Update from Lake County Fiber Project (Minnesota)

New Update: Mediacom has invented language in the Joint Power Agreement and threatened the Mayors of Silver Bay and Two Harbors. Let's see how dirty Mediacom will get to prevent competition.

Lake County, recipient of a broadband stimulus award to build a rural county-wide (larger, actually) fiber-to-the-home network, has been wrestling with questions they have related to the problems at Burlington Telecom. After some lazy reporting in the Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune exaggerated Tim Nulty's role in the problems Burlington Telecom now faces, some on the County Board began asking more questions of National Public Broadband (of which Tim is CEO).

I attended a meeting after Christmas to observe the discussion, share our understanding of the situation, and discuss the experiences of other community networks. Next week, the County Board plans to decide whether they will alter the arrangement with National Public Broadband or possibly seek another partner in the project -- a development that may have implications for changes or revocation of the stimulus funding.

It is important to note that due to structural differences, the problems in Burlington (which, at the least, were hidden from the public allowing them to snowball) are extremely unlikely to repeat in Lake County.

The Lake County Chronicle has published a lengthy editorial responding to concerns and noting the ramifications of any changes to the partnership with National Public Broadband. As of this writing, it is not yet behind a pay wall.

It offers some wise thoughts:

Like the debate over whether the meetings being held to draw up the rollout plans for the county should be public or private, NPB needs to better apply the rules of working within the expectations of open government. We demand transparency and a full accounting of tax dollars.

It’s fair to wonder, as some board members did last week, just what NPB would withhold from the board if things don’t go swimmingly with the Lake County plan. All adjustments, all bumps along the road, need to be publicly and fully discussed.

The county can use NPB’s disclosure mistake to its advantage, by holding NPB’s feet to the fire on all elements of the fiber rollout plan. If NPB can convince the board that this early communication snafu is the last, members would be right to keep moving forward with the project by permanently partnering with NPB.

The real lesson to learn from Burlington is the importance of proper oversight and communication. Lake County Commissioners and the public need to be apprised how the network is doing, including what problems arise and how they are resolved (there are always problems!). This does not mean National Public Broadband should have to publicly disclose what it pays for channel contracts - but it will likely have to disclose more than competitors Mediacom, Qwest, or other private sector companies publicly disclose. Such is the nature of accountability.

Any risk with the current plan is outweighed by the risk of continuing to rely on the private sector for this essential infrastructure:

You can’t begrudge the services already in place. But we can do better and Lake County is taking a lead on getting up-to-date, enviable technology to the region. Those who depend on higher-speed, dependable Internet have been looking for someone to step up.

Last year’s line break that put cell phone, landline phone, and Internet service out for much of the North Shore was just one of the inadequacies put in the spotlight. The question to ask is this: How long are we supposed to wait for private companies to bring proper service to the area and what do those hoping to boost the economic footprint of the area tell companies who are demanding better service?

The editorial goes on to discuss a local business operating out of Duluth rather than Two Harbors (County seat) because Two Harbors does not have the reliable (and presumably affordable) connection he needs.