Lake County, National Public Broadband, Go Separate Ways

For two years, National Public Broadband (led by Gary Fields and Tim Nulty) has worked with Lake County, Minnesota, to build a universal rural FTTH broadband network to everyone in the County and some nearby towns in Saint Louis County. Toward the end of 2010, the relationship became somewhat tense as some county commissioners questioned what NPB had told them about Burlington Telecom, and a number of media outlets raised questions about Nulty's relationship to BT's problems without actually investigating the story.

Now the Lake County News-Chronicle (which, over the course of this story, has taken the time to report facts rather than following the lazy lead of the Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune), reports that Lake County and National Public Broadband are kaput. Lake County is seeking a new partner to build the project.

Lake County could not reach agreement on a permanent contract with National Public Broadband, its consultant firm for nearly two years. The two sides battled for nearly two months and couldn’t solve issues based on bonus payments and the ability for the county to fire NPB without cause and without penalty. The negotiations had bogged down work on the actual project, Commissioner Paul Bergman said, and the board wanted a fresh start.

Additionally, due to the state of financial markets, the County is planning to self-fund the $3.5 million local obligation required to access to the broadband stimulus award. Lake County hoped to bond for the matching funds but the current interest rates make that an fiscally unwise approach.

While this does not change the project, it will change the perception of the project and open it to increased attacks from those who don't want the County to build a network (despite the fact that private providers have no interest in providing anything other than slow DSL and cable networks).

The County had long maintained that no public money would be used. However, most people will likely not care as long as the project keeps its promise to deliver fast, reliable, and affordable broadband to the community. This is the need -- and people need to stay focused on achieving this goal.

At a commissioner meeting in late December, Gary Fields commented to the Board that they had to have trust in NPB if the project was going to work. It is hard to know without being at most of the previous meetings, but I suspect the problem came as a result of NPB being nuanced about Burlington Telecom (until late 2009, no one knew how badly the post-Nulty management had hurt BT). Some of the Commissioners apparently interpreted BT as an unqualified success and felt misled when they learned of BT's present problems.

Regardless of who was at fault (and to what degree), Fields was correct. These projects are necessary but still damn hard to build. There will be a lot of stress and it is better for NPB and Lake County to split now if they cannot heal the past. Otherwise, the inevitable bumps in the road of the project (that will occur no matter who builds the networks), would likely just open old wounds and hurt the project. The project needs to have the strong support (and unwavering oversight) of the community, particularly as incumbent providers (ahem, Mediacom) look for any weakness to derail the potential for residents to have actual choices in telecommunications services.

National Public Broadband should be credited with bringing the stimulus award to Lake County -- now it is on Lake County to follow through and make the project work. No one builds these networks because it is easy -- they build them because the future of the region requires fast, affordable, and reliable broadband.