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USDA Broadband Funding for Rural Projects; Coops On Top

This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].

Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:

"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ...  Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."

The USDA has awarded more than  $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:


Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.


Garden Valley Telephone, one of the largest coops in Minnesota, will continue to expand its FTTH service area with a $12.63 million loan. On average, the coop serves two households per square mile.

Consolidated Telephone, another coop, will perform upgrades and add a new fiber ring to allow for greater bandwidth with a $12.27 million loan.

Northeast Service Cooperative will receive two $3 million grants and, through a partnership with the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, provide broadband service on the the Fond du Lac Reservation.


Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association will upgrade their system with fiber through a $29.95 million loan.


@Link Services will receive $1.5 million in grants to provide broadband services in Seminole County.

South Carolina

FTC Communications will improves its wireless to 4G/LTE with a $12.38 million loan.


Scott County Telephone Cooperative, with a $2.1 million grant, will provide one gigabit to 540 locations in Dickenson County to increase economic development.


LaValle Telephone Cooperative will use a $7.61 million loan to deploy fiber.

It is no longer surprising to find faster, more affordable, more reliable Internet networks in rural areas served by coopertives. Minnesota's Farmers Mutual Telephone CooperativeCo-Mo Cooperative central Missouri, or Farmer's Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama are only a few we have covered. As large corporate providers fail to provide modern services, rural cooperatives have stepped up to offer services to their members and improve economic development prospects in the communities they serve.

Paul Bunyan Communications Wins Award for GigaZone

Sometimes we just want to celebrate a small victory for local communities. Back in June, Paul Bunyan Communications won the 2015 Leading Lights National Award for Most Innovative Gigabit Broadband Service.

This small cooperative from rural northern Minnesota beat both innovative local firms like C Spire and national companies like Google. Whereas Comcast is rolling out Gigabit Pro in Silicon Valley, Paul Bunyan Communications is serving sparsely populated, often-ignored, rural areas. Gary Johnson, the Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager was honored to accept the award and explained their approach to gigabit access:

“It is one of the first gigabit network initiatives that will encompassas a large rural area and I think that is significant. Many of the gigabit network projects taking place are in small portions of densely populated metropolitan areas. Too often, the more challenging rural America gets overlooked.”

Paul Bunyan Communications has created a GigaZone passing 7,800 locations, and will soon include 20,000 locations by the end of this year. Those in the GigaZone will have the opportunity to buy a Gigabit connection for only $100 a month. The goal for the small telecom cooperative is to expand the GigaZone to encompass the entire 5,000 square mile service area. Now, that deserves an award.

Orono and Old Town Receive Funding for Fiber in Maine

The Old Town-Orono Fiber Corporation (OTO Fiber), the entity created by the cities of Old Town and Orono in Maine to design, install, maintain and manage a planned fiber network, recently received a grant for $250,000.

The funds, awarded by the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), will help the communities commence their open access network project. According to a statement released by Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, this was one of six awards to Maine communities. The other grants included road, sewer, and other municipally-owned facilities needed to maintain or grow jobs in the northern counties of Maine.

Congress created NBRC in 2008 as a state-federal partnership to encourage job growth in several northern counties of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York that experience economic distress. 

In 2014, Old Town and Orono, working with the University of Maine, had been awarded ConnectME funds for the project but the funding was blocked by Time Warner Cable. Those funds were meant to string approximately 4 miles of cable intended for integration into a much larger network to eventually connect to the state's Three Ring Binder network. The ConnectME Authority chose to withhold the funds, based on TWC's argument that this open access network would overbuild potentially 320 subscribers but OTO Fiber vowed to continue and seek funds elsewhere. The funding blocked by TWC amounted to $125,000.

Approximately 7,800 people live in Old Town; Orono is home to a little over 10,000 people and the Unversity of Maine where over 11,000 students attend classes.

