Sibley County Discusses Rural Fiber-to-the-Farm

Last night, I drove down to Winthrop (Sibley County) and then Fairfax (Renville County) to get a better sense of their discussions around next-generation broadband networks (originally covered here).

Throughout this week, they are having public meetings to discuss the potential project though the feasibility study is not yet completed. Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting, author of the feasibility study, is in town talking with folks about potential approaches. However, he made it clear that there is no guarantee they will find a business plan that can work to cover all of Sibley County and the area around Fairfax. Stay current on their project from the Sibley & Renville County Fiber site.

Winthrop's City Administrator, Mark Erickson, is committed to serving the farms though. There is little doubt that the project could succeed financially by serving only the towns, which harbor some 80% of the population. But Erickson recognizes that the towns depend on the farmers and that everyone will benefit more from the network if it is universally available.

Many of the people in towns already have access to some basic broadband - either a slow DSL (in some cases so slow even the old super slow FCC broadband definition does not cover it) or a last-generation cable network from Mediacom. The cable television comes out of Dubuque though, so it isn't exactly local.

The project was originally conceived to cover Sibley County. However, a high school in nearby Fairfax has decided to use iPads [pdf] to revamp its curriculum and it would be a travesty to have such great broadband available across the county border when so many students at GFW have iPads but little access to true broadband.

Most of the area schools have continued to do what they can with basic T.1 lines - too little broadband (at too high a cost!) to really use any modern educational applications. And the mandated state-wide testing is a nightmare across these connections. The new network will bring proper broadband connections at affordable rates.

Map of Sibley County

At the meeting in Fairfax, there was definitely concern that it would simply be uneconomical to include all the farms. Though the costs are high, sometimes I think everyone has bought too deep into the idea that we cannot run fiber to everyone in this country. We have forgotten the successes of rural electrification, that we can solve these infrastructure problems to the benefit of everyone.

A common theme across all these networks is that the cities really do not want to get involved but are compelled to take responsibility because they have no future without broadband. Economic development and quality of life are very much linked to broadband access.

Ironically, Mark Erickson moved to Winthrop to get away from the hassles of telecom -- he used to work for Hiawatha Broadband (HBC), one of the few private companies that partners with cities to operate on city-owned infrastructure (as they do in Monticello). He had washed his hands of telecom and broadband until his City Council told him they needed to do something to improve broadband access for the citizens.

In six weeks they should get some numbers from the feasibility study to get a sense of how a project could work. In the meantime, the results of the telephone survey found a lot of support for local government getting involved in building a network (though the final network may be a coop model rather than being municipally-owned).

In the meantime, we'll see if Mediacom and phone companies start trying to erode that base of support with the standard campaign of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) that they are famous for.