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RS Fiber Ignites - Community Connections Video Podcast Part 2 of 2

On Wednesday, November 18, 2015 Christopher Mitchell sat down with Bill Wallace of US Ignite and Mark Erickson of the city of Winthrop, Minnesota. In part 2 of our ongoing series, Chris, Bill and Mark talk more about the "nuts and bolts" of building a network. Come back each Wednesday for new video content!

This interview is paired with ILSR's report, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative. The report documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.


RS Fiber Ignites - Community Connections Video Podcast

On Wednesday, November 18, 2015 Christopher Mitchell sat down with Bill Wallace of US Ignite and Mark Erickson of the city of Winthrop, Minnesota, to talk about the exciting applications communities can develop if they have the connectivity they need.

This interview is paired with ILSR's report, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative. The report documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this video podcast on RS Fiber, to be released Thursday as part of our ongoing series featuring community and policy leaders in the field.

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative

Publication Date: 
April 18, 2016
Author(s): 
Scott Carlson
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

A new trend is emerging in rural communities throughout the United States: Fiber-to-the-Farm. Tired of waiting for high-quality Internet access from big companies, farmers are building it themselves. 

Communities in and around Minnesota’s rural Sibley County are going from worst to best after building a wireless and fiber-optic cooperative. While federal programs throw billions of dollars to deliver last year’s Internet speeds, local programs are building the network of the future. 

In “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Next Century Cities documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.  

Local Media Covers The MN "Donut Hole" Phenomenon: Video, Editorial

As Minnesota's Legislature decides on funding for the state's Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, local media is calling on state leaders to prioritize local connectivity in the Capitol Chambers. This year, Governor Dayton's office is recommending allocating $100 million to the program.

Blended Is Better

In the past, the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program has granted funding to areas of only the greatest need, which has resulted in Internet infrastructure deployment in very rural areas. That's great for municipalities, businesses, and residents in those areas who certainly need and deserve better connectivity. Towns where there is some coverage, such as old DSL networks, have typically not qualified. As a result, rural areas of the state are developing "donut holes" of inadequate connectivity. In the long term, this could spell disaster for these towns because businesses have no reason to locate in places where they can't get the Internet access they need for operations. A blended approach will allow investment in both unserved areas and areas where some networks already exist so centers of economic activity can still compete with their neighbors.

Chris provides more information on the blended approach, and on one possible solution for rural communities, in this nicely produced video created by Capitol Almanac:

Minnesota Broadband, 2016

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are saying broadband expansion, especially to greater Minnesota, is a priority this session, but there are competing perspectives on how to use any funding the legislature sets aside. In this segment from "Almanac at the Capitol," we hear two takes on how best to get all Minnesota online.

Posted by Almanac on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Star Tribune Agrees

The Minneapolis Star Tribune's Editorial Board recently published their thoughts in Broadband grants deserve priority in Minnesota. Editors at the Strib recognized the necessity of high-quality Internet access for rural Minnesota, suggesting state funding for rural Internet networks be separated into stand-alone legislation rather than lumped into a large omnibus bill. A separate bill would allow constituents to monitor how their elected officials vote on the issue. This is important to Minnesotans and their future.

The Strib Editorial Board also noted that the debate on how the funds are distributed is a critical policy question:

Should state funds be directed at providing connections where they are lacking or boosting service in places where speeds meet the 2010 state standards but are insufficient for today’s commercial, medical and educational needs?

We hope the answer is “both.” Both situations represent a failure of the private marketplace, which justifies state action.(emphasis ours)

Investing in unserved areas and also in areas where there is service but that service is inadequate to meet the needs of local government, businesses, and residents is the blended approach Minnesotans need.

ISP US Internet Gets More Respect Than Rodney Dangerfield - Community Broadband Bits 194

In Minneapolis, a small and privately owned ISP has been steadily building fiber across the city and developing a stunning reputation for great customer service, low and predictable pricing, and generally being a great company to do business with. Co-founder Travis Carter of US Internet joins us for episode 194 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss their approach to building networks, especially their philosophy around customer service and just how poorly some of US Internet's competitors treat their customers. As a small firm that is carving out its own path in a world of giants, its experiences are important lessons and points of consideration for community networks.