Spanish Fork Upgrading to Fiber in Utah

Spanish Fork Community Network (SFCN) recently announced it is upgrading its cable network to a fiber optic network. The network has already started improving services by increasing speeds for the highest tiers at no extra cost reports the Herald Extra.

Residents and businesses in the town of approximately 37,000 have relied on the municipal cable network since 2001. Over the past 14 years, the network has come to provide triple-play to 80 percent of Spanish Fork homes.

Officials kicked off construction on September 3rd:

“We’re excited this is the next step for the SFCN network," [SFCN Director John] Bowcut said. "We’ve always planned on doing fiber to the home, and now we’re in the fiscal position where we can go ahead and install that for our customers."

Customers who choose to remain with the lowest tier - 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps - will remain on the coax infrastructure, says Bowcut, but will be switched to fiber if they choose to upgrade to a higher tier.

The city made its last bond payment for the existing system this year and will use newly available funds from retiring the debt to fund the upgrade. Assistant City Manager Seth Perrins describes the early deployment as "soft" so officials can obtain a better understanding of cost demands, construction management, and how long the project will take. They estimate the project will be complete by 2020.

According to Bowcut, Premium service that is now 120 Mbps / 15 Mbps will transition into symmetrical gigabit service for around $68 per month. PLUS service, currently 60 Mbps / 10 Mbps, will be upgraded to 100 Mbps symmetrical for approximately $45 per month. The Starter tier at 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps will remain $35 per month. All three tiers offer discounts when purchased with TV service.

Read more about Spanish Fork, one of the early municipal networks, and listen to Chris interview John Bowcut during Episode #60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We have an updated interview with John ready for an upcoming podcast.

Fiber Sailing into the Port of Lewiston, Idaho

The Port of Lewiston, the most inland seaport of the West Coast, will soon be deploying a dark fiber network, according to a July city media release. The network will serve several of the community's largest businesses, the medical center, the state college, and the airport. Although the plan calls for $950,000 to construct the network, port officials intend to have it operational by year’s end.

“This is what ports do, we develop infrastructure to support, attract and grow businesses in order to build a stronger economy,” said Port Manager David Doeringsfeld. “In today’s world, businesses must have adequate bandwidth and redundancy to remain competitive.”

The project has been highly supported by the nearby Port of Whitman County which already has maintained their own open access fiber network for over 10 years. Connecting a fiber line through the Port of Lewiston would create a loop, improving redundancy on the Port of Whitman County’s network. Better redundancy could prevent outages and ensure the ongoing reliability of the network.

The Port of Whitman’s network is fairly successful - just one section of the network near Pullman, Idaho makes $250,000 annually. The Port of Lewiston plans to follow the same open access model in designing and constructing its network which will run throughout the 32,000-person City of Lewiston.

The two ports are already collaborating on a different fiber line through North Lewiston. The Port of Lewiston is paying $30,00 for construction costs, and the Port of Whitman County will build and administer the network. This fiber line will later connect to the planned Port of Lewiston's open access network.

Estes Park Moves to the Next Phase; Considering Muni Fiber Network

Back in February, voters in Estes Park, Colorado, enthusiastically reclaimed authority to decide locally on a community fiber network. Now the community is moving ahead by taking a detailed look at deploying a municipal gigabit network.

BizWest reports that a consultant hired to study connectivity in the town of 5,800 recently recommended five possible solutions to the community's poor connectivity problem. The Town Board of Trustees considered a municipal telecommunications utility to be the most promising and passed the issue to city staff for further research.

“Now it’s up to us to thoroughly research the feasibility of the town establishing a broadband service utility, considering our financial and operational abilities and the best interests of the community’s future,” said Mayor Bill Pinkham in a media release.

The Estes Park Light and Power Division give this Rocky Mountain town an advantage because it already has electricity distribution infrastructure, utilty poles, and personnel in place. As part of a regional public power initiative, Estes Park also has fiber connecting it to nearby towns, giving it affordable backhaul to the wider Internet.

