadband project to construct a fiber line to bring high-speed access to north central Kandiyohi County. They were awarded a Minnesota state broadband grant and are looking for residents to sign up for the service now to ensure that the project moves forward.

Minnesota attorney general sues CenturyLink over billing

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued CenturyLink on Wednesday as she alleged that the internet, phone and cable television provider frequently billed Minnesota customers at higher rates than its sales agents quoted.

Flanked by Minnesotans who have filed some of the “hundreds” of complaints about charges they say they didn’t agree to, Swanson said she’s asking a judge to impose civil penalties, order the company to change its sales practices and require that CenturyLink pay restitution to customers who were misled about their purchases.

“I want [CenturyLink] to knock it off,” Swanson said. “It is not OK for a company to quote one price and then charge another for something as basic as cable television and internet service. We want an injunction so the company stops doing this to other people, and hopefully fixes the problem for these people as well.”

The lawsuit, filed in Anoka County District Court, accuses Louisiana-based CenturyLink of committing consumer fraud and engaging in deceptive trade practices. It cites 37 specific cases in which people were overbilled by the company and denied the opportunity to reduce those charges — even when they had the original offer in writing.

How do we define success of a community network? Is Lake County a model or cautionary tale?

In 2010, the MN Broadband Task Force report ranked Minnesota Counties broadband access; Lake County was #16 on the least served list with an average download speed of 3.2 Mbps. Speed wasn’t their only issue, they also had problems with reliability. Prior to July 2012, there had been two incidents where flooding left parts of the county without service – no broadband, no 911. (And Lake County is a US border county! Imagine the Homeland Security concerns!)

Lake County had Internet service providers but the service they offered didn’t meet the county’s needs and providers were talking about 10-15 years to build out a fiber network (back in 2009). So, when Congress responded to the Great Recession of 2010 by passing the America Recovery and Reconstruction Act, which included funding for rural broadband networks, Lake County applied for funding and was awarded $66 million in ARRA stimulus funds; about $10 million of the award was an outright grant; the rest was a low-interest loan.

Lake County’s journey to better broadband has been a bumpy one. (I’ve listed all of the ups and downs I could remember below.)

The good news? Lake County is now well served. As of last reporting, 94.3 percent of Lake County had access to broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 up (100/20), which is the MN 2026 state goal, making them the #11 top ranked county in Minnesota. Quite a leap from #72 in 2010.

The bad news? The network is now on the market. And as Annette Meeks (from Freedom Foundation of Minnesota) points out, there are bills to be paid.

So is it a success? Or is a better question, is it a success yet?

They have a network – and a recent Lake County News article points out, that was the goal…

“Seven years ago when we did get involved in this, it wasn’t for the goal of owning a broadband network,” Commissioner Rick Goutermont said during the meeting. “The reason we got involved was that none of the incumbents would go after these funds and none of the incumbents were looking to provide our constituents with the service that we felt they needed, that’s why we got involved.”

An article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune seems to second that sentiment…

But it seems clear that even if the county doesn’t get back all or much of the more than $17 million it has put into the project, county officials won’t see much to apologize to the voters for.  …. what the county decided more than seven years ago still seems to be true — that had the county not stepped in, they would still be waiting for reliable broadband service in Lake County.

There is debt as Meeks points out…

Currently, Lake County taxpayer funding for the project totals $17 million.

To put this in perspective, remember that many of the state funded broadband projects involve local match often through the County Boards (Itasca, Fillmore and others). Sunrise Township project’s state grant match includes CenturyLink’s CAF 2 money and public funding. (Total cost of the project is $2.39 million, the grant is for $1.07 million, the rest is split evenly between CAF 2 and public money.)

A quick reminder of their story: Sunrise held meetings because they wanted better broadband. One provider showed up; one didn’t. At public meetings, CenturyLink said they would use CAF 2 money to upgrade to “at least” 10/1, but the township wanted world class broadband instead.

So they talked. About getting a grant. About how much CenturyLink needed. About how much (and how) residents could chip in.

Turns out the project would be $2.39. In public meetings they talked about getting $500,000 from taxpayers – to be divvied up between 532 households in CenturyLink’s territory – roughly $1000/household. They are looking at paying that back over 10-15 years and the number bandied around was $100/year/household.

With this additional community investment, and state broadband grant, CenturyLink agreed to use their awarded CAF2 dollars to build a world-class fiber-to-the-home network capable of delivering speeds that exceed state broadband goals.

The Sunrise Township residents said yes because they felt the increase in taxes would be offset with a myriad of benefits, from the ability to operate a home-based business, to access to distance learning, to increased home values.

I don’t know that Lake County residents are any different. There was some back and forth on rumors that they wouldn’t have to pay back the loan but seemed like more smoke than fire. They signed onto a loan and folks know what that means. Sounds like the remaining cost is $17 million – there are 5000 households in Lake County. I know this is very sloppy math but that sounds like $3400/household. It’s 3.4 times the cost in Sunrise – but paid back over time I wonder if residents feel broadband was worth it. (Also in this scenario taxpayers investment should be offset by subscription proceeds.)