We also discuss how US Internet interacts with local governments. Though the company has high praise for Minneapolis, it discusses where some of the challenges have been in navigating local government zoning and permitting. Travis also offers some advice based on how smart investments and a well-organized approach to leasing fiber have helped US Internet to begin expanding in suburb Saint Louis Park.

USI coverage map is available here. For more information on USI's pricing, see their website for Fiber-to-the-Home and telephone service.

We plan to have Travis back on in the future again, so if you have questions you would like us to ask, please tell us!

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Online Survey Tool Helps Communities Assess Broadband Quality

How good is Internet service in your community? 

The question may seem simple, but the answer isn’t always straight forward, according to a recent blog post from Blandin on Broadband. There is more to consider than just availability or speed. “A multitude of factors come into play.”  

Now, a Twin Cities-based consultant who has worked extensively with the Blandin Foundation has created an online Community Broadband Assessment tool designed to help cities and towns determine how their Internet service compares to other communities. The Community Broadband Infrastructure and Services Assessment Tool can be found at the Minnesota Broadband Coalition website.

Coleman Crafts Assessment Tool 

Bill Coleman, told us he recently came up with the idea for the survey after talking with several people from outstate counties and towns and rural advocacy groups. “There is a surprising lack of information about broadband quality” in Minnesota, said Coleman, whose consulting firm assists clients develop and implement programs of broadband infrastructure investment and technology promotion and training. “We are trying to coordinate the rural voice around broadband.” 

The Broadband Coalition noted that Coleman’s assessment tool:

“[W]ill help local leaders investigate, consider, understand and discuss the state of the community’s broadband infrastructure and services. This tool incorporates measures of broadband speed, ubiquity, competition, redundancy and partnership.  In many areas, community broadband consideration has moved beyond the city limits to the community’s market area or to individual townships, the entire county or tribal reservation.  This tool allows analysis at any geography, recognizing that larger geographies are likely to have wide variations in broadband availability. “

Comparing Communities on Broadband 

According to the Blandin blog:

...“[T]he assessment [tool] helps a community determine where it stands in comparison to other communities with regard to access to main Internet points of presence, fiber availability to key institutions and business customers, competitive pricing  and available broadband speeds.

In addition, the tool helps communities consider the ubiquity of broadband within their whole county or market area and whether they can count on their broadband service providers as community partners.”

Using Information for Legislative Action 

Blandin Broadband officials hope to compile information from completed surveys and share their findings with state and regional policy makers on creating and implementing effective broadband policies in Minnesota. As we noted in our report “All Hands on Deck,” Minnesota is far short of meeting its goal that every residence and business in the state has access to Internet speeds of 10 - 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and upload speeds of 5 - 10 Mbps upload by 2015. This new tool can help those communities left behind document their inadequate Internet access.

As of early March, about a dozen Minnesota communities have filled out the online assessment; Coleman told us he hopes that number grows to at least 20 communities. 

For further information, you can contact Coleman at 651-491-2551 or bill(at)communitytechnologyadvisors.com.

Dakota County, Cities Reviewing Joint Powers Group for Fiber Network

The publicly owned fiber optic network of Dakota County, Minnesota, and of cities within its borders may soon come under the oversight of a local joint powers board.

David Asp, County Collaboration Engineer, said the County started putting the network together in May of 1998. It has grown from 20 miles in 2005 to 112 miles in 2015, and then to 270 miles in 2016. The network provides speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) download. This news marks a coming of age for the County’s 10-year-old Internet network which, together with the cities' related infrastructure, now spans 270 miles. The County network serves hundreds of public facilities and operations including county buildings, city halls, libraries, schools and more than 350 traffic control signals.

The County and 11 cities within its jurisdiction are now reviewing whether to approve a limited joint powers agreement that would have them inventory their fiber optic infrastructure to find out "what do we have and what are gaps in the system," said Matt Smith, Dakota County deputy manager. Their second objective is to develop a detailed financing system to operate an integrated Internet network, he said.

Asp said he expects the County and the cities will decide by April whether to take this first step in forming the joint powers alliance.

After these studies, the County and cities are then expected to decide if they want to participate in a broader joint powers agreement that would establish the Dakota Broadband Board. If the answer is "Yes," the joint powers board could begin operations in early 2017, Asp said.

Duties of the Board could include establishing policies, procedures, and pricing on leasing the network’s dark fiber, Asp said. Dark fiber is fiber-optic cable that is laid underground but currently not in use, and thus is dormant, or “dark.”

Dakota County, Dakota County Development Agency, Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Farmington, Hastings, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, Mendota Heights, Rosemount, South St. Paul and West St. Paul are reviewing the initial JPA.

Promoting Economic Development

Asp recently told us that one major role of a joint powers board would be figuring out how to use the dark fiber (unused strands) from Dakota County’s Internet network to promote economic development. That could include extending the network to industrial parks, new housing developments, and possibly residential neighborhoods.

partnership.jpg

“We are trying to get the city councils to work together to provide guidance to the County on what to do for the future use,” Asp said. “We are trying to put as many dots on the [Internet network] map so we can bring the cost down.”

Asp said as the County continues to extend its fiber network to more public buildings; it also wants to see how to make it available to businesses and residents. "That is a political question that we are trying to answer and we are not there yet," he said.

Currently, Dakota County plans to spend about $4 million to grow the publicly owned network by about another 100 miles in 2016, Asp told us.

Since launching its fiber network 10 years ago, Dakota County has raised Internet speeds from 1.5 Mbps to now up to 10 Gbps in multiple locations, Asp said.

More Fiber Upgrades Along County Roads.

As in prior years, Dakota County has taken advantage of transportation projects and its “dig once” policy to install conduit and fiber. “We are enhancing what we have got by replacing the old fiber and putting in the new fiber,” he told us.

One of those projects is a 12-and-a-half-mile stretch along Highway 42, from Burnsville to Rosemount. “The copper strands have corroded and so we are replacing those with 288 strands of fiber optic cable and putting in extra conduit,” Asp said.

The County is also doing similar fiber optic upgrades along Cliff Road in Eagan and Robert Street in West St. Paul.

Also, Dakota County is extending its network access reach to about a half dozen of its parks so they are equipped with Wi-Fi. Locations include Lebanon Hills Park in Eagan and Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings.

To learn more about Dakota County's publicly owned network and some of its benefits, read our 2014 report All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access.

Rural Broadband Expansion Ignores Economic Development Potential in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 190

For years, many rural communities suffered from a broadband donut hole problem - the investment in better-than-dial-up was in the population center, leaving a donut of poor access around it. Now policy to reverse that in places like Minnesota is perversely creating the opposite problem, to the detriment of the entire community.

This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast we welcome back Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former legislator and current small business owner in Greater Minnesota.

We discuss how this problem developed and where we see it happening before our very eyes. Though we focus on Minnesota, this issue is broadly applicable to all states. We also talk about how Comcast lobbyists have cynically manipulated the program to prevent economic development or possible competition, despite the fact that Comcast serves practically no one outside of the metro region.

Lisa Gonzalez and I predicted this problem in our paper from 2014, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Listen to Dan Dorman's last appearance, episode 136.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

MN Coop to Rural Schools: Have A Gig, No Extra Charge

Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Communications' is bringing better connectivity to homes and businesses across northern rural Minnesota via fiber. The cooperative is also helping local school districts save precious dollars while obtaining the Internet access kids need for a 21st century education.

The cooperative recently announced it is now serving all schools in the GigaZone, the area served by its fiber network, and every school can upgrade to gigabit Internet services at no extra charge.

From the announcement:

"The GigaZone will provide the school districts Gigabit Internet speeds throughout the school day so educators and students alike can use the Internet faster and more efficiently. This upgrade is being provided at no extra charge so districts can stay within their budget and prepare their students for the future and the new technologies it will bring," said Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications IT & Development Manager.

Recent studies reveal that rural schools grapple with high rates for Internet access, often because there is only one provider who takes advantage of their solo position. Paul Bunyan Communications is one of the many telecommunications cooperatives that serve rural regions that are owned by the people they serve. Like municipal networks, cooperatives typically display a concern for the community rather than maximizing profit.

Paul Bunyan is continuing to expand its current GigaZone coverage area. The coop now serves over 14,000 locations in rural Park Rapids, Lake George, Trout Lake Township east of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, and portions of Bemidji. The goal is to cover the 5,000 square mile service area now served by the cooperative.