The consultant recommended forgoing any television or telephone services to focus on delivering high quality Internet access. The cost of deployment will be approximately $27 - $30 million. With a take rate of 30-40 percent, the community should be able to pay off the investment in 10 - 12 years. 

The consultant estimated monthly rates could run approximately $50 - $60 for 100 Mbps download and 1 gig per second for $70 - $95 (specific upload speeds were not mentioned). Businesses will likely pay approximately $150 - $180 per month for 100 Mbps and $300 - $400 per month for gigabit speeds.

In 2014, the community received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. They had suffered significant damage due to flooding and the purpose of the grant was to seek out ways to diversify the local economy. Estes Park, very dependent on its tourist trade, has poor last-mile connectivity like many other similarly situated vacation destinations. Better connectivity is becoming a must-have for resorts and lodges, even in remote mountain areas.

Community leaders feel a fiber network might improve an already established tourist trade while ensuring future economic development opportunity for the entire region:

“It’s a game changer for us because we can attract year-round businesses that are location-neutral or IT software-development focused,” [President and CEO of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp., Jon] Nicholas said. “But it’s also a game changer for southwest Larimer County because home-based businesses would have access to 1-gig Internet as well as our hotels and downtown businesses.”

Staff anticipates offering a more detailed analysis of the recommendation some time in September.

Mendocino County Worried About Their Copper During IP Transition

This is not our first look at problems with communications service in rural Mendocino County, California, but we continue to see concerning stories coming from it. The tenuous situation along the North Coast, where large private providers have refused to invest in redundant networks, is heightening concern among first responders, community leaders, and citizens.

The problem stems from the tendency of incumbents to neglect existing copper systems that need to be replaced with fiber based VoIP. Randy MacDonald, assistant fire chief of the Camptche Volunteer For Department of rural Mendocino County recently presented the department's concerns to congressional and regulatory staff in D.C. The Press Democrat quoted him in a recent article that examines the issue in their region:

“We’ve built a second-to-none 911 system,” MacDonald said. But “we’re almost by default allowing it to become degraded as technology changes.”

For decades, people have been paying bills with an expectation that they were helping to maintain the network. Uncle Sam has spent billions subsidizing carriers to ensure the network worked. But now it seems that some carriers are preparing to harvest as much as they can without delivering reliable communications to those paying the bills:

Verizon’s biggest union, the Communication Workers of America, has accused the company of refusing to fix broken copper lines and pushing customers to move to fiber or wireless systems. Verizon has flatly denied the charges.

Some, like MacDonald, believe other telecommunications corporations are attempting to abandon their copper systems through neglect.

“There is a lot of concern the telecom giants are basically allowing the copper infrastructure to just deteriorate,” Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen said.

The FCC knows that there is growing concern over the attitude of the incumbents. In order to address some of these problems in Mendocino and similar rural areas as we trade in copper for glass, in August the FCC adopted a number of rules for carriers:

“Carriers may not let their legacy networks silently ‘die on the vine,’ ” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement after the Aug. 6 vote.

As urban and suburban areas benefit from the transition, rural areas like Mendocino must still contend with older infrastructure for Internet as well as telephone service.

He said telecommunications giants have shown little interest in laying down fiber in the North Coast’s more remote reaches and those typically are places where wireless service is sketchy, at best.

“Copper has to be maintained until there’s a replacement” that is reliable, Persky said. In rural areas, “it could be decades,” he said.

RS Fiber Cooperative Breaks Ground

Six years after an initial feasibility study was conducted to assess bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in southeastern Minnesota, members of the RS Fiber Cooperative board were finally able to dust off their shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9. Although those shovels may have ended up being more symbolic than they were practical, the ceremony marked an important and long-awaited step in the fight to extend broadband to 10 cities and 17 rural townships across the largely agricultural region.

The groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of stage one of a two-stage project that will take five to six years to complete. By the end of 2015, the RS (Renville-Sibley) Fiber Cooperative plans to connect 1,600 homes and businesses with fiber, with 90 percent of its service area covered by high-speed wireless. It hopes to connect another 2,600 homes and businesses by the end of 2016, with the eventual goal of reaching 6,200 potential customers. At the event, Toby Brummer, RS Fiber General Manager, highlighted the importance of broadband Internet to rural development:

This technology is to this generation what rural electric and rural telephone was to generations years ago.

The RS Fiber Cooperative is member-owned and member-driven, led by a Joint Powers Board that formed in 2009. In order to provide FTTH to the rural locations across the two counties, the cooperative partnered with a network operator, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that already serves 17 communities in southeast Minnesota. RS Fiber will offer residential Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit for $129.95. It will also connect schools, bolster home and farm security systems, and even facilitate high school sports broadcasts and telemedicine initiatives.

The local governments each sold a General Obligation Tax Abatement Bond that in aggregate totalled $15 million that was loaned to the cooperative, which helped offset the cost of the initial phase of construction. It was a seed that allowed the coop to gather the rest of the necessary funding. The project’s overall funding includes both bonds and commercial loans from community banks.

Community Broadband Networks has followed the RS Fiber project closely as it jumped through several hurdles to create a financially sustainable plan to provide both urban and rural residents FTTH and fiber-to-the-farm services, respectively. ILSR highlighted the cooperative in its 2014 report - All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Chris also interviewed Co-op Vice Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson last May in a Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Board members, according to a recent Gov Tech article, are hopeful that an osteopathic medical school that is coming to Gaylord will use the cooperative’s service.

Bringing broadband to rural communities like the ones in Renville and Sibley counties is critical to the future of the region. Without proper Internet access companies will not think of relocating to the area and when young generations leave, they will leave for good. As Vice Chair Gerholz told Chris:

One of the things that I'm looking at, too, for this whole project is that hopefully it will expand companies, and make invitations to companies, to come to this area. Which will then give more jobs for our kids, and keep our kids at home. Because we lose our kids. They go to college, and they're gone.

Enhanced broadband capacities will give those kids reason to stay, and make the region - which has experienced a steady population decline since the 1970s - economically competitive once again.

Rio Blanco County Has Big Plans for Open Access Network

In Rio Blanco County, you’re almost more likely to find a dinosaur fossil than a human being. This rural county in northwestern Colorado has about two people for every square mile, but its sparse population is not stopping it from advancing an ambitious open-access broadband initiative

More than a year into the rollout of the network plan, Rio Blanco County (RBC) has already succeeded in soliciting $2 million in matched funds from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), contracted a network operator, and secured easements (land-use rights) from the county’s two largest municipalities to begin construction on the FTTx network. The bulk of the funding will come for the County budgeting for the infrastructure.

The network will initially touch every block and ultimately be expanded to deliver a fiber connection to each premise in the two towns. 

Rio Blanco’s network will be a four-tier open access arrangement. The county will own the infrastructure - from the data center to the optical network terminal (ONT) within the home and everything in between. A private company, Colorado.Fiber.Community, will operate the network. And a combination of independent middle-mile Internet service providers and last-mile value-added resalers will offer services directly to residents. 

For Rio Blanco County IT Director, Blake Mobley, this arrangement is what makes Rio Blanco County’s initiative both unique and feasible. Mobley gave a presentation at the MountainConnect conference in Vail, Colorado, where he spoke about the challenges and the early successes of Rio Blanco County community broadband network. Because the network is open-access, he said, the county can focus on what it does best - laying the groundwork and setting larger policy objectives, not taking the mantle of Internet service provider: 

We look at this just like a county building county roads. You build those roads out. You as a county aren’t anticipating a large return on that investment from those roads up front. It’s the utilization of those roads that builds an economy that’s going to be to your benefit.

