The following stories have been tagged minnesota ← Back to All Tags

Minnesota Public Officials at Home and In D.C.: Funding Rural High-Speed Internet

It’s getting to be a sad, repetitive tale: crappy Internet for rural populations. Minnesota public officials hope to change that. At both state and federal levels, they’re advocating for greater funding for rural high-speed Internet. 

They’ve proposed several ideas to fund rural connectivity. At the state level, Governor Mark Dayton is pushing to use $100 million of the Minnesota government budget surplus for rural broadband projects. In D.C., Congressman Rick Nolan has introduced a bill to provide funding for regional solutions, and Senator Amy Klobuchar is working on a bill for coordinating broadband installation and highway construction. Will any of these ideas work?

Minnesota Budget Surplus

Minnesota’s state government expects a $1.9 billion budget surplus, which presents an opportunity to fund large, one-time investments. The Star Tribune notes that such one-time investments in infrastructure, “especially when infrastructure is defined broadly to include roads, transit, public buildings and broadband capacity,” could prove a welcome idea. Fiber networks have high, up-front construction costs, but they offer next-generation, high-speed connectivity. Depending on what state leaders do, those high construction costs may no longer be a barrier.

With the news of the budget surplus, Governor Dayton renewed his call for $100 million (just 5% of the budget surplus) to improve broadband in rural Minnesota. Last spring, however, state legislators only approved about a tenth of that amount - around $10 million. The year before that, they had only put in $20 million. The money funds competitive grants in which companies and local governments match state dollars to build networks. Promising a “border to border broadband” approach, Dayton continues to push for funding for rural projects, but it is up to state legislators to determine what to do.

Ideas for Regional Solutions from D.C. 

Meanwhile in D.C., Congressmen Rick Nolan (D-MN), Jared Huffman (D-CA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced the Rural Broadband Infrastructure Investment Act. Modeled after the process of rural electrification in the 1930s, the act increases broadband investment from the Rural Utility Service from $25 million to $50 million each year. The legislation reimagines how to promote regional solutions, including grants in addition to loans and loan guarantees. 

Minnesota DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar has come out in support of Congressman Nolan’s efforts. In December, she released an opinion piece describing how farming has become high-tech. Some farm-equipment companies describe how they encourage local farmers to go to restaurants or cafes to find high-speed Internet in order to do basic, necessary tasks. She is also working on a bipartisan bill right now to reduce the cost of building infrastructure through a “dig once” policy among state and federal agencies during highway construction.  

Remember Rural America

While these ideas are being debated and refined, we cannot forget that rural America - not just rural Minnesota - needs high-speed Internet. Minnesota Congressman Nolan explained:

“Here in rural America, high-speed broadband is essential to our ability to compete - to help start new businesses, create new jobs, attract new people and provide the education and health care services to essential to our quality of life.”

St. Louis Park And Developers Ready The Wires

Community leaders in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, are taking advantage of growth in apartment and condominium developments to "till the soil" for better residential connectivity. One of the smartest things a community can do to improve connectivity is prepare an environment that encourages high-speed connectivity infrastructure investment. As developers erect new buildings, the city is working with them to develop internal wiring standards and conduit installation standards for high-quality Internet access within and to their buildings.

Developers Understand The Value

The city of approximately 45,000, located immediately west of Minneapolis has not adopted any formal building code language, but has negotiated broadband readiness specifications with several new multi-dwelling unit building developers. Savvy developers realize that high-speed connectivity is now a basic utility that tenants demand.

Loma Linda, California, implemented a similar approach when it passed an ordinance concerning wiring codes for its Connected Communities Program in 2004. New development and remodels that involve more than 50 percent of the structure must include internal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) wiring. Developers, recognizing the increase in value of properties wired for FTTH, have embraced the practice.

A Goal to Better the Community

The effort is St. Louis Park's intention to turn the city into a "technology connected community," and is part of St. Louis Park City Council Goals & Priorities. The city and the developer begin with basic language and the parties make changes to accommodate the unique needs of each development:

Broadband Readiness

Redeveloper shall install at its cost dedicated wired connections from each building’s telecommunications point of presence to each internal wiring closet, thence to each living and working unit. Each living and working unit shall have a minimum of two (2) connections, each capable of supporting at minimum a one-gigabit connection.