One very big difference is competition. Because Sunrise is working with the incumbent provider they are unlikely to run into legal issues and negative campaigns that challenged Lake County. (See examples on timeline below.) Perhaps that what Meeks means when she says…

Market-based forces will always come into play when municipalities decide to compete against private telecom providers.

Few communities want to become the broadband provider. Most rural communities are open to a partnership – such as Sunrise Township – where community investment is made with an incumbent or other provider. But for communities where the local provider is uninterested in providing service the community wants, there needs to be alternatives and part of that alternative is recognizing that money spent on broadband is an investment that pays different dividends for a community than it does a provider.

A provider doesn’t have to offer services where it’s not profitable to do so.  If profit is your definition of success it would be crazy to go into some areas. But a provider should not be able to hold a community hostage to slower, unreliable broadband. We need room for public investment or those communities will be choked out of existence. And we need room for alternate definition of success – one that includes community vitality.

Lake County abridged timeline* Continue reading

Microsoft positioning to spread broadband to rural areas. I have some questions

Microsoft unveiled its plan for bringing broadband to rural areas by July 4, 2022. It involves TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage. There’s a lot of like; there’s a lot to question. So borrowing from their report and other info I could find (noted when appropriate) I’m going to outline the questions I had about their plan.

How are they going to do it?

Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology.

One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places.

TV white spaces2 is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.

Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this technology, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects worldwide that have served 185,000 users.

But TV white spaces alone will not provide the complete solution. Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile. This mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.

How are they defining broadband?

Not once in their report did I read a definition of broadband. So by default, I’m going to assume they are using the FCC definition: 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload (25/3). I wonder if the goal will change as the FCC definition of broadband increases. Their stated goal implies that it will…

The time is right for the nation to set a clear and ambitious, but achievable goal: to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next five years—by July 4, 2022— through a new Rural Broadband Strategy.

They allude to 4G a lot in the report. I think it’s worth noting that in urban areas, providers are talking up 5G. If we’re looking at parity, I might be looking at 5G in rural areas too. That being said, I recognize that the 5G standard isn’t yet set but the expected roadblocks would require early investigation.

Will the technologies they suggest meet those goals?

I’ve had to more away from the report to answer this – since again they don’t go into speeds.

I’ve written about satellite a lot – they are now claiming speeds of 25/3. Folks from the front-lines have certainly reported that satellite doesn’t work well for them. (Troubles with telehealth and costs.) And there doesn’t seem to be much room for increasing upload speeds, which means the 20 percent relying on satellite will be no better off.

Broadcasting & Cable had some info on the expectations of white space ability – but based on Microsoft’s claims…

Smith showed several prototype receivers, some of which Microsoft has used in field trials in 20 global locations ranging from Kenya to Taiwan to Washington state. The devices, built by Adaptrum, 6Harmonics and Aviacomm, are priced at under $800 now, and he said the prices would fall to $200 or less. They will be able to carry data at speeds up to 400 Megabits per second, he said, with initial models now operating at 25 Mbps and 40 Mbps. He said that Microsoft has run about 20 projects reaching 185,000 users—insisting that “this technology is ready to take off.”

Telecompetitor wrote (in 2015) about increase to white space speeds based on new standards (802.22 to 802.22b). This may be superfluous since Microsoft’s paper talks only about 802.22 but I found it interesting…

TV white spaces broadband wireless technology is on track to see a doubling in the speeds it can support, now that the IEEE has approved the 802.22b standard.

The new version of the point-to-multipoint standard can support speeds of 50 Mbps or more, said Apurva N. Mody, chairman of the IEEE 802.22 standard working group, in an email exchange with Telecompetitor.  In comparison, top speeds were 22-29 Mbps for the previous generation of the technology based on the 802.22 standard.

Additionally the number of users the technology can support will increase from 512 to 8,192 users, Mody said. While 8,192 users might sound like overkill, that capability could be important for machine-to-machine and Internet of Things communications.

Why is Microsoft doing this?

Our goal is not to profit directly from these projects, although we of course recognize that expanded broadband coverage will bring new commercial opportunities for every company in the tech sector that provides cloud services, including our own. We will rely on a business model focused on investing in the upfront capital projects needed to expand broadband coverage, and then seek a revenue share from operators to recoup our investment. We will use these revenue proceeds to invest in additional projects to expand coverage further over the next five years.

I wish I had a better feel for what revenue share meant – especially with Net Neutrality in question. But regardless – Google and Facebook have both jumped into the broadband provider business. (In fact Microsoft and Facebook built a cable from Easter US to Spain last year.) I think the connection to selling more ads was a more obvious payoff for them but it set a precedent and Microsoft cloud computing business would gain new customers with ubiquitous broadband.

Microsoft is starting with 12 states. Minnesota is not one of them but our neighbors are (North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin). It will be interesting to see how this works.

MVTV Wireless is offering faster speeds

I just heard that MVTV wireless is now offering faster fixed wireless speeds. As I’ve said many times – the world is going to want and need wired and wireless today and in the future. MVTV is good about going into areas that are still waiting for a better wired solution. And now their service is getting a little better:

  • Up to 25 Mbps
  • Unlimited data

Here’s some info from their website on how it works…

Now there is an uncomplicated, cost effective way for your business or household to get access to the internet. It is the  HIGH SPEED, HIGH CAPACITY BROADBAND Wireless Internet service being offered by MVTV Wireless. MVTV will transmit internet signal from one of over 100 access points throughout our coverage area to a small radio antenna at the subscriber’s location.

Broadband changes lives. So who is responsible to making sure we all have access?

Yesterday I read about Verizon cutting off a lot of power users. Ars Technica reports

Verizon Wireless said it is disconnecting a small group of customers who use vast amounts of data in rural areas where Verizon relies on roaming agreements with smaller network operators.

“Earlier this month we notified a small group of customers who are out of contract and primarily use mobile data on other wireless companies’ networks that we won’t be their service provider after July 30, 2017,” a Verizon spokesperson told Ars today. “This only affects a few people who primarily roam on other networks and does not affect customers who primarily use Verizon’s own network.”

The customers who are affected “are using vast amounts of data—some as much as a terabyte or more a month—outside of our network footprint,” the company said. Verizon gave the customers several weeks’ notice so they have time to port their numbers to new providers. Verizon provided no option to switch to different plans.

Why did Verizon do it? They’re losing money. I run a different kind of business – but I know you can’t keep customers who cost you money. (Yes, I mean you – who asked me to explain why your printer quit working after I built your website!) Should they have kept them on as a public good? Maybe or maybe not. I don’t even want to know the details because my question isn’t is OK for Verizon to cut them loose.

My question is – who is responsible for making sure they have an option?

I had been thinking about that when Craig Settles’ article (from the Daily Yonder) came across my desk. Craig makes the point that broadband isn’t just about doing things faster – it’s about doing new things. He’s uses stories of 3D printers used to bring jobs to rural areas (And arms – “Reynolds uses the Chattanooga Library’s 3D printer to build prosthetics for his son as he grows.”) and telemedicine to help folks recover from strokes.

These are some of the power users. Are we willing to pull the plug of opportunity for them? And if we’re not, again – who is responsible for making sure they have an option?

I think it’s going to take a village of parties to help raise the bar on broadband but Settle’s article offered one solution that I’ve seen work here Minnesota – the perspective of the cooperative to provide for their community…

“You have to challenge the old way of thinking,” says Mike Burrow, CEO of NineStar Connect, an Indiana broadband provider formed by an electric co-op and a telephone co-op.

“We did not look ourselves as an electric co-op. We look at ourselves as a solution provider for our local community, an infrastructure provider. If it enables our community to stay connected and provides vital services that help our community survive and thrive, that’s what we were involved in.”

Cooperatives seem to be a leader in bringing broadband to areas where it’s toughest to make a business case.

Lake County Connections – for sale but a very rural area is well-served

I wrote earlier this month about the Lake County network sale. Today the Minneapolis Star Tribune has a full story. I think it’s a good case study on community networks in rural areas.

Why do local governments get involved with broadband?

Lake County never wanted to own a broadband network and still doesn’t, he [county administrator Matt Huddleston] said. The only reason Lake Connections exists in 2017 is that the county and its commissioners had reluctantly concluded that no one else, privately owned or otherwise, had any interest in building out broadband throughout Lake County.

How bad was it?

Spotty and slow internet service was a common complaint, from everyone from business owners to health care administrators. And in January 2010, a fiber-optic line failure in Duluth knocked out service to Lake County and other areas of northeastern Minnesota. News accounts from the time describe phone service going out, including 911 calls, credit cards not working and bank ATMs going down. Even the Border Patrol had to scramble to restore communications.

The availability of federal stimulus money after the start of the Great Recession is what provided the opportunity for Lake County to take charge of providing its own solution.

What were the problems building the network?

The county’s up-and-down history with the RUS later became the subject of an in-depth investigation published in Politico entitled “Wired to fail,” although by far most of the criticism was directed at the federal agency.

It’s certainly true that the project ran into delays, including finding out it would be very difficult to get rights to hang Lake Connections’ cables on the poles of other utilities.

It didn’t help that the traditional broadband industry, which didn’t want to make a big investment in Lake County, also didn’t want the taxpayer to do it. That explains why the cable company Mediacom Communications tossed legal and PR rocks at the project.

There were speed bumps with contractors, too, and the current management company has been in place only since late last year. But the county pressed ahead, and the first customers in Silver Bay and Two Harbors were connected roughly three years ago.

Would they do it again?

But it seems clear that even if the county doesn’t get back all or much of the more than $17 million it has put into the project, county officials won’t see much to apologize to the voters for.

After sorting through a list of names of logical potential buyers, one conclusion was that what the county decided more than seven years ago still seems to be true — that had the county not stepped in, they would still be waiting for reliable broadband service in Lake County.