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Rural Electric Co-Mo Coop Goes Gig - Community Broadband Bits Episode 140

As high quality Internet has become more essential for business and quality of life, those who realized that the existing telecom providers had no intention to invest in better connections in their rural Missouri communities began to ask their electric cooperative - Co-Mo - to step up and do it.

This week, we talk with Randy Klindt, General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, which is building a gigabit fiber network out to its members despite having not been chosen to receive any stimulus funds.

We discuss how they have structured the network, why they felt compelled to get into the business, and some of the results from their approach.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

City Council Moves Forward on Muni Project in Ellsworth, Maine

The Ellsworth City Council voted on February 9th to proceed with the first steps to developing yet another municipal fiber network in Maine. Community leaders plan to develop open access fiber infrastructure. Five ISPs have already expressed an interest in working with the city to provide services via the network.

Ellsworth is home to approximately 7,500 people and is located along the south not far from the central coast.

The Ellsworth American reports that council members decided unanimously to lease a parcel of land on which to place a headend facility. The Ellsworth Business Development Corporation (EBDC), which also obtained a $250,000 grant to expand high-speed Internet in Ellsworth, will lease the property. The grant came from the Northern Border Regional Commission in 2014.

The Council also agreed to commit $28,445 in tax increment financing (TIF) funds toward the project. Those funds will be used for the headend building and to install a two mile stretch of fiber to tap into the community's abundant fiber resources. Community leaders want to create options for local businesses and the numerous home based businesses in Ellsworth.

“You have the superhighway already,” said Andy Hamilton, an attorney with Eaton Peabody who serves as legal counsel to EBDC. “But you need the off-ramp and the local roads to take you to the office buildings.”

Indeed, a report from Portland-based Tilson Technology Management said Ellsworth is located at “an information superhighway crossroads” and that it has a lot of fiber optic infrastructure — “more than most Maine communities.”

The network project is being developed in conjunction with a business incubator project in Ellsworth. Biotech and health science related businesses are abundant in the region and city leaders want to make the city attractive to the industry.

Council members are also considering the long term:

Lili Pew, a real estate agent who heads the EBDC broadband committee, pointed out many people have home-based jobs or businesses. She said the number one question she hears from her clients looking at Ellsworth is, “Do I have access to high-speed broadband?”

Running fiber lines to every residence in Ellsworth would be cost-prohibitive — in the range of $8 million to $12 million, according to Tilson — but there are other ways to reach parts of the city that Pew said are “in the black hole of technology right now.”

“This is more important to have in the city than natural gas, right now,” he said, referring to higher-speed Internet. “This is a utility that is really going to help us get ahead.”

Want FTTH? Move to North Dakota, Reports USDA

A recent USDA report reveals that fossil fuels are not the only thing booming in North Dakota. The state ranked 47 for population is ranked number 1 as having the highest percentage of people with access to FTTH

According to a Telecompetitor article, their status can be attributed to an abundance of rural cooperatives and small telecom companies. These local providers have made it their business to fill the gaps left behind by large corporate ISPs that cannot justify investing in rural deployment. Given that most of North Dakota is rural, approximately 96% of the state is served by these smaller providers. The State Broadband map shows a total of 41 providers, including 17 cooperatives and 24 privately owned providers of varying size.

Another advantage to rural status? These cooperatives and small providers have qualified for USDA programs aimed at improving connectivity in sparsely populated regions. The report notes that the USDA has invested $338 million in grants and loans in North Dakota through its various telecommunications programs. 

The report also profiles the importance of the Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), a collaboration among many of the rural providers that criss-crosses the state with 1,460 miles of fiber backbone. The full report is available for download [PDF].

In 2012, we shared the story of the extensive network deployed by Dickey Rural Network (DRN) and Dakota Central Telecommuncations (DCT) cooperatives. DCT has produced a video about the benefits of the collaboration:

Video: 
See video

Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Awards Announced

The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development recently announced the recipients of the Border to Border Broadband grants, funding established by the state legislature in 2014 to facilitate rural broadband projects. Seventeen public and private entities will share a total of $19.4 million in Greater Minnesota.

According the the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) press release, the projects will help bring better connectivity to 6,095 households, 83 community institutions, and 150 businesses in areas of the state considered unserved or underserved. This funding pays for up to 50 percent of the cost of each project. 