To provide for future high-speed broadband service, the Redeveloper shall install at its cost one empty 2-inch conduit from within a new or existing handhole in proximity to its existing telecommunications services, typically in public Right-of-Way, (Point A) to a point of presence within each building in proximity to its existing telecommunications services (Point B). Alternatively, the developer shall provide an easement to the City of St. Louis Park that can accommodate said 2-inch conduit from Point A to Point B, inclusive of related telecommunications facilities at each point.

The city has not formally adopted Broadband Readiness as part of its building code but is leaning toward such an approach. The City Council is interested in exploring language for an ordinance or city code addressing broadband readiness and hopes to make significant progress in 2016.

Seniors, Low-Income, Disabled Communities Pay the Price in St. Paul

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the subscriber must prove they are enrolled in a public assistance program. CenturyLink is not compelled to provide both the $5 reduction and the ten percent discount under the terms of the agreement.

The CenturyLink contract states that bundling discounts will not forfeit the $5 discount but does not say the same for the alternative ten percent discount.

logo-centurylink.jpg

Seniors on the Chopping Block

Discounts for low-income seniors are at risk in the CenturyLink contract reports the Pioneer Press. The contract offers the company an "out" by allowing it to exchange a senior discount to residents for free gigabit per second (Gbps) service at centralized locations. Rather than offering a ten percent discount to senior subscribers at their homes, CenturyLink can provide the high-speed connectivity to two St. Paul senior centers or to one senior center and a community center and present two training session per year on using the Internet.

My own parents, who are elderly and leave the house less frequently than they have in the past, depend on their Internet connection to stay in touch with their kids. A number of elderly folks are lower-income. Ten percent, a modest sum to a profit machine like Comcast, could be the tipping point for whether or not elderly people living on fixed incomes subscribe.

Would I rather have Mom trudging through the St. Paul snow to wait in line at the senior center to Skype in a noisy room filled with other seniors? No. Will Mom go to the senior center? Probably not. This trade-off is not equitable.

When You're All Lawyered Up, It's Easy to Break Promises

As franchise agreements expire across the country, communities like St. Paul will be negotiating new contracts or considering other options. Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink, backed by armies of lawyers, have turned backhanded negotiating into an art form. Cities like St. Paul employ smart, capable attorneys, but telecommunications is highly specialized; few communities have legal staff experienced in this field.

Lose The Big Companies, Gain Control

Contrary to the typical behavior of Comcast and CenturyLink, publicly owned networks have a history of lowering prices or increasing speeds for free. When we ask why, decision makers usually tell us they make the change because it's good for the community. Subscribers are the shareholders when a network is publicly owned.

Communities that invest in municipal networks shake off dependence on big providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. By investing in their own infrastructure, they spur economic development, save public dollars, and become more self-reliant. 

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.

Another Coop Story: Wiatel Wires Western Iowa

Iowa, known across the country for its agriculture, is known in other circles for its exciting community broadband projects. Earlier this year President Obama visited Cedar Falls to praise its municipal network and to support other efforts to improve rural high-speed Internet access. One of those efforts is Wiatel. This small telecommunications coop is beginning a $25 million project to upgrade its network from copper to fiber throughout its entire service area.

Fiber Connectivity

The cooper network that Wiatel uses now is sufficient for basic phone service, but upgrading to fiber will future-proof the network and provide better Internet speeds. The coop is based out of Lawton, a small town of about 1,000 people, but the coop serves an area of 700 miles. Wiatel hopes to start burying the fiber cables in the summer of 2016. Once the project gets started, officials from the cooperative estimate they will connect all residential and business customers to fiber within 24-30 months.

Wiatel is part of a long-growing movement as rural coops build fiber networks or upgrade to fiber to improve services for members. Just check out the Triangle Communications coop in Montana, the Paul Bunyan Communications coop in Minnesota, or Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama. They’re providing next-generation connectivity at reasonable prices to rural communities often ignored by the large incumbent telephone and cable companies.

Coops: An Alternative

Without an immediate return on investment, large corporate providers have little incentive to build in sparsely populated areas. Traditional corporate providers must answer to shareholders seeking short term profits. Cooperatives are owned by the people they serve, giving their shareholders a practical, real, tangible interest in the success of the endeavor and the community it serves.

