Fed broadband funding lessons from 2010 help with funding today: Madison & Appleton MN finally getting fiber!

It feels like the before-times, out on the road talking to folks in rural Minnesota about broadband and more. Traveling with Mary Magnuson, we made a few stops this week, starting with the UMVRDC (Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission) to chat with Dawn Hegland and Kevin Ketelson.

UMVRDC supports Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in Western MN. Broadband-wise this list includes some of the best and worst served counties in Minnesota.

Communities need awareness and education

Dawn has been working with the Blandin Foundation since the early days of MIRC (2009); she knows her stuff. Yet, as I say some of their counties are well served and others aren’t. One reason is that some communities are willing to invest, and some have not been. It makes the case for continued need for awareness and education.

Communities like LqP were early into the game, getting ARRA funding back around 2010, when some communities were still asking what broadband was. Post pandemic few communities (or community leaders) need a definition for broadband but the ones who needed it before were at a serious disadvantage during the pandemic shut downs. Swaths of communities were left to try to work, study and stay healthy in communities with inadequate and unreliable Internet access. While just down the road, folks had fiber.

So, while generally people understand the need now (and it remains a top concern in the annual regional survey), people don’t understand the ins and outs of technology. People think “the government will take care of it” or don’t appreciate the difference between fiber and satellite. Decision makers are often consumers online (getting email or watching videos) not producers (uploading work files, homework videos or selling online). They think because they are happy with local connections that others will be as well. But that is often not the case, especially if they are trying to recruit new businesses or young families to the area.

Understanding the landscape helps

Understanding the technology is only half the battle for community leaders. Especially now, you need to understand the funding options because rural broadband is expensive and a lot of State and Federal money will be going to deploy broadband over the next few years. But the applications are onerous and it’s important to find the right fit to serve the whole community, which leads to a long broadband story in the area with a soon-to-be happy ending.

As I mentioned earlier, LqP was an early adopter. They got federal funding for FTTH more than 10 years ago … to most of the county. Unfortunately, Madison, the county seat, was not eligible for the upgrade because the maps showed that they were already “served.” In 2010, that meant they has access of speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 up. So for 10 years rural LqP has had fiber and the county seat has not. They have been actively looking for help to funding to support fiber deployment (because even the county seat in LqP is pretty rural) but had not been successful until now.

Last summer, UMVRDC helped Madison and Appleton apply for CARES funding from the state to build better broadband. (Appleton was in a similar position as Madison, but in Swift County.) The requirements and conditions of the grants were different than other opportunities and it turns out a good fit for both areas. There were awarded the money and Acira is working on Madison now and soon to be moving to Appleton. (Mary and I happened to run into folks from Acira in town too. They were excited to finish the jobs they started 10+ years ago!)

While I’m happy to share the good news of Madison and Appleton, I offer it also as a cautionary tale. Again, unprecedented funding is going into broadband in the next few years but most folks I’ve heard from feel that it won’t cover universal broadband and areas left unserved (or underserved) will have a difficult time catching up once the money is gone. That gets me back to the first point – communities need awareness and education.

Lake County required to pay broadband contractor remaining $2 million

The Lake County News Chronicle reports…

After five days of testimony and evidence, a jury on Friday ruled in favor of Rohl Networks LP, awarding the company more than $2.075 million in its lawsuit against Lake County regarding work done on the county’s broadband network, Lake Connections.

Rohl, of Jupiter, Fla., was the main contractor during the construction of the broadband network, Lake Connections, from 2012 to 2015. Among other aspects of the lawsuit, Rohl claimed the county failed to pay what it owed for the work it performed and didn’t obtain contracts, permits and agreements in a timely manner necessary to allow the company to perform its work.

The jury on Friday found that under the three contracts — Phase 1, Phase 2A and Phase 2B — the county owed Rohl more than $25 million. Jurors also found that under those same three contracts, the county has so far paid Rohl more than $22.8 million.

The jury did not award Rohl any money for labor or materials supplied outside the scope of the contracts, and did not award the county any liquidated damages due to the delay of the project. The jury of eight did find that Rohl owed Lake County $223,961 for back charges and/or owner-furnished (OFM) materials not installed in the project or returned to Lake County.

The article details the ins and outs of the project as it relates to the contracting work. It seems like this is just another chapter of a project that has seen its ups and downs – and a situation where the decision could have been better or worse for the county and the contractor.

SW Minnesota: the Ups & Downs of ARRA

I’ve been tracking progress of fiber deployment by the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group (SMBG). It is an ARRA-funded project that is bringing fiber to homes in the following communities:

  • Bingham Lake,
  • Brewster
  • Heron Lake
  • Jackson
  • Lakefield
  • Okabena
  • Round Lake
  • Wilder

The project has been going very well – and even hooked up their first customer in December. So that part of Southwest Minnesota is going strong.

Unfortunately, according to Watch Dog, not all of Southwestern Minnesota is faring as well..

The recipient of a major federal stimulus grant and loan in southwestern Minnesota appears to be having second thoughts about proceeding with a broadband project spread out over three counties. The $15 million project which planned to expand broadband service in 15 communities may be in danger of going into the financial red zone, apparently due at least in part to the escalating costs of fiber optic cable.

Woodstock Telephone Company was approved by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to receive a $10.6 million grant and a $4.5 million loan from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to expand its fiber network by installing Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) to an additional 3,600 premises in Lyon, Pipestone and Rock counties.

While there’s evidently been no formal announcement, the Minneota city administrator told the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota (FFM) that Woodstock Telephone informed her the company no longer intends to build a key facility in their community to house equipment for the network. FFM calls to Woodstock Telephone had not been returned at the time of this post.

I haven’t spoken to Woodstock, but I spoke to others who also indicated that Woodstock seemed as if it was running into some roadblocks.

MIRC Broadband Success: Dawson Boyd High School

On the MIRC tour last month, we stopped in to see the Dawson Boyd High School. They received funding through the UMRVDC as part of the MIRC project.

Here is a quick summary of their project:

Community Digital Literacy will connect businesses, community members and students to support the creation of a digitally literate community through a Multimedia Collaboration Center, a Student Tech Team, and a hybrid (online and classroom) Teacher/Community Training Academy.

It was great to hear the teachers, principal and tech coordinator talk about how the projects has been going. It was particularly interesting to hear that they recently upgraded their broadband connection from 100 Mbps to a Gig! The National Broadband Plan calls for 1 Gbps of affordable broadband to all community anchor institutions. It’s great to see we’re there in the Dawson Boyd school district – but makes me wonder if that goal is going to suffice too far into the future.

You can also hear from some of the teachers: Continue reading

Broadband Access Project at Sabathani

There’s a nice update to the University of Minnesota’s BTOP (ARRA-funded) project in the online Southside Pride newspaper.

You can read the article to learn more about a successful project they hosted this summer, but I thought the following snippet would be most interesting to readers as it gets to the root of the collaborative benefits of the BAP project; something we’ve seen with the MIRC (Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities) initiative as well…

When the University of Minnesota upgraded Sabathani’s third-floor computer lab with new computers last year to launch a Broadband Access Project (BAP) center in the South Minneapolis community, the relationship also gave staff the chance to close the curriculum hole.

According to Cheryl Vanacora, training and curriculum coordinator for the BAP, the University collaborated with HYP to provide instruction to the teens in publishing, online photo-editing and photography basics. They used programs including Adobe Illustrator, Pixelar and Microsoft Publisher.

Sabathani is one of 10 community organizations in Minneapolis and St. Paul participating in the University-sponsored BAP, which brings internet access and computer skills training to urban communities.

Northern Regional Broadband Networks Forum Notes & Presentations

Today I attended the Northern Regional Broadband Networks Forum in Duluth. The interest in broadband in the business community in Duluth is clearly high – as demonstrated by the standing room only situation in the room.

It was a nice look at all aspects of broadband of the community and a nice eye opener for folks who may not be using broadband, cloud computing or social media as often (or maybe as well) as the speakers. I think it will spur folks to go home and look at how they can implement broadband tools in work, home and community.

Below are the presentations. [Added 10/5/2011 – you can access materials from the event online too. http://www.northlandconnection.com/uploads/BroadbandNetworkForumPacket2.pdf]

(Danna used a great tool called Prezi – fun to see, great for the presentation but tougher to embed in the blog. Please click to view her presentation.)

And here are the questions, which I think are always valuable. (As fun to see what folks ask as to hear the answers.)

Continue reading

Free Software Training for Stevens County Businesses

I like to post periodic updates on what’s happening in various communities due to the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. It’s great to see that the project has spurred a partnership between Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission, Inc. (SCEIC) and Atomic Training (out of Little Falls, MN). According to the Morris Sun Tribune

The Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission, Inc. (SCEIC) is offering free one-year subscriptions to Atomic Training.com to businesses in Stevens County. Any business in Stevens County is eligible for a free one-year subscription to a creative and very beneficial on-line software training company (Atomic Training.com) that allows individualized and comprehensive software training for those who have no experience with 149 software programs for PC or Mac based computers or for those who just need a refresher on specific functions of a software program.

