Tired of waiting for connectivity solutions to come to town, one Minnesota community has instead partnered with a local telephone cooperative to build a fiber network reaching every home and business in the city.
In embarking on its journey to improve local Internet access six years ago, Long Prairie (pop. 3,300) ended up partnering with one of the most aggressive fiber network builders in the state - Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) - on a solution that meets local needs. The two finished a ubiquitous Fiber-to-the-Home build in 2018, with CTC now owning and operating the network.
Looking for Solutions
The City of Long Prairie (pop. 3,300), the county seat in Todd County, Minnesota, has long struggled with connectivity. It has manifested in issues with connecting students from their homes, with losing parts of the local workforce, and in a lack of access to support larger healthcare institutions for their aging population.
In 2014, the city met with state officials as well as broadband providers to discuss the results of a feasibility study that was done back in 2011. Todd County stressed that this was a pressing issue that couldn’t wait anymore - they needed state support with funding and potentially help setting up a partnership with a local co-op. But this kind of partnership couldn’t just be with any co-op, it had to be a mutually beneficial partnership that could connect all of Long Prairie’s businesses and residents. It would take 2 more years before the community entered into an agreement with the right one.
CTC started in the 1950s as a telephone cooperative, and began offering Internet access via DSL service in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Around 2008, CTC’s Board of Directors decided that the best long-term strategy for providing strong, reliable connectivity would be to build out Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) for all of its members.
Building on that initial network, the main vision and mission driving the co-op over the last 10 years has been getting as many people in the area fast and reliable connectivity as possible. But because CTC is just one firm, that has meant developing relationships with other towns, cities, and counties that bloom into successful partnerships.
Long Prairie was one of the first to take advantage of it. The city had already tried working with the incumbent telephone and cable providers to address the gaps in connectivity, but nothing was coming of it.
In 2015, Long Prairie tried to qualify for the Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program to solve connectivity issues. Part of the grant included doing speed tests to show the incumbents were not providing 25/3 service locally, but less than half that speed. Unfortunately for the community, those tests and the application were challenged by the incumbents and thrown out - another funding wave went by with no luck.
This remains a huge barrier for a lot of communities working to bring the connectivity in their communities up to or beyond the federal definition of 25/3. Incumbents report that they are providing 25/3 when they aren’t, but won’t make updates to improve their network.This takes communities out of the running for state and federal dollars to build networks that work for them.
While many might give up and let technology and access to the rest of the virtual world pass them by, Long Prairie in Minnesota took a different route. City officials decided to leverage their capacity to obtain low-cost financing and partner with nearby CTC, which has the know-how to build out a network. This made the city of Long Prairie and CTC a match made in heaven. It took some convincing of city council and city residents, but when there was enough buy in the deal was set.
Partnering for Better Access
The city issued a bond to finance the project and CTC and Long Prairie entered into a series of agreements beginning in 2016, the first of which was that CTC would assume responsibility for the construction of a citywide Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network and make payments on the $3.7 million loan over the course of 10 years.
The second agreement was that CTC would lease the network from the city over those 10 years to provide services to businesses and residents. The final agreement was the right of first refusal to purchase the network. At the end of 10 years, CTC would automatically take ownership, or at any time during the lease agreement once the loan was paid off.
CTC was able to build the 111-mile network from 2017-2018, passing 1,303 locations.
“It’s helped our existing businesses a lot, and what it has done is open the doors for a lot of other businesses with our bandwidth,” Rick Utech, Executive Director of Todd County Development Corporation, told us in an interview.
When the network was first built, CTC was leasing other providers’ backhaul to connect Long Prairie to its existing infrastructure in the Brainerd-Baxter area. This presented challenges in reliability and quality of service. As a solution, the cooperative went to the Todd County Economic Development Corporation and asked for a small revolving loan to build a fiber connection of their own. Not only did this help maintain a better service to those in Long Prairie, but it allowed CTC to connect to homes they passed along the way.
Joe Buttweiler, Director of Business Development at CTC, said a lot of communities face challenges when applying for grant dollars. One of them is the speed reporting and mapping issues. But another is the timeline for these grant programs, as was the case with the recent federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF): it’s just too slow. Buttweiler explained more:
We participate in RDOF. We have six years to build out some areas, and we could get an extension to eight years. I have a 13-year-old son who’s distance learning. If I had connectivity issues, RDOF didn’t solve my problem. My son’s probably out of high school before I probably have broadband service in my house.
Buttweiler went on to say that while the investment in these networks can be intimidating and often run into the multi-millions, when communities don’t think in the long term and invest in these projects, it will continue to cost them dollars in the future.
“It’s like stepping up to home plate without a baseball bat. You just strike out.”
Long Prairie residents in the city now have access to service tiers from the CTC-owned and operated network starting at 100 Mbps (Megabits per second) symmetrical for $50/month, 250 Mbps for $60/month, 500 Mbps for $80, and 1 Gbps for $100/month.
For more on the cooperative’s approach to partnerships and how the project got started, listen to episode 456 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, where Christopher talks with CTC CEO and General Manager Kristi Westbrock and Director of Business Development Joe Buttweiler: