WindomNet Saves Jobs, Provides Stellar Customer Service

Minnesota Public Radio, as part of its Ground Level Broadband Coverage has profiled WindomNet with a piece called "Who should build the next generation of high-speed networks?"

Dan Olsen, who runs the municipal broadband service in Windom, was just about to leave work for the night when he got a call. The muckety-mucks at Fortune Transportation, a trucking company on the outskirts of town, were considering shuttering their office and leaving the area.

"They said, Dan, you need to get your butt out here now," Olsen recalls. "I got there and they said, 'You need to build fiber out here. What would it take for you to do it?'"

Fortune, which employs 47 people in the town of 4,600, two and a half hours southwest of the Twin Cities, relies on plenty of high-tech gadgetry. Broadband Internet access figures into how the company bids for jobs, communicates with road-bound truckers, controls the temperatures in its refrigerated trucks and remotely views its office in Roswell, New Mexico. Fortune even uses the Internet to monitor where and to what extent drivers fill their gas tanks in order to save money.

Yet, when it was time to upgrade company systems three years ago, Fortune's private provider couldn't offer sufficient speeds.

That's where Windomnet came in. Though Fortune was a mile outside the municipal provider's service area, "We jumped through the hoops and made it happen," recalls Olsen. "The council said, "Do it and we'll figure out how to pay for it.' We got a plow and a local crew. We had it built in 30 days."

I have thought about this story frequently when I hear claims that publicly owned networks are failures. For years, lobbyists for cable and phone companies have told everyone in the state what a failure WindomNet has been - they crow about debt service exceeding revenue while ignoring the fact that all networks -- public and private -- take many years of losses before they break even because nearly all the costs of the network are paid upfront.

Toward the end of the article (which should be read in its entirely rather than in the snippets I repost here), Dan puts the matter in context:

Dan Olsen retorts that Windomnet was never designed to make money; one of the benefits of a municipal system is that nobody takes profits out of it. He says the plan was to break even by year five, which arrived in 2010, and it looks like they'll come within $50,000 of doing so.

"We don't charge enough to make money," says Olsen, noting that Windomnet serves the vast majority of the town's 2,000 homes with internet, phone, cable or all three. They also provide free service to city buildings and the library. "The point is not to make money, but to break even," Olsen says. "The number one goal of the system is to provide broadband to the residents of Windom."

And the vast majority of residents take service from WindomNet. With a population of 4600, meaning probably 2000 households, the network has 1846 fiber drops that are active with at least one service. They have people working for companies in South Dakota but able to work from home regularly due to the Internet connection. Compare that to Sibley County, where Qwest has not even bothered to offer DSL in the county seat of Gaylord!

And the customer service comes highly recommended. Again, from the MPR article:

For his part, Dale Rothstein, who runs the IT systems at Fortune in Windom, says, "I get three calls per month from people trying to get me to convert. I say 'no.' Dan and Windomnet took care of us. I'm not going anywhere. It's a great relationship. When there is a problem, I call and it's taken care of. It's great to have a local company to deal with."

Major providers, like Frontier (famous for some of the worst DSL in the nation) pretend to be reasonable on the issue by claiming that publicly owned networks will make it harder to reach the highest cost households. This must be why Frontier is trying to derail the Sibley County project from building fiber-to-the-farm when Frontier can't even provide reliable slow DSL across all of its phone lines in the area. Not only does Frontier have no plan to connect these farmers, they have no reason to as such an investment would not generate sufficient return for them to be interested.

FiberNet Monticello

TDS has been the king of BS in this arena, putting out patently absurd press statements that reporters feel compelled to repeat no matter how implausible. Regarding Monticello, MN, which built a FTTH network compelling TDS to upgrade their poor DSL service (while also delaying the Monticello network with a year-long frivolous lawsuit that was eventually tossed out of court):

Fast forward to today, a city with two fiber networks. Andrew Petersen, director of external affairs for TDS, acknowledges "the importance of broadband to stimulate economic development in urban and rural communities" and says his company would have built a fiber network eventually, without prodding from the city. He believes the network may be somewhat ahead of its time, though.

Ha! Monticello begged TDS to invest in a modern network and TDS refused, saying that their DSL was perfectly suitable for what Monticello needed. They suddenly changed their mind when the City decided to build their own network to ensure not only faster, more reliable connections, but a LOCAL option.

Keep an eye on this MPR coverage of broadband - they have several of the few reporters in the state that have developed a good background in telecom and can get beyond the soundbites too common in broadband coverage. Well done.

This article led to a great response on Connected Planet Online by Joan Engebretson:

Take this quote from a Frontier executive cited in the MPR story. “Simply pouring money into projects that overbuild and compete with networks built by private investment discourages private investment and does not help reach those highest cost households,” the exec said. “Duplication of the network is no guarantee of success, and is often simply a waste of both public and private resources.”

This argument, of course, ignores the fact that if the new facilities truly were simply a “duplication” of what was already there, there would be no need for them and local municipalities would not be taking on the task of building the new higher-speed networks.

Exactly.