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"YES!" RS Fiber Wins More Recognition

Minnesota's RS Fiber Cooperative is getting well-deserved attention from a variety of sources far beyond the Land of 10,000 Lakes. In addition to kudos from experts in the telecommunications industry, their story was recently shared in YES! Magazine.

Innovative Partnership

On August 1st, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) announced that RS Fiber Cooperative had received that 2016 Community Broadband Innovative Partnership Award. NATOA President Jodie Miller said of this award and the other 2016 distinctions: “These pioneers were selected based on their extraordinary efforts, achievements and innovation in community-based approaches to broadband technology.” NATOA will present the awards in September at their 36th Annual Conference in Austin, Texas.

Earlier this summer, the communities that belong to the co-op were honored with an award from the Minnesota League of Cities.

YES! Magazine Profiles RS Fiber

Ben DeJarnette from YES! Magazine spoke with our Christopher Mitchell about the cooperative:

“I don’t want to say that everyone can do this, but a lot of places could do it if they had this effort,” Mitchell said. “And I don’t think anyone’s going to have to go through the same level of challenge again, because now there’s a model.”

DeJarnette's article described some the struggles of rural life with poor or absent Internet access based on our report, “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative”: farmers unable to share crop data with business contacts; local businesses with no access to online commerce; and school children with no way to complete online homework assignments. The article explains how the RS Fiber project is helping this collaboration of small rural communities overcome the rural digital divide.


The article also dedicates sufficient coverage to the way the RS Fiber Cooperative is funding their infrastructure build. With no federal funding, and investment from community banks, this project is truly locally grown. From the article:

As long as local demand meets projections, revenue from the broadband network will more than repay government loans, and taxpayers won’t owe a dime. 

“That’s the win-win,” said Chris Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, who has studied the project. “It’s a model in which local governments can take on the risk if they’re willing, and local banks can get a very reasonable return.”

The Fifth Utility

Lisa Skubal, vice president of economic development for the Cedar Valley Chamber of Commerce spoke with DeJarnette about the roll that high-quality Internet access plays in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “From an economic development standpoint, fiber optic high-speed Internet is the fifth utility…We live in such a globalized society right now that having broadband connectivity is imperative for businesses.” Last year, President Obama visited the community to highlight the potential of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The RS Fiber Cooperative network has already attracted a new endeavor to the region. The Minnesota College of Osteopathic Medicine, attracted by the new fiber network, will be operating out of a building in Gaylord, one of the communities that belong to the co-op.

More On RS Fiber

Learn more about how farmers use this new utility and how the co-op has changed life in rural Minnesota in a recent PBS News Hour video, which features RS Fiber and a similar project, in Massachusetts, Wired West.

Get the details on the RS Fiber Cooperative from our report, free to download and to share.

You can also check out our other coverage, including Christopher's interview with Mark Erickson, City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director, and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke in Episode #198 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with Mark and Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz early in the process during Episode #99. You can find more at the RS Fiber Coop and Sibley County tags.

RS Fiber Ignites - Community Connections Video Podcast Part 2 of 2

On Wednesday, November 18, 2015 Christopher Mitchell sat down with Bill Wallace of US Ignite and Mark Erickson of the city of Winthrop, Minnesota. In part 2 of our ongoing series, Chris, Bill and Mark talk more about the "nuts and bolts" of building a network. Come back each Wednesday for new video content!

This interview is paired with ILSR's report, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative. The report documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.

RS Fiber Ignites - Community Connections Video Podcast

On Wednesday, November 18, 2015 Christopher Mitchell sat down with Bill Wallace of US Ignite and Mark Erickson of the city of Winthrop, Minnesota, to talk about the exciting applications communities can develop if they have the connectivity they need.

This interview is paired with ILSR's report, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative. The report documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this video podcast on RS Fiber, to be released Thursday as part of our ongoing series featuring community and policy leaders in the field.

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative

Publication Date: 
April 18, 2016
Scott Carlson
Christopher Mitchell

A new trend is emerging in rural communities throughout the United States: Fiber-to-the-Farm. Tired of waiting for high-quality Internet access from big companies, farmers are building it themselves. 

Communities in and around Minnesota’s rural Sibley County are going from worst to best after building a wireless and fiber-optic cooperative. While federal programs throw billions of dollars to deliver last year’s Internet speeds, local programs are building the network of the future. 

In “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Next Century Cities documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.  

RS Fiber Cooperative Breaks Ground

Six years after an initial feasibility study was conducted to assess bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in southeastern Minnesota, members of the RS Fiber Cooperative board were finally able to dust off their shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9. Although those shovels may have ended up being more symbolic than they were practical, the ceremony marked an important and long-awaited step in the fight to extend broadband to 10 cities and 17 rural townships across the largely agricultural region.

The groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of stage one of a two-stage project that will take five to six years to complete. By the end of 2015, the RS (Renville-Sibley) Fiber Cooperative plans to connect 1,600 homes and businesses with fiber, with 90 percent of its service area covered by high-speed wireless. It hopes to connect another 2,600 homes and businesses by the end of 2016, with the eventual goal of reaching 6,200 potential customers. At the event, Toby Brummer, RS Fiber General Manager, highlighted the importance of broadband Internet to rural development:

This technology is to this generation what rural electric and rural telephone was to generations years ago.

The RS Fiber Cooperative is member-owned and member-driven, led by a Joint Powers Board that formed in 2009. In order to provide FTTH to the rural locations across the two counties, the cooperative partnered with a network operator, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that already serves 17 communities in southeast Minnesota. RS Fiber will offer residential Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit for $129.95. It will also connect schools, bolster home and farm security systems, and even facilitate high school sports broadcasts and telemedicine initiatives.

The local governments each sold a General Obligation Tax Abatement Bond that in aggregate totalled $15 million that was loaned to the cooperative, which helped offset the cost of the initial phase of construction. It was a seed that allowed the coop to gather the rest of the necessary funding. The project’s overall funding includes both bonds and commercial loans from community banks.

Community Broadband Networks has followed the RS Fiber project closely as it jumped through several hurdles to create a financially sustainable plan to provide both urban and rural residents FTTH and fiber-to-the-farm services, respectively. ILSR highlighted the cooperative in its 2014 report - All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Chris also interviewed Co-op Vice Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson last May in a Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Board members, according to a recent Gov Tech article, are hopeful that an osteopathic medical school that is coming to Gaylord will use the cooperative’s service.

Bringing broadband to rural communities like the ones in Renville and Sibley counties is critical to the future of the region. Without proper Internet access companies will not think of relocating to the area and when young generations leave, they will leave for good. As Vice Chair Gerholz told Chris:

One of the things that I'm looking at, too, for this whole project is that hopefully it will expand companies, and make invitations to companies, to come to this area. Which will then give more jobs for our kids, and keep our kids at home. Because we lose our kids. They go to college, and they're gone.

Enhanced broadband capacities will give those kids reason to stay, and make the region - which has experienced a steady population decline since the 1970s - economically competitive once again.

Local Communities Still Committed to RS Fiber Cooperative

Green Isle and nine other communities have reaffirmed their commitment to the RS Fiber Cooperative, reports the Belle Plain Herald. The project began in 2010 as a collaboration between a number of local county and municipal government entities in south central Minnesota. Local residents rallied behind the project, which was designed to connect both towns and surrounding farms. 

Unfortunately, the project faced difficulties due to incumbent intimidation and the high cost of deployment in such a large geographic area. Sibley County officials chose to back out of the project, requiring a business plan reboot. Locals, recognizing the critical need for better connectivity chose to instead form the RS Fiber Cooperative.

The Herald reports that in its first 2015 City Council meeting, Green Isle voted 3 - 1 in favor of a resolution stating continued support to the project. Similar resolutions have passed in Winthrop, Gibbon, Fairfax, Lafayette, Gaylord, Stewart, New Auburn and Brownton. 

Henderson and Arlington, located in Sibley County, have opted to not participate in the coop. 

Coop Directors endorsed an updated business plan in November, reported Prairie Business Magazine. The project will bring better connectivity options to approximately 6,200 customers in Sibley County, parts of Renville County, and portions of Nicollet and McLeod Counties. The revised business plan, scaled back from the original plan to bring fiber to every property in Sibley and Renville Counties, reduces project costs by more than 30 percent.

Participating communities will collectively issue $13.7 million in general obligation bonds. Local investors, bank loans, and other financing will provide the remaining $42 million. The project is scheduled for completion in 2018.

Phil Keithahn, RS Fiber Coop financial planner, told KEYC Mankato that the network will have triple-play capabilities, bringing Internet, phone, and video to remote rural areas. Community leaders are motivated by the need to improve connectivity for agriculture, tele-medicine, and education.:

"It levels the playing field for people who live and work in rural America with people who are in the twin cities. So it's an economic development tool for south central Minnesota."

Readers who have followed this project will recall that south central Renville and Sibley counties, largely farming communities, have faced many challenges since the project inception. The rural nature of the region increased the cost of deployment but the community wanted to include every one. Incumbent Frontier negatively impacted the project by injecting fear into several local leaders, which complicated the ability to fund the project. Nevertheless, the intense interest and community involvement has kept this project moving forward.

For a detailed look at the RS Fiber Cooperative story, read our case study in All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. 

You can also listen to our May 2014 podcast interview with Mark Erickson, Winthrop Town Manager, and Cindy Gerholz, RS Fiber Coop Vice-Chair. We also spoke with Linda Kramer from the group's Marketing Committee back in 2012.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 12, 2014

This week in Community Broadband networks... partnerships, cooperatives, and going-it-alone. For a background in muni networks, check out this recent article from FiscalNote. The article highlights Kansas and Utah's fight for improving beyond the minimum speeds. 

Speaking of minimum, the FCC announced its new "rock bottom" for regulated broadband speeds. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reports that despite AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable and Telecom Association's protests, ISPs that use government subsidies to build rural broadband networks must provide speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads.

Rural Americans should not be left behind those who live in big cities, the FCC announcement today said. "According to recent data, 99 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service," the FCC said.

The FCC plans to offer nearly $1.8 billion a year to carriers willing to expand service to 5 million rural Americans. 

This is a step in the right direction, but we are alarmed to see a download:upload ratio of 10:1. People in rural areas need to upload as well as download - our comments to the FCC strongly recommended raising the upstream threshold as well and we are very disappointed to see that remain a pathetic 1 Mbps.

And, from TechDirt's own "who can you trust if you can't trust the phone company department," Karl Bode found that a study by the AT&T-funded Progressive Policy Institute concluded that if Title II regulations were passed, the nation would be "awash in $15 billion in various new Federal and State taxes and fees. Bode writes that the study cherry-picked and conflated data:

The reality the broadband industry doesn't want to acknowledge is that very little changes for it under Title II if carriers aren't engaged in bad behavior. The broadband industry is fighting Title II solely to protect potential revenues generated from abusing uncompetitive markets. That this self-serving behavior is being dressed up as concern about the size of your broadband bill is the industry's best comedic work to date.

Cities Pursuing Community Broadband

Nancy Scola reported on the growing collective of "Next Century Cities." 

[The group's] early expansion is a signal of what seems to be a shift in the way Americans are thinking about high-speed Internet access: the idea that cities will the battlegrounds for the playing out of the broadband debates. One effect of these cities working so closely with Google as it rolls out its fiber network in places like Kansas City and Austin is a realization that mayors can take broadband into their own hands -- whether that's through a municipal solution like Chattanooga's gigabit network or through partnering with traditional Internet service providers such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Other partnerships are also moving muni networks forward

At the same time as the Next Century Cities announcement, the Department of Agriculture announced $190.5 million in grants and loans for rural broadband and telecommunications infrastructure.

"Modern telecommunications and broadband access is now as essential to the businesses and residents of rural America as electricity was in the 1930s," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a USDA statement. The funding will go towards providing, “broadband in areas that lack it, help rural-serving public television stations begin using digital broadcasts and support other telecommunications infrastructure improvements."

Jason Meyers with LightReading explains why utility companies (like EPB in Chattanooga) are positioned so well to be home to gigabit networks.  

Several communities are considering local options for networks. Some are just in the earliest study phases: Medina County and Athens in Ohio and Walla Walla, Washington are among them. RS Fiber in Minnesota has approved its updated business plan and financial strategy, meaning it can move forward with its cooperative network, and several communities in Northeastern Oklahoma are pursuing a cooperative plan as well.

It looks like the push for local options in Colorado is having an affect on other communities. Aspen and Pitkin County have submitted requests for proposals-- perhaps inspired by Longmont, Boulder, and the rest of the communities we reported on after the November referenda.  

Meantime, Bruce Kushnick with the Huffington Post reported this week that communities all over the country have been paying for fiber infrastructure upgrades, but have seen almost none of the investment. 

Starting in 1991, the phone companies went state-to-state to get changes in state laws, known as "alternative regulations" to charge customers for the replacement of the copper wires that were part of the state-based utility, like Verizon New Jersey, with a fiber optic wire capable of 45 Mbps in both directions, the standard speed for broadband in 1992.

And though it varied by state, this fiber optic wiring was to be done everywhere -- urban, rural, and suburban, rich and poor communities and cities, and even the schools were to be wired in some states. All customers were paying for the upgrades of this future fiber optic broadband utility so they all deserved to be upgraded.

Check it out and see if your community is on the list. And if you think this isn't the first time you've heard about this Big Ripoff, you're right-- We interviewed him on Community Broadband Bits Episode 28

Net Neutrality

This week, New Jersey's Cory Booker and Maine's Angus King defended net neutrality on CNN. 

The Internet is one of the most powerful tools on the planet. Across the globe, millions of people connect every minute of every day to harness its wealth of information, exchange ideas in an open platform and foster the type of innovation and entrepreneurship that spurs economic growth.

And today, it's never been more at risk in the United States.

Washington Post's Brian Fung reported that there are hints that the telecom industry is preparing for a new Title II reclassification. Verizon's CFO Francis Shammo said, in a nutshell, that the company would do just fine if the FCC imposed the stricter regulations. 

"I mean to be real clear, I mean this does not influence the way we invest. I mean we're going to continue to invest in our networks and our platforms, both in Wireless and Wireline FiOS and where we need to. So nothing will influence that. I mean if you think about it, look, I mean we were born out of a highly regulated company, so we know how this operates.

Despite this very clear statement, we expect to see still more claims from groups like the AT&T puppet Progressive Policy Institute that Title II would somehow cause major carriers to invest even less in networks across the United States. Though, if the market were half as competitive as they claim, any firm that invested less would be in big trouble! How do we know when they are lying? Well, are their lips moving?

New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."