It’s the stone soup approach we wrote about last summer. If you can get a project on a successful path, others will join in.

Southwest MN is getting excited for fiber

Both the Jackson County Pilot (Aug 18, 2011) and the Cottonwood County Citizen (Aug 24, 2011) have highlighted the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services’ (SMBS) progress in bringing fiber to Southwest Minnesota. The Pilot paints a nice picture of what broadband means to the area…

Your grandpa planted crops with a two-row planter. You Use a 36-row planter.

The same is true of information technology, said Dan Olsen, general manager of Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services, the group charged with bringing lightning-fast fiber-optic communication capabilities to Jackson County.

The potential impact on the local economic development is easy to imagine. The Cottonwood Citizen details the more direct impact of the project on local economy…

Olsen said there are roughly 40 people working full-time on the regional fiber-to-the-home project.

That number includes outside construction people, engineering staff, the sales staff, project management, vendors and others.

Again back to the Jackson Pilot, they recognize that broadband alone won’t make the difference in bringing in jobs and economic opportunity – but adoption programs will help lead to success…

In addition, SMBS officials believe that in partnership with the Blandin Foundation sustainable adoption dollars and local economic development groups, this network will make the region much more saleable for business retention and attraction efforts.

This network will not only create jobs, but also build provide a foundation for opportunities for community anchor institutions and businesses to build and implement applications that will increase the quality of life as well as improve health, education and public safety services across the region.

Senators Klobuchar & Franken attend Carver County Groundbreaking

One of the best thing about being back in Minnesota is that I’m able to attend some of the fun groundbreaking events to celebrate new broadband deployment (much of it sponsored by ARRA funding). Yesterday I was able to attend the groundbreaking in Cologne, Minnesota. They were celebrating the beginning of their new fiber optic ring, which will be over 122 miles long and will connect 86 entities at 56 sites throughout Carver County, including city, county and township governments, schools, fire departments, public safety towers and law enforcement agencies.

Both Senators Franken and Klobuchar attended. I caught some video of the event…

Jackson – when it rains it pours broadband

Thanks to John Shepard for sending me a recent article from the Jackson Pilot. It drives me crazy – but Jackson Pilot does a really good job of posting teaser articles online persuading folks to go buy a paper for the whole scoop. (If I ran the paper, I might do it that way too.) The scoop in question today is community plans for fiber versus the city cable system. From a broadband blogger perspective this sounds like a nice problem to have – “too many” broadband options.

Here’s the main gist from the part of the article that is available online…

Last Tuesday, council members shelved a recommendation from the utilities commission to direct city cable TV department manager Curt Egeland to provide cost figures to the commission for upgrading Jackson’s cable TV system for the purpose of making it all digital and independent of the rural electric association’s signal. The commission had earlier tabled such action due to the city’s involvement in Southwest Minnesota Broadband Service’s fiber-to-the-premise project, which promises to compete with the city’s cable TV system and — eventually — replace it.

But at the commission’s July 25 meeting, member Kevin Speiker said that might not be such a good idea.

It seems as if Spieker is concerned about quality of service and thinks that the costs of upgrading the cable system have probably come down since they last investigated. City council member Ken Temple spoke out indicating that time would be better spent focused on fiber rather than cable. The topic has been shelved for now as a meeting has been scheduled between commission members and folks at Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group (SMBG).

I spoke with the folks at SMBS – they indicated that the folks they have contacted seem very enthusiastic about fiber – wondering what it might take to be first on the list for installation. ..

Members of the SMBS management group are meeting with the Jackson PUC in the near future to answer any questions they might have. SMBS will also be opening a sales/construction office in Jackson in the near future as construction in Jackson will be begin soon. SMBS has attended Jackson community events and has received positive feedback from the citizens of Jackson mostly asking when they can have the service and excited to finally have a choice for broadband service besides Qwest/CenturyLink and the limited wireless choices available today.

“While a new digital video headend might bring better video service to Jackson (which will be comparable to the services that SMBS is providing), the real issue is that there are not enough broadband options within Jackson”, stated Project Consultant John Schultz. SMBS will offer not only a better video service that is available today but also finally open the broadband market in Jackson.

Carver County Groundbreaking Aug 16

Tis the season for groundbreakings – and a happy indication of ARRA-funded fiber deployment projects deploying successfully. The Chaska Herald reports on Carver County’s upcoming groundbreaking…

Both of Minnesota’s U.S. senators plan to attend the Aug. 16 kick-off ceremony for Carver County’s new fiber network.

The optic ring, over 122 miles long, will connect 86 entities at 56 sites throughout Carver County, including city, county and township governments, schools, fire departments, public safety towers and law enforcement agencies.

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are among the planned speakers at the 2:30 p.m. Carver County Open Fiber Initiative event, held at the Carver County Public Works building, 11360 Highway 212 in Cologne.

Fiber optic construction equipment will be displayed, and workers will give demonstrations on how fiber optic cable is spliced together in the field.

Focus on Transportion, Energy, Broadband for NE Minnesota

Over the weekend, Senator Klobuchar headed up north to celebrate the ARRA-funded broadband project being led by Arrowhead Electric Cooperative. Fox 21 News reports…

It’s a region of Minnesota lacking something many take for granted; high speed internet. But now, a massive project is under way to finally help Cook County get connected.”I always argue that we should be focused on three things: transportation, energy and broadband,” declared Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Currently much of Cook County uses dial–up, satellite, or DSL internet connections- all which are unreliable. “There’s no way we’re gonna compete on the national or international stage if we don’t have internet,” said Sen. Klobuchar.

It will also help bring jobs to region. Jobs, that without internet, may have gone elsewhere. “We can agree that these jobs should be in Lutsen. They should be in Grand Marais. They should be in Schroeder. They shouldn’t be in Mumbai, India or Shanghai, China,” said Sen. Klobuchar.

The Arrowhead Electric Coop recently posted some project updates on their web site, including a video, a construction status map and answers to frequently asked questions…

Materials and Equipment for the construction of our fiber optic network have started arriving in Lutsen. Construction has begun along the Caribou Trail. Underground crews are working in the Tait, Clara, Christine and Cariobu Lake areas. Once completed the underground work will move towards Deer Yard Lake and the Jonvick Creek subdivisions. Crews building between the road and the home on private properties will begin work in 1-2 weeks. Once completed with the Caribou Trail, construction crews will begin working westerly to the Lake & Cook County line.

Construction begins on the Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project

It really is construction season in Minnesota – especially now that some of the ARRA-funded projects are coming to fruition. Monday we reported on construction in southern Minnesota, today it’s northern Minnesota. CivSource reports

Work begins today [July 26] on a new broadband network in Minnesota designed to connect anchor institutions like public offices, schools and libraries. The Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project is a $24 million broadband network that will provide greater access throughout the state. Enventis, a subsidiary of HickoryTech, will be managing the build out. The project will extend a middle-mile network to anchor institutions and provide public offices and agencies with a high capacity network.

Eventis started the working on the network in July in Superior, Wisconsin and will extend fiber over nearly 430 miles throughout northern Minnesota. Along with anchor institutions and public offices residents of the area will have the opportunity to subscribe to broadband access.

We wrote a little more about the Greater Minnesota Broadband Collaborative Project when they received funding

Enventis Telecom – This approximately $16.8 million award, with more than $7.2 million in matching contributions, will allow Enventis Telecom to offer affordable middle-mile broadband service in Minnesota. The project plans to directly connect 70 community institutions to broadband. As many as 350,400 people stand to benefit as do 28,000 businesses. Enventis estimates that the project will create more than 250 jobs.

I’ve been paying more attention to that jobs factor lately. I’ll be eager to see how many jobs are created.

SMBG Groundbreaking in Lakefield

I want to thank John Shepard for sending notes and photos from the grondbreaking in Lakefield, MN last Friday. The event is part of Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group’s (SMBG) ARRA-funded effort to deploy fiber to eight communities ((Jackson, Lakefield, Windom, Round Lake, Bingham Lake, Brewster, Wilder, Heron Lake and Okabena) that will then be able to connect up with Windomnet. SMBG recently revealed their pricing for the area.

It looks like the event had remote support from Senators Franken and Klobuchar. Franken sent a letter and Klobuchar phoned her comments saying, “It’s not about one town, it’s about the whole region.” The economic development potential of the new infrastructure was noted, “Once this is up and running the impact will be huge… We want jobs going to Okabena, not India.”

You can get more details in the Worthington Daily Globe.

Broadband Help Wanted in SW Minnesota

I was debating about whether this was blog-worthy and then decided that if the Blandin on Broadband could help make a connection between broadband and jobs that we had to do it. If fact, if others have similar job posts – please send them to me atreacy@treacyinfo.com. I suspect that many readers would be qualified for these jobs and/or know folks who are. Wouldn’t it be great if I was overwhelmed with job openings? (If I am I might select a day to post all of them.)

To get the ball rolling…

Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services is looking for a Lead Network Technician and Lead Customer Service Specialist. I have no more info than what is on their web site, you’ll have to contact SMBS for more info.