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Bill to Boost Broadband in Minnesota Struggles in Legislature
In a revealing video about the Internet access problem in rural Minnesota, Annandale City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp below describes her town's struggle with connectivity. The video is the latest in a series on the Minnesota Senate DFL YouTube page intended to shed light on the critical situation in the state.
Hinnenkamp describes broadband in the areas outside of Annadale as "horrific." She goes on to discuss how the community's poor connectivity negatively impacts its economic health. She shares a story about entrepreneurs from an artisan spice business once located in Annandale. The company started with online sales but the owners anticipated opening a storefront in the downtown area of the lake community. After contending with eight outages in three weeks, the new business pulled up stakes and moved to Buffalo.
Buffalo, located only 15 minutes away from Annandale, offers fast, reliable, affordable fiber service to local businesses.
In a February Minnesta Public Radio News article, Hinnenkamp told Dave Peters:
“Broadband is probably the single most important issue in our community right now,” she said. “Our big issue is not that we don’t have service but that we have one provider that has shown little interest in improving it. Broadband is our future."
In a Star Tribune article, Pete Kormanik, the owner of a local McDonald's, expressed his concern as a business owner:
Downloading data for a digital menu board — a task that would have taken 30 minutes at his other restaurants — dragged on for more than four hours.
After delays in processing credit cards, watching training videos and transmitting orders, Kormanik switched to an AT & T antenna. But a cloudy day can slow that service.
“If you can’t stay current with [connectivity], you’re just going to fall behind,” Kormanik said. “And businesses won’t go into those locations.”
New Hampshire's Bill Would Allow Munis to Bond for Open Access
A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town. We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly [no-glossary]passed[/no-glossary] the house. Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called FastRoads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it. Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins. Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.
Washington's Okanogan County PUD Expanding Fiber Network
Okanogan County, located along the extreme north central border of Washington State, is expanding its wholesale fiber optic network to more small local communities. The Okanogan Public Utility District (PUD) received a $5.5 million grant and a $3.7 million loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and will extend service to about 80% of the PUD service area. The county is home to about 41,000 people.
According to a recent Methow Valley News article, the construction began in February and the project is schedule for completion by the end of 2013. The network will be about 200 miles long and will also include 143 wireless access points along the power line route. Construction will also include new poles, tall enough to host both power and fiber optic lines. According to the PUD's director of power:
Some people who will now have the option of faster Internet connections were previously served only by dial-up or satellite services, said [Ron] Gadeberg. Even with the expanded “last-mile” network, “there are still tons of unmet needs, because it’s such a big county and some people are so remote that it is cost-prohibitive to serve them,” he said.
A local ISP, MethowNet.com, offers service to customers on the PUD's existing fiber network and will expand northward to serve additional communities north of its current service area.
Westminster, Maryland, to Move Forward With Fiber Pilot Projects
Westminster, Maryland, began public consideration for community broadband investment last fall and has now decided to "stick our toe in the water and see how it works." The Carroll County Times recently reported that the community will move ahead with engineering for two community pilot projects.
Local leaders see this as an opportunity to flesh out any challenges for residential and business connectivity. Carroll Lutheran Village, a retirement community, was chosen for several reasons. From the article:
The residential pilot project, Carroll Lutheran Village, would cover approximately 90 acres, according to the feasibility study.
The area presents well-defined boundaries and enough population density to allow a relatively small fiber build to reach a relatively large group of currently unserved residents, the study states.
Carroll Lutheran Village will also provide insight into potential construction issues around single and multi-family housing, and the benefits and impacts of telehealth, according to the study.
Westminster's business pilot project, located in the Westminster Technology Park, is near the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN). The feasibility study notes the location as a good candidate for economic development and also a relatively dense area. We had a great conversation with Gary Davis from CCPN in episode #43 of the Broadband Bits podcast. Davis relayed how the CCPN is saving money and creating opportunities for Caroll County Public Schools.
Both Westminster projects include local cost sharing for construction; the city will use capital benefit assessment funds specially designated for such improvements. Estimate for both projects is $650,000.
Westminster's long-term goal is to connect every resident and business in the city. Like the situation all over the county, Westminster cannot convince large providers to bring the connectivity they need for economic development.
ECFiber Customer Shares Her Story, Locally Owned Network Continues to Grow
Last year, we reported that ECFiber was in the process of connecting rural Vermont, with a focus on connecting those who had no access to broadband. In addition to large investments from a limited number of investors, local citizens began lending funds to expand the network.
In a recent open letter to the Governor, published in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, Laura Zantzinger from Barnard describes how ECFiber touches her household. Zantzinger's home tech company can now expand because she has the capacity she needs from ECFiber. Zantzinger also discusses how fiber access helps her son academically:
My son attends an online high school in a program offered through one of the top universities in the country. He attends video conference classes, lectures, meetings, and myriad other communications online to California, and places all over the globe.
Two years ago, we moved out of state, renting a house elsewhere to get the Internet, because my son was not able to participate in class. His grades suffered because of it. Last year, we rented an office in another town where Internet was available.
Zantzinger describes two growing trends - home based businesses and distance learning - that require access to broadband. Zantzinger shares strong words of praise for ECFiber's mission, experienced by her first hand:
ECFiber’s approach has been open and community-oriented. They just want to get it built, pay it off, and hand it over to the towns. They are willing to make things work, even if it is hard, if it means they can serve the customer. Their priorities as expressed in the meetings were amazing to me.
According to the ECFiber blog, funding is moving forward to bring the network to neaby Woodstock. From the blog:
Mediacom Continues Obstructing Rural Broadband Rollout in Lake County Minnesota
Colorado Broadband Bill Seeks Access Answers
US Broadband Policy: Competition for Some!
As with the broadband stimulus funds being handed out by the Commerce Department, NCTA is concerned that the USF money not go to overbuild its members. "It would be a poor use of scarce government resources to subsidize a broadband competitor in communities--including many small, rural communities -where cable operators have invested risk capital to deploy broadband services," McSlarrow says.This seems like a common sense argument. Why would we want to subsidize broadband for those who already have a single option (underserved) when others have no choice at all (unserved)? Unfortunately, building networks to solve the problem of the unserved is all but impossible without simultaneously serving some who are underserved. This is because the unserved are often in areas so remote and expensive to serve, there is no sustainable business model to serve only them. So the idea that we could somehow only target the unserved with networks is extremely suspect. Unless we want to endlessly subsidize networks in these areas (which companies like Qwest emphatically want because they would likely collect those subsides endlessly), we need to encourage sustainable networks that reach across those already served, underserved, and unserved.
He added that it also might discourage the incumbent from continuing to risk that capital. "Government subsidies for one competitor in markets already served by broadband also might discourage the existing provider from making continued investments in its network facilities.I certainly respect this argument up to a point. But when it comes to essential infrastructure, we know that most existing providers (particularly absentee-owned massive companies) are delaying investments in network facilities anyway because the lack of true competition allows them to delay making the investments more common in our international peers (where true competition exists, often as a result of smarter government policies than we can muster here).