Mobley, who along with presenting at MountainConnect also spoke with Chris on the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week, emphasized that it was the business community that came to the county in search of better broadband options. In his words:

The drive to do this project originated with the community itself. They came to the commissioners about a year and a half say... "You’ve got to solve this problem. We have businesses that have come in and looked in communities, large and far-from-large ones, that said we don’t have the bandwidth we need and we’re not going to locate here. We have residents that are having challenges."

Community members demanding better broadband from municipalities is hardly a new phenomenon. Local demand for community broadband networks has forced the hand of municipal and county governments in multiple Colorado locations. In the state of Colorado, underserved communities that wish to build a network must vote to override a barrier (Senate Bill 05-152) that prevents municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Last November, a resounding 82 percent of Rio Blanco County citizens voted to override this barrier. Rio Blanco County joined five municipalities (Boulder, Yuma, Wray, Cherry Hills Village, and Red Cliff) and one other county (Yuma) in overriding SB05-152 and thereby exercising their right to build a community network.  

Along with providing FTTx capacities, Rio Blanco County’s open access network plan includes a goal of expanding of cellular towers and emergency services. The county intends to construct 11 towers initially, which will serve up to 80 percent of the community, and provide FTTB connections of 25 Mbps upstream and 5 Mbps downstream, slightly better than the FCC definition of basic broadband.

RBC believes that by the end of 2015, it will have begun construction on its FTTB network in the county’s primary urban areas, the towns of Meeker and Rangely, as well as its more rural areas. For Mobley, a 5th generation Rio Blanco County resident, it is important that the project is done in a way that is transparent for both community members and private partners. He joked: 

I’m building the solution for my friends and family so I have a vested interest to do a very good job because if I get fired and have to leave that will be very uncomfortable.

Fiber-optic Community Broadband Service in the Washington State Wilderness

The Spokane Business Journal recently wrote about the community broadband system in Pend Oreille County, a long a favored destination for all seasons outdoor recreation.  Beginning in 2013, the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District (PUD) began providing residents and tourists with high-speed fiber to the premises broadband via a 573-miles fiber network.  The network was made possible by a $27 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant.

Private companies commonly say that such rural areas are not densely populated enough to justify investing in high-speed broadband infrastructure, leaving many rural communities on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide.  High-speed community broadband systems like the one in Pend Oreille County cancel out this potential problem as they allow tourists, residents, and businesses alike to be closely connected with nature while staying connected for business demands. Indeed, as the website for Pend Oreille County’s Economic Development Council makes clear, the community broadband service is at the core of the county’s ambitious plans to attract people and businesses to the area.

In our recent report, ”All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access,” we wrote about rural communities in Minnesota like Cook County where the tourist industry is a large part of the local economy. As in Pend Oreille, insufficient Internet negatively impacted resorts, lodges, and outfitters that depended on customers who needed more than dial-up Internet access. To solve their problem, they invested in a municipal fiber network.

Local community and business leaders report that they have also started to see people and businesses relocating to the county, encouraged by the area’s combination of fiber-optic broadband and outdoor recreation offerings.  

Alex Stanton, an IT executive whose company is stationed near the banks of the Pend Oreille River in the small town of Newport, confirms the positive impact of the network:

“Today, because of access to high-speed Internet structure in Newport and Pend Oreille County we run a full half of the team out of Newport, and we’re in the process of moving the entire remote support and network operation to Newport,” he says. “We’ve been able to build a local team of people who live and want to work here. Fiber has made that possible.”

Another anecdote comes from a man explaining the pivotal role the fiber-optic broadband service in Pend Oreille County played in convincing him to relocate to the area: 

"My wife and I both work primarily from home, and we have spent the last year and a half trying to find the spot that would allow us to experience nature while still being able to pay for it!  We have searched all over the USA and have discovered that this type of internet access is almost always reserved for large cities.... My wife and I look forward to calling Newport home…"