Tag: "rural"

Posted December 16, 2011 by christopher

Exciting times in rural southwest Minnesota, as Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services has turned on its first customer. SMBS is a broadband stimulus-enabled partnership with eight rural communities and WindomNet, the muni FTTH network in Windom.

The Rev. Andrew Schensted and his wife, Lisa, were the first to be connected. The fiber-to-home connection provides “obnoxiously fast Internet,” Andrew Schensted said in a SMBS press release.

The SMBS Internet is “at least 10 times faster” than what they had when living in the metropolitan area, Andrew Schensted added. The couple has been able to streaming video in full HD from TV streaming websites.

So it begins... the Metro around Minneapolis and St Paul have to rely mostly on Comcast for connections to the Internet. CenturyLink's DSL is generally slower and in many places, utterly unreliable. Monticello has had a blazing fast connection (faster than we can get in the metro) at lower prices for more than a year. Communities served by HBC also have faster connections in SE Minnesota. In the coming year, the stimulus-funded networks on the North Shore will also have better connections than we can get. It will be curious to see how development patterns adjust in the coming years.

“The demand for higher-speed Internet in our rural area is daunting,” Olsen said. “People not only want faster speeds, they need it for their business operations. If the wireless trial is successful, it could provide a better option to those not on the fiber system. “

Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) is a consortium of eight communities including Bingham Lake, Brewster, Heron Lake, Jackson, Lakefield, Okabena, Round Lake and Wilder. The 125-mile, $12.8 million dollar fiber ring is expected to be completed in September 2012.

The fiber-optic communication network has the capacity to bring fast, competitively priced services for internet, phone and cable TV to residential subscribers as well as businesses and other community institutions. The government grant-supported project is intended to provide southwest Minnesota with the telecommunications connectivity required to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

The new network has bucked a strong trend among community fiber networks of offering symmetric connections to the Internet....

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Posted December 7, 2011 by christopher

Most of us are familiar either with Metcalfe's law or the general principle of it: networks are more valuable the more people are on it. The common example used to illustrate is a telephone. One person on a telephone network is useless. Two people is an improvement. With millions, you are far more likely to be able to call the person you want to.

Metcalfe network effect

Recognizing this principle flips common arguments about connecting rural areas on their head. Ensuring that people in rural areas are connected benefits everyone -- it is not charity. Connecting people in rural areas increases the value of the connections in urban areas, creating more value for everyone.

But the flip side may be too rarely considered. As these networks have grown in size (and therefore value), the cost of those who are excluded from them also increases significantly. This means that while the costs of not connecting rural areas are high today, those costs will be even greater in coming years. The argument is rather intuitive, but for those who want to learn more, Rahul Tongia and Ernest J Wilson III published an academic paper this year in the International Journal of Communications.

The abstract for "The Flip Side of Metcalfe's Law: Multiple and Growing Costs of Network Exclusion" is here:

The study of networks has grown recently, but most existing models fail to capture the costs or loss of value of exclusion from the network. Intuitively, as a network grows in size and value, those outside the network face growing disparities. We present a new framework for modeling network exclusion, showing that costs of exclusion can be absolute, and might, at the extreme, eventually grow exponentially, regardless of underlying network structure. We find that costs of exclusion can also be spread to the “included” through several mechanisms such as parallