The first episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews Linda Kramer of the Sibley/Renville Fiber Project about the importance of rural broadband and fiber to the farm. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher: This is Christopher Mitchell with the Institute For Local Self-Reliance. We run the website community broadband network, which is located at muninetworks.org. This is the first of what we hope will be many audio shows featuring short interviews with people doing interest things to create networks that put community needs first. For this inaugural episode, I spoke with Linda Kramer from the marketing committee of the Sibley/Renville Fiber Project, which is a project building a fiber to the home network or fiber to the farm network in very rural Minnesota southwest of the Twin City's metro area. It covers all of Sibley County, several towns in the vicinity around there, and a part of Renville County as well. Many other areas are looking to get onboard once the project gets started. We mostly talked about their marketing efforts and how they spread the word and got people interested. Hope you enjoy the interview. Thank you for tuning in. Can you describe the region to me?
Linda: Sibley and Renville Counties are rural counties in south central Minnesota. We are predominantly agricultural communities. The biggest towns in our project towns area are in the vicinity of two-thousand residents, so then we're running with townships in a number of cities, small towns in the project area. Of course, mainly our agricultural and especially a rural area that we're working with. It's the entirety of Sibley County and then it's the western sliver of Renville County surrounding the City of Fairfax and then we have a few additional communities, towns, right outside the Sibley/Renville County area as well.
Christopher: What is the Sibley/Renville project trying to accomplish?
Linda: We are hoping to get broadband access to anyone who is interested within our project area. We are currently dealing with a number of different telecommunication providers. We've got phone companies. We've got cable companies. Each part of the area has a different provider it seems. What we want to do is have someone that will provide good service to us. Many of us in the rural area have very, very slow internet speeds. I'm at 2.5 megabits right now, and I'm paying quite a lot for it. That's the best I can find. I can't get anything faster here on my farm. We have people who the best they can get is dial up. They don't have any broadband access. They're in a valley where even the cell signal won't reach them. What we want to do is provide good broadband access to anyone who wants it in our project area.
Christopher: Then to be specific, you're looking at building a fiber to the farm network is what it's being called, I think, right?
Linda: Yes, though fiber to the home we bill it as a lot. It would be fiber to every farm, every household in town, every business that wants to sign on to the project and that's what unique about it is that it would be fiber directly to each home even in the rural areas. Many areas have done this before, but they've generally been in cities or more urban areas. This piece of adding it to the farms and to the rural people at the same time as doing it in the cities is very unique.
Christopher: Your role in this project has largely been one of, I think, getting people educated about the network and demonstrating support for it; is that right?
Linda: Right. I've been a member of the marketing committee from the beginning of the project. Initially it was to be a project just in the towns. When they held community meetings in each of the towns, a few of us who didn't really know each other went to the meetings. They said they were going to do this. Some people spoke up very loudly, "Well, what about us on the farm?" From that came a rural coalition of people from the rural areas who were really interested in this project. When it actually moved forward to the next step and a marketing committee was formed, most of the people on that marketing committee came from that rural coalition. Our marketing committee there's probably ten or twelve of us who are really the core group of that committee. The majority of those are rural residents, although we do have some people from the cities working on that as well. Our marketing committee's goal is to get the word out about the project, to secure pledge cards for people to see what level of interest we have, and to answer any questions that people have about the project.
Christopher: What are some of the specific tools you've used to make sure people are aware of the project?
Linda: We began with a mailing to everyone we could come up with an address for in the project area and that was just over a year ago. We followed that up with an e-mail sign up list. We send out e-mail reminders and updates periodically. We've got a website. We've got a Facebook page, grassroots, tell your neighbors, anything we could think of. The biggest push we did was when our county commissioners wanted a bigger number, bigger percentage of those pledge cards returned than we had. We had people jumping at us, "What can we do to help?" At that point we called for a meeting of volunteers to go door-to-door and talk to people. We called for the meeting on a Thursday, and that Sunday night we had seventy-five people show up ready to go door-to-door and make phone calls to actually get the word out.
Christopher: That's incredible. Now I just wanted to push into that a little bit. Now, my understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, was you had about forty-five percent at that point when the county said you needed to get still more; is that right?
Linda: Yes, we were probably a little less than forty-five, forty-one, forty-two percent at that time. The county commissioner said they wanted fifty percent to show a good level of support. Within, I'm forgetting the timeline here now, I believe it was about three weeks we got up over fifty-two, fifty-three percent project wide and that was just from people going out. We've got townships where we've got eighty-four percent of the people have signed on.
Christopher: Now, and just for the city slickers who are listening, the townships are generally the areas that are outside the urban centers, right to the extent ...
Linda: Right. The townships are the rural areas outside city limits. We're working with, I believe, twenty-one townships so those are rural, thirty-six square mile areas.
Christopher: Now, I don't want people to get the idea that that's the norm to get fifty percent. That's really something that's unprecedented to my knowledge. It's really an incredible accomplishment?
Linda: Right. It shows a need and a want of the people out here to have both good access and affordable access. We hear from the rural people that they need access of some sort. The speeds that we're talking are excellent, are so much better than what anybody in the rural areas can get. The people in town have access to some pretty descent broadband speeds, but they're unhappy with the providers, with the price of the providers, the support that the providers are giving. The people from the towns, the cities that are interested are looking for a better price, and a price that doesn't keep climbing up and up and up or a got you introductory price that's going jump up suddenly. The people in the rural areas are really just looking for access, good access.
Christopher: Just to make sure that people didn't miss it you said that eighty-five percent or eighty-four percent in one of the townships that really puts the lie to the idea that people in rural areas don't understand broadband or don't get the need, right?
Linda: Definitely. The age somebody said, "Well, it's only the young people that are going to want this." Our rural townships there's a lot of retired people out here. There's a lot of older people living on the farms, and they signed up too. I had neighbors who nobody thought they'd be interested in and sure enough they sent in a card. There is no stereotype of who it is that's interested in this service. Some people are interested in the lower prices. Some people are interested in the fact that we'll have a local calling area. Right now I've got a neighbor he's two miles down the road for me. He's got to a Winthrop telephone number family and a lot of his friends are in the Gibbon area. That's a long distance phone call from Winthrop to Gibbon. He lives four miles from given, and it's a long distance phone call. For him the catch was, "Oh, that would be a local phone call." It's different for everyone. Some people want TV that won't go out when it rains because right now their only cable type option is Dish Network or Direct TV. When it rains, then suddenly they can't get the radar up on the TV screen. Some of us want the broadband for better internet speeds for our kids to do their homework, for files to be sent back and forth, for weather reports and things like that. It's different from everyone. Some people just think it's really neat that it's a community project and that we're working on this together that its going to be locally provided and that they think we should've be keeping our money and our efforts in this community.
Christopher: The last thing that I wanted to make sure that we touched upon was, I thought it was fascinating and I may be just behind the curve, that when you were doing these meetings you tended to do three in one day; is that right --
Christopher: --in each community?
Christopher: Can you talk a little bit about how you structured those meetings and why?
Linda: Sure. We know that we have a variety of people in our community. We have the working people who can't get back for the meeting during the daytime so a 7:00 meeting in the evening works well for them. We've had people who don't care to go out at night and drive, especially in the winter because the weather is crazy, so a 10:00 in the morning meeting or a 2:00 in the afternoon meeting works better for them. People on shift work it just depends on what people's schedules are. When we scheduled these meetings in each of the communities, it was eleven communities originally, it was three in one day some of the meetings we'd maybe only get a handful of people at, some of them we'd get fifteen or twenty, but it was a way to show that we were trying to reach everyone and accommodate everyone and get the word out to everyone not just select groups of people.
Christopher: Well, I really appreciate the time you've taken to do the interview. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we knew?
Linda: I think this has been an incredible grassroots effort, and having it where the people want it and there's such strong support for the project has made our job of marketing the project incredibly easier because people want this and people are willing to work for it to make sure that we get this to work in our community.
Christopher: Thank you for listening that was Linda Kramer with the marketing committee of rsfiber.com the Sibley/Renville Fiber Project. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments on how we can improve this show. We would love to hear your feedback. You can send it to Broadband at muninetworks.org. Thank you.