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Minnesota's Lake County Fiber Network Begins Connecting Customers

The Lake County fiber network is now serving a limited number of customers in northern Minnesota. According to the Lake County News Chronicle, the network's triple-play services are lit and bringing better connectivity to Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

About 100 customers in Silver Bay take service via the network; beta testers in Two Harbors are helping Lake Connections, the entity managing the network, straighten out any kinks in Phase One. Phase Two, which is more than 60% complete, will bring service to Duluth Township, Knife River, Silver Creek Townships, and Beaver Bay Township. Phase Two is scheduled for completion this summer; Lake Connections anticipates network completion in the fall of 2015.

The Lake County project has been plagued with problems, including delays cause by incumbents. Mediacom filed complaints with the Inspector General based on unsound allegations. While the cable company was not confident enough to sue, its accusations wasted time and money for Lake County. Frontier asserted ownership of a significant number of Two Harbors utility poles, even though the City has maintained them, and the two are still involved in negotiations over ownership and fiber placement on the poles. The Minnesota Cable Companies Association (MCCA) delayed the project further by submitting a massive data request.

The FTTH project is one of the largest stimulus projects, totaling approximately $70 million in grants, loans, and local matching funds. The project will cover almost 3,000 square miles when complete, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and provide services to over 1,000 businesses.

As we have noted before, the project was sorely needed. On more than one occasion, a single fiber cut to the area created Internet black outs to homes, businesses, hospitals, government, and any other entity depending on connectivity to function.

In Two Harbors, outdoor equipment supplier Granite Gear is on the new network. In the past, the entire company shared one DSL connection, forcing the company art director to work at night when bandwidth was available. Now, everyone works normal hours. From the article:

Dave Johnson, the strategic accounts manager for the 28-year-old company, said fast internet has become essential to Granite Gear in recent years.

“It’s not just nice having faster internet, but it has become an absolute necessity,” he said.

“Business is not just pushing emails back and forth. We maintain a website,” he said. “Doing business has become real bandwidth intensive.” A new technological era has dawned and companies are evolving to keep pace with their competitors.

Granite Gear Logo

Johnson told us via email that uploading files for customers in the past used to take hours but now the task takes a few minutes and does not disrupt service for other employees.

Delays have created extra expenses and Lake County will need more customers like Granite Gear to make the network strong. According to the article, the County has already started making loan payments:

[County Commissioner Rich] Sve said he understands his constituents’ concerns that the network may not be viable.

“I share that concern as a taxpayer. I think it’s legitimate,” he said.

But, he added, private companies have not stepped forward to provide the service, despite encouragement by federal and state government to do so. The county, therefore, opted to undertake the task.

“So far, we’re pleased with what we’re getting in Silver Bay and hopeful that it continues,” [Lake Connections Project Manager Jeff Roiland] said.

Businesses and residents interested in signing up for service from Lake Connections can contact them today to make arrangements:

“The biggest thing to do is contact our staff,” Roiland said. “They can call in (or) walk in and the gals at the office can explain to them what to do.”

Senators and Representatives Back FCC Move to Restore Local Authority

Citing the importance of Internet access to economic development, a number of Congressional Democrats are calling on FCC Chairman Wheeler to make good on his intention to remove barriers to community owned networks. Senator Edward Markey is the lead from the Senate and Representative Doyle in the House. And this Minnesotan takes pride in seeing both Senators Franken and Klobuchar signed on.

The letter [pdf] makes a strong case for local decision-making:

[L]ocal communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in their own infrastructure, including the options of working with willing incumbent carriers, creating incentives for private sector development, entering into creative public-private partnerships, or even building their own networks, if necessary or appropriate.

...

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Signing the letter included Senators Edward Markey, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Cory Booker as well as Representatives Mike Doyle, Henry Waxman, and Anna Eshoo. We thank each of them for standing up for local authority.

Yesterday, we gave a brief update of what has happened thus far on this issue. This is a very important moment, as so many communities have recognized that at the very minimum, they need a plan for getting next-generation networks.

Cable and DSL simply aren't good enough to compete in the modern economy but the big carriers have enough clout in state capitals to push laws limiting competition and enough power in DC to feel confident in their anti-consumer mergers. Given this dynamic, communities are smart to examine whether local investments will reduce their dependency on distant carriers with different interests - but they cannot do that where state law restricts local authority.

Given that the letter asks Chairman Wheeler to respond with a plan for restoring local authority, we should soon learn what the next steps will be in our efforts to ensure communities have all options on the table for improving Internet access to their businesses and residents.

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Multiple Minnesota Projects Submit "Expressions of Interest" to FCC

We reported in February that the FCC sought "expressions of interest" from entities that want a share of Connect America funds. The agency sought feedback on the need and desire for projects across the country from entities that have not traditionally received universal service funds. The FCC received over 1,000 expressions of interest.

Minnesota leads the U.S. in proposed projects. According to a recent MPR News Ground Level article, 62 expressions of interests come from Minnesota. Projects vary in size; some focus on a small number of homes while others plan to bring services to many people.

All of the proposed projects address gaps in rural broadband service. MPR noted that several of the expressions of interest describe community experience with CenturyLink, Frontier, and Mediacom. The RS Fiber cooperative wrote:

“The communities have approached all three providers [CenturyLink, Windstream, and MediaCom] and asked them to work with the communities to build the fiber network. They all refused. Then the communities offered to put up the money to construct the network and the providers could operate and eventually own the network. None of them were interested.”

The MPR article reports the FCC will likely offer approximately $86 million to the three incumbents to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas. If they refuse, a long line of interested parties are waiting.

Minnesota's desire for broadband caught the attention of state lawmakers. A bill to earmark funds for rural broadband was introduced earlier this session and has received bipartisan support. From the MPR article:

Even if the Minnesota projects go nowhere with the FCC, they already may have had an impact here in the state.

For the first time, lawmakers here are considering whether to spend money on broadband infrastructure, and the idea has backing from Gov. Mark Dayton. But “there was concern from the governor and others there might not be enough interest,” said Christopher Mitchell, analyst with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “This answers that.”

GovTech Reports on Broadband Legislation in Five States

Broadband is a topic of interest in several state legislative chambers this session. In a recent Government Technology article, Brian Heaton focused on five states where community broadband is particularly contentious. In some cases, legislators want to expand opportunities while others seek to limit local authority.

We introduced you to the Kansas anti-competition bill in January. The bill was pulled back this year but could be back next year. When the business community learned about the potential effects of SB 304, they expressed their dismay. From the article:

Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 as a “job-killer” that restricts communications services expansion in the U.S.

Minnesota's leaders introduced legislation to expand broadband. Efforts include financial investment earmarked for infrastructure:

Senate File 2056 – referred to as the Border-to-Border Infrastructure Program – would take $100 million from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. A companion bill in the House, HF 2615 was also introduced.

As we reported, there is bipartisan support for the bill in the House, but the Senate and Governor have not prioritized SF 2056.

New Hampshire's legislature wants to open up bonding authority for local communities that need help:

Legislation is making its way through the New Hampshire Legislature that would give local government expanded bonding authority for areas that have limited or no access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Sponsored by Rep. Charles Townsend, D-Canann, HB 286 passed the House earlier this year and is up for a hearing in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on April 23.

Heaton also reports on the Utah bill that targeted UTOPIA. The bill concerned potential private partners and appears defeated, but broadband advocates remain alert.

The agency [UTOPIA] has 11 member cities, but communities located outside the limits of member cities can pay to have the network built out to them.

HB 60 would prevent that from happening with specific language that targets only municipal fiber networks – potentially including a Google Fiber rollout in Provo, Utah. That means other forms of broadband such as DSL or cable would be exempt.

Tennessee is especially busy this session. Lawmakers introduced a collection of legislation aimed at enabling local communities to develop community networks. All appear stalled in committee or forgotten by leadership. Heaton spoke to Chris Mitchell about action in Tennessee:

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a national expert on community broadband, told Government Technology that he wasn’t surprised that the bills stalled. He explained that for years, broadband advocates have tried to remove some of the barriers to network expansion in the state, but to no avail.

“The ironic result is that the federal government may be subsidizing obsolete DSL because the state will not allow local governments to expand next-generation community fiber networks even when they are not subsidized in any way,” Mitchell said.

“Many of the elected officials still don't [have] enough pressure on them from constituents to stand up to AT&T and Comcast,” he added. “Those two firms have a lot of power in the [Tennessee] Legislature.”

Blandin Webinar on Minnesota Broadband Grants Now Archived and Available

The Blandin Foundation held an informative webinar on March 13 that is now ready for viewing. 

If you were not able to attend the webinar, this is a great opportunity to learn more about grants available through the Blandin Community Broadband Program (BCBP). There are six active programs that focus on broadband. Mary Magnuson from the Bladin Foundation and Bill Coleman with Community Technology Advisors host the webinar.

Video: 
See video

Bill to Boost Broadband in Minnesota Struggles in Legislature

In a revealing video about the Internet access problem in rural Minnesota, Annandale City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp below describes her town's struggle with connectivity. The video is the latest in a series on the Minnesota Senate DFL YouTube page intended to shed light on the critical situation in the state.

Hinnenkamp describes broadband in the areas outside of Annadale as "horrific." She goes on to discuss how the community's poor connectivity negatively impacts its economic health. She shares a story about entrepreneurs from an artisan spice business once located in Annandale. The company started with online sales but the owners anticipated opening a storefront in the downtown area of the lake community. After contending with eight outages in three weeks, the new business pulled up stakes and moved to Buffalo. 

Buffalo, located only 15 minutes away from Annandale, offers fast, reliable, affordable fiber service to local businesses.

In a February Minnesta Public Radio News article, Hinnenkamp told Dave Peters:

“Broadband is probably the single most important issue in our community right now,” she said. “Our big issue is not that we don’t have service but that we have one provider that has shown little interest in improving it. Broadband is our future."

In a Star Tribune article, Pete Kormanik, the owner of a local McDonald's, expressed his concern as a business owner:

Downloading data for a digital menu board — a task that would have taken 30 minutes at his other restaurants — dragged on for more than four hours.

After delays in processing credit cards, watching training videos and transmitting orders, Kormanik switched to an AT & T antenna. But a cloudy day can slow that service.

“If you can’t stay current with [connectivity], you’re just going to fall behind,” Kormanik said. “And businesses won’t go into those locations.”

Watch the brief interview with Hinnenkamp below or visit the series website to see more interviews. In the words of Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership: 

"It's time to stop talkin' and do something."

Broadband has been discussed for the past several years in Minnesota. Several task forces and reports have all concluded that lack of broadband in Minnesota, especially in the rural areas, will have detrimental effects on the future. Senator Matt Schmit, a DFLer from Red Wing, introduced SF 2056 [PDF] this session to inspire momentum for local broadband projects. Representative Erik Simonson, DFL Duluth, has been pushing the measure in the House.

The bill establishes a grant and loan program focused on local middle- and last-mile projects in areas like Annandale. Dubbed the Border to Border Infrastructure Program, it would bring $100,000,000 from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. The bill has bipartisan support but has not been prioritized by either the Governor or Senate leadership within the Legislature. Meanwhile, Comcast and other incumbent lobbyists have been trying to minimize the fund and any impact it could have.

While it may not become a reality this legislative session, the bill has brought serious reflection on the critical need for Minnesota's rural areas. One of the attractive features of the bill is that funds can be used to supplement funding for local projects. This approach allows local communities to determine the best path for their own needs.

Video: 
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To Overbuild or Underbuild? A Rural Policy Conundrum - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #91

Lisa Gonzalez and I, Christopher Mitchell, are back in studio for a short conversation about the implications of a municipal network or a coop receiving subsidies from government to engage in overbuilding, where it builds a fiber network in an area already served by slow DSL and cable networks.

This has become an important issue as Minnesota considers a fund that would encourage networks in areas currently unserved and possibly underserved.

We discuss the economics, fairness, and practial realities of both allowing "overbuilding" and disallowing it as Minnesota features two similar networks that have come to different conclusions, to the advantage and disadvantage of different local stakeholders.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 13 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks

Publication Date: 
March 19, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez

Local governments in Minnesota have been at the forefront of expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access - often in some of the most challenging areas of the state. ILSR has just released a policy brief to explore some of these approaches: Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks.

The full report is available here.

The brief examines five communities that have taken different approaches to expanding access, from working with a trusted local partner to creating a new cooperative to building community-wide FTTH networks.

Lac qui Parle County has worked with Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative to bring fiber networks to those who had been stuck on dial-up. Finding itself in a similar situation with no reliable partner, Sibley County is creating a new coop to work with.

Scott County built a fiber ring to connect community anchor institutsion to dramatically expand access to high capacity networks and lower telecommunications budgets. That network has helped to lure several major employers to the area by leasing fiber to them.

Windom and Monticello have built FTTH networks in extremely challenging conditions. Though Windom is far smaller than most have believed is feasible to build such a network, it has thrived and is now connecting many of the small towns surrounding it. It was essential in retaining jobs in the community that would have been lost without it and has attracted new jobs to the region. Monticello is a younger network and has remarkably benefited the community even as it has struggled financially due to dirty tricks from the telephone and cable companies.

The policy brief makes some policy recommendations while focusing on some local solutions to difficult problems in ensuring all Minnesotans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

Minnesota Broadband Conference February 4 - 5

Mark your calendar to attend Boarder to Boarder Broadband: A Call to Action on February 4 - 5 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The event is sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and a long list of organizations concerned with connectivity, economic development, and education ni Minnesota.

ILSR's Chris Mitchell will be presenting on February 5 as part of 9:15 CST Breakout Session, Broadband Infrastructure Development. Other Breakout Sessions are Digital Inclusion, Business and Economic Development, and Applications. A detailed agenda and speakers list is available [PDF].

A description of the conference from the registration page:

The time is ripe for Minnesota legislators and residents to have a “So what? Now What?” conversation about our shared aspirations for Border to Border Broadband:

  • The Governor’s Broadband Task Force is issuing their 2013 report and recommendations soon.
  • The director of the Office of Broadband Development will be in place in January 2014
  • Minnesota state legislators have been touring rural areas to hear directly from Minnesotans about their technology needs and dreams.

Conversations have been happening but…What does it all add up to?

The event will be at the RiverCenter in downtown St. Paul. Attendee tickets are $120 ($60 per day) and Exhibitors pay $300 or $60 if your organization is a nonprofit. You can secure your ticket by registering online. See you there!