The need in rural areas of the state is intense; 40 projects submitted applications for a total of $44.2 million in requests. Among the recipients are some familiar projects.

RS Fiber Cooperative is awarded $1 million for its FTTH project in Renville County and and parts of Sibley County. We wrote a case study on the RS Fiber project in our report All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. According to the press release:

Total project costs are $3.32 million; the remaining $2.32 million (70 percent local match) will be provided by a line of credit that R-S Fiber Telcom has committed and partner equity. This project is part of a larger cooperative project estimated at $38.46 million that will upgrade broadband services to several thousand locations in the region. Hiawatha Broadband Communications will provide operational capacity. 

Federated Telephone, sister cooperative to Farmers Mutual Cooperative will also receive an award for a project in Big Stone County:

Federated Telephone Cooperative, Big Stone County. Awarded $3.92 million to construct broadband infrastructure that will make service available to 1,072 unserved premises. The full project cost is $7.92 million; the remaining $4 million (51 percent) in matching funds will be raised through tax abatement bonds, with the county loaning the bond proceeds to Federated. This project will cover the north half of Big Stone County, as well as the western tract that runs from south to north surrounding the city of Ortonville. The area will include the communities of Barry, Beardsley and Johnson along with the rural parts of western and northern Big Stone County.

Farmers Mutual Cooperative worked in partnership with Lac Qui Parle County to bring FTTH to the rural western community and turn it into one of the best connected regions of the state. The Farmers Mutual/Lac Qui Parle partnership is also detailed in the All Hands On Deck report.

Other cooperatives around the state that will use Border to Border awards to improve rural connectivity include Consolidated Telephone Cooperative, Alliance Communications Cooperative, and Interstate Telecommunications Cooperative.

There were a number of smaller, local telephone companies that are deploying or expanding in rural areas including Sjoberg Cable in Roseau, Otter Tail Telecom in Fergus Falls, and Dunnell Telephone Company in Dunnell. DEED also posted a map [PDF] that shows the locations of the funded projects.

CenturyLink, Frontier, and Mediacom, who have poo-pooed public investment in publicly-owned infrastructure, labeling it as "unfair," also applied to receive public funds. They will receive approximately $2.5 million collectively. The private sector cleaned up, as is usual when it comes to collecting taxpayer dollars.

Last fall, we interviewed Minnesota's Senator Matt Schmit and Representative Erik Simonson, authors of the bill establishing the fund, and Danna Mackenzie, Director of the State Office of Broadband Development. Listen to their conversation with Chris in episode #119 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

These seventeen projects demonstrate a need that is just the tip of the iceberg. While $20 million is only a fraction of what it will take to bring fast, reliable, affordable connectivity to all Minnesotans, these projects will help lay the groundwork for future planning. We encourage the Minnesota Legislature to get serious about expanding Internet access across the state and in particular, focus on investing in coops and munis that will keep the money in the community.

Rural Colorado Internet Access and Mountain Connect - Community Broadband Bits Episode 137

Last year was the first year I attended Mountain Connect, an event in the Rockies west of Denver that discusses approaches to improving Internet access. Historically, they focused on rural communities but as co-chair of the event Jeff Gavlinski notes in our discussion this week, they are expanding it to include more urban issues as well.

Mountain Connect is growing in many ways and I am excited to return to it in early June.
As Jeff and I discuss, it is focused on all solutions to expanding access - whether private sector, coop, muni, partnership, etc.

Colorado has a lot of activity from munis and especially munis that are looking to partner, but also has a state law that requires a time-and-energy consuming referendum before the community can really do any planning or take action to improve its situation.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Local Communities Still Committed to RS Fiber Cooperative

Green Isle and nine other communities have reaffirmed their commitment to the RS Fiber Cooperative, reports the Belle Plain Herald. The project began in 2010 as a collaboration between a number of local county and municipal government entities in south central Minnesota. Local residents rallied behind the project, which was designed to connect both towns and surrounding farms. 

Unfortunately, the project faced difficulties due to incumbent intimidation and the high cost of deployment in such a large geographic area. Sibley County officials chose to back out of the project, requiring a business plan reboot. Locals, recognizing the critical need for better connectivity chose to instead form the RS Fiber Cooperative.