High-speed Internet can prove a great benefit to rural communities. Many of these rural areas lack access to the healthcare resources available in urban areas but local clinics with high-speed connectivity can bridge that gap. Rural schools need faster, more affordable, more reliable connections. High-speed Internet is becoming essential for farming, which has become a high-tech industry over the past few decades. 

Being overlooked by large profit-oriented companies is nothing new for rural communities. One need only look at the history of the telephone or electricity. Large private sector telephone and electric providers thought that rural areas could not offer the density for a solid customer base, and residents’ need for cutting-edge technology went unrecognized. To serve their own needs, neighbors banded together, obtained grants and loans from the federal government’s Rural Electrification Administration, and built the infrastructure that guaranteed the survival and growth of their rural communities.

“…for many, many years to come”

The coops now moving toward fiber technology are considering the long-term prospects of the community. As the Wiatel General Manager Heath Mallory explained:

“Once we get the fiber in the ground, I really think this network will probably serve our customers for many, many years to come.” 

The community is definitely excited for the new fiber. On the local news, reporter Elisa Raffa explains the positive impact the network will have on local businesses and residents:

Pioneer Press Op-Ed: Competition and Community Savings

The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015. 

Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings

Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.

Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.

The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.

Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.

Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.

Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.

Some municipal networks have been accused as being failures. For years, cable and telephone companies claimed Windom in southeast Minnesota was a disaster. WindomNet is one of the most advanced networks in the state and has been expanded to serve nearby towns that had been ignored by the big telephone companies.

In our 2014 study All Hands on Deck, we identified more than $400,000 in regional savings from WindomNet every year. In addition, the network helped keep 47 jobs in the community from one employer alone that previously couldn't get the service it needed from the national telephone company serving it. This is a threat to cable and telephone monopolies, not local taxpayers.

With Windom's success, the cable and telephone companies now attack Monticello's municipal FiberNet for not having yet broken even financially. However, that is the not the only metric by which it should be judged.

Ten years ago, Internet access in Monticello was dismal, harming local businesses. They demanded the city take action and the city asked the telephone and cable company to improve their services -- but those companies insisted everything was fine. So Monticello voted by 74 percent to build its own network.

The telephone company sued, costing Monticello millions in lost time despite its prevailing easily in court.

During the case, the telephone company improved its services, and, after Monticello built its own network, the cable company dropped its rates dramatically. The same package that residents in Rochester and Duluth pay $145 per month for was offered for $60 per month guaranteed for two years. Prices in Monticello from all providers are a fraction of what we pay in the metro.

We estimated the aggregate savings in the community at $10 million over the past five years in All Hands on Deck.

Rather than allowing communities to decide locally on the best strategies to improve Internet access, Minnesota discourages them by requiring a supermajority vote before a community can offer telephone service. This requirement particularly harms Greater Minnesota, where mobile phones are far less reliable and telephone service plays a more important public safety role.

We need an "All Hands on Deck" approach to improving Internet access. The state should be lessening barriers to investment, not maintaining them at the behest of large cable and telephone companies. Local government strategies will play an important role in ensuring our communities can thrive in the digital age.

Christopher Mitchell, St. Paul, is director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter @communitynets

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:

Alaska

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

Minnesota

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.

Montana

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

Oklahoma

@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.

Virginia

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

Wisconsin

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.

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.

Rochester, Minnesota, City Council Reviews Municipal Fiber Proposal

Earlier this year, Rochester City Council members chose to look further at the prospect of developing a municipal fiber network. On August 17th, the Committee of the Whole met to hear a proposal from Alcaltel-Lucent to deploy 500 miles of fiber for approximately $42 million.

According to the Post Bulletin, the city recently surveyed 1,200 Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) customers and found that more than 75 percent of them supported the idea of Internet access from RPU.

Rochester residents and businesses have long suffered with expensive, unreliable, slow connectivity from incumbent Charter Communications. City Council member Michael Wojcik introduced the idea of publicly owned infrastructure in 2010 but the idea never picked up steam. He revived the issue last year when constituents began calling his office with complaints about Charter.

"Principally, I feel the technology, the customer service and price in Rochester are unacceptably bad (from Charter)," [Wojcik] said. "I get the feeling that a good portion of the public strongly agrees with that."

For this information session, the Council took no action; next, the proposal will be examined thoroughly by RPU officials.

Local video coverage from KTTC: