$3.5 Million for Lake Connections in Minnesota

A northern Minnesota county has been approved for federal funding to bring high-quality Internet access to some of the community's most rural residents. Lake County (population: about 11,000) has been building Lake Connections, a county-owned community network, for the past few years. People living in the densely wooded region have always lacked adequate Internet service, but with this funding, they will have better connectivity than many city dwellers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently authorized $3.5 million for Lake Connections through the Rural Broadband Experiment program. Lake Connections previously faced numerous delays, but this next stage of the project is ready to move forward.

Despite Best Efforts, Delays

Lake County has long been working towards a more connected future by building a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The massive project covers almost 3,000 square miles, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and will provide connectivity to over 1,000 businesses. Grants, loans, and matching local funds to complete the project add up to approximately $70 million.

The county obtained federal stimulus funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2010 (see our 2014 report, All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access). Incumbent providers, Mediacom and Frontier, delayed the project by alleging rule violations and fighting for ownership of utility poles. By July 2014, however, the fiber network started serving its first 100 customers.

This new $3.5 million from the Rural Broadband Experiment program will connect more far-flung residents. The funding was tentatively approved last March, but Lake County ran across a confusion in regulation on whether Lake Connections was an “eligible telecommunications carrier” (a requirement for the funding). After reviewing the circumstances, the FCC decided on December 12, 2016 to authorize the funding.

Rural Broadband Experiment Program

The $3.5 million will connect about 850 census blocks to a high-speed network capable of providing speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 25 Mbps upload. That’s four times the FCC’s defined broadband download speeds of 25 Mbps and eight times the FCC's upload requirement of 3 Mbps to meet their definition of broadband. Rural Broadband Experiments projects must also provide service plans of 25 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload.

While download speeds are important, strong upload speeds are critical for economic development. In places like Lake County, tourism is an important industry. Vacationers often need to have access to the office and companies book resorts for conferences or retreats, but without high-speed connectivity, potential customers go elsewhere.

Lake County Minnesota opted to receive 30 percent of its funding (about $1 million) as its first disbursement on April 2, 2018. The remaining 70 percent will be distributed in equal payments over the course of ten years. This is part of an accelerated deployment obligation: Lake Connections must to build out to 25 percent of all eligible locations with the first 15 months.