The Herald reports that in its first 2015 City Council meeting, Green Isle voted 3 - 1 in favor of a resolution stating continued support to the project. Similar resolutions have passed in Winthrop, Gibbon, Fairfax, Lafayette, Gaylord, Stewart, New Auburn and Brownton. 

Henderson and Arlington, located in Sibley County, have opted to not participate in the coop. 

Coop Directors endorsed an updated business plan in November, reported Prairie Business Magazine. The project will bring better connectivity options to approximately 6,200 customers in Sibley County, parts of Renville County, and portions of Nicollet and McLeod Counties. The revised business plan, scaled back from the original plan to bring fiber to every property in Sibley and Renville Counties, reduces project costs by more than 30 percent.

Participating communities will collectively issue $13.7 million in general obligation bonds. Local investors, bank loans, and other financing will provide the remaining $42 million. The project is scheduled for completion in 2018.

Phil Keithahn, RS Fiber Coop financial planner, told KEYC Mankato that the network will have triple-play capabilities, bringing Internet, phone, and video to remote rural areas. Community leaders are motivated by the need to improve connectivity for agriculture, tele-medicine, and education.:

"It levels the playing field for people who live and work in rural America with people who are in the twin cities. So it's an economic development tool for south central Minnesota."

Readers who have followed this project will recall that south central Renville and Sibley counties, largely farming communities, have faced many challenges since the project inception. The rural nature of the region increased the cost of deployment but the community wanted to include every one. Incumbent Frontier negatively impacted the project by injecting fear into several local leaders, which complicated the ability to fund the project. Nevertheless, the intense interest and community involvement has kept this project moving forward.

For a detailed look at the RS Fiber Cooperative story, read our case study in All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. 

You can also listen to our May 2014 podcast interview with Mark Erickson, Winthrop Town Manager, and Cindy Gerholz, RS Fiber Coop Vice-Chair. We also spoke with Linda Kramer from the group's Marketing Committee back in 2012.

Voters Resoundingly Approve Broadband Measure in Estes Park, Colorado

On February 3rd, voters in Estes Park voted 92 percent to reclaim local authority to establish a telecommunications utility. The result follows a greater trend in Colorado where eight communities made similar decisions last fall. Each of these elections has happened during Comcast's merger review, which may have discouraged them from their usual tactics to oppose competition.

The Estes Park Trail Gazette reports that a series of meetings will be scheduled to inform residents and businesses and to obtain feedback for planning. The community is working with a consultant to determine the next step.

As we reported last November, the community has struggled with communications infrastructure since 2013 flooding wiped out private networks that served residents and businesses. Estes Park wants to make better use of its share of the fiber optic network deployed by the town and the Platte River Power Authority in 2004. Before the town can take any action, state law dictates an election.

"The Town of Estes Park is happy with the results of this election," said Estes Park Town Administrator Frank Lancaster. "Broadband service is critical for any community moving into the future, and technological challenges are greater for a smaller community like Estes Park.

"This will allow us to look at a number of alternatives that can improve the service to residents, guests and businesses as well as allow the town to partner with our local internet providers to help them become more successful and to provide a higher level of service to their customers."

Greater Minnesota Partnership Focuses on Non-Metro Need - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 136

Like many states, Minnesota has a major metro area that generally has higher quality Internet access than non-metro communities. The Greater Minnesota Partnership, a coalition of businesses, chambers, nonprofits, and cities from across the state, have made improving Internet access a major priority in their efforts to influence the state legislature.

This week, we talk with Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former Minnesota state Rep and remains a small business owner. We discuss the need to improve access even as major cable lobbyists fight in the capital to preserve the status quo. The Partnership believes state barriers to community networks should be removed.

Dorman offers a unique perspective as a former member of the Minnesota Legislature. He knows what it is like to be lobbied constantly by one side of the issue but rarely hear from the other. Fortunately, the Greater Minnesota Partnership is working to provide that other side as best it can.

We previously discussed the Border-to-Border fund in episode 119.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Massachusetts Towns Consider WiredWest Opportunity

Eleven Select boards in Franklin County are ready to take the next step with WiredWest Cooperative. According to the Recorder, the towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell have all approved nonbinding resolutions taking them into the financial planning phase.

Last fall, the organization and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) agreed to meet on a regular schedule. The two organizations began meeting with town Select Boards in order to update them on financial obligations to help them decide whether or not to participate.

WiredWest Cooperative has worked with The Western Massachusetts Legislative Delegation On The Last Mile Broadband Solution to create a strategy to improve connectivity statewide. In addition to WiredWest, the group included MBI, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), and the Mass TechCollaborative. Several state lawmakers, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, participated in the delegation.

The state will supply approximately $40 million in grant funding to MBI, that will disburse the funds, to defray the costs of deployment in hill towns. The Recorder reported:

[Monica] Webb, [speaking for WiredWest Cooperative] said the first thing town officials want to know is how much of that $40 million grant will be available to reduce their town’s share of the cost.

“The first step was to determine which towns want to participate,” said Webb. “Now that we know, there’s detailed engineering to be done. ... The numbers the towns will get will be our best estimate. We’re still refining our best estimates, but I expect that will be done over the next month.

“Towns have told us they need that information as soon as possible,” she added. “We’re working to make that happen.

“The other thing we’re going to focus on, over the next months, is a pre-subscription campaign. We won’t build out (the fiber optic network) in a town until the town has at least 40 percent (of its subscription base), who have signed up and given a deposit.”

Webb said pre-subscribers will be asked to pay a $50 deposit, which will go into an escrow account; once the town is wired, that deposit will be used to reduce their first Internet service bill.

The cooperative has more than 40 member communities. Their pre-subscription campaign will begin in late January. In February and March, WiredWest and MBI will hold informational meetings with local officials and work on business and operational plans.

As WiredWest makes its way across Massachusetts, local communities are deciding whether or not to invest to take advantage of the new connection to the big pipe that is MassBroadband 123. Leyden, population approximately 700, will vote at its annual spring town meeting whether or not to work with WiredWest to deploy fiber in Leyden.

A December article in the Recorder reported that the Selectboard voted to support the measure which would require a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting. A debt exclusion vote will be held if that measure passes and requires a majority vote. The debt exclusion will allow Leyden to borrow in order to fund the municipal build out.

The current estimate for a network in Leyden is between $900,000 and $1.77 million. The most recent decision by the Selectboard will allow MBI to develop a more accurate plan and detailed estimate according to the Recorder.

Part of Leyden has DSL service but a 2012 WiredWest survey indicated that 56% of Leyden residents were interested in better connectivity. Popular opinion in Leyden among locals is that lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity scares away potential home buyers and new businesses. Al Woodhull, Leyden's alternate WiredWest delegate told the Recorder:

A new DSL connection was one of the reasons Woodhull bought his home five years ago.

“The house had been on the market for several years, and the previous owner had been very pleased to get DSL, because she hadn’t been able to sell the house without any kind of high-speed Internet,” he said.

Elected officials in these smaller communities have tossed around the investment for months. Few of these small communities are accustomed to such large investments and political leaders understand the risk aversion. From a November Recorder article:

“I don’t think this is a hard sell for a finance committee, but I think it’s a terribly hard sell for a town meeting,” said Charlemont Finance Committee member Toby Gould. “Unless marketing comes up with proposals that are easily understood, they won’t buy it. ... They have to be convinced this project is worth investing in.”

Local channel WWLP spoke to Leyden residents in December [video below]:

James Finney has lived in Leyden over a decade and would welcome high speed internet access. He said, “If all the other places in the county are getting the high speed and we’re back in the older technology, it certainly is going to diminish the chances that we’re going to be able to attract the businesses and the educational opportunities that are out there.”

Los Angeles Times Supports Local Authority

President Obama's recent appearance in Cedar Falls infused adrenaline into the debate about local authority for telecommunications decisions. As a result, some of the media outlets from large cities are now coming out in support of local authority. The Editorial Board of the LA Times published an opinion on January 21st supporting the notion of restoring local authority in states where laws prevent community decision making.

The Times recognizes that rural areas will benefit most from reversing these restrictions, that the restrictions need to be removed for us to compete globally, and that there are numerous municipal networks that are up to the challenge of improving connectivity. The LA Times also recognizes the value of public-private partnerships in New York and in other places where local government has forged productive relationships with the private sector.

Editors at the LA Times boil it down to one tenet:

Regardless, the decision about whether a local agency should get into the broadband business should be left to the people who bear the risk — local officials and the people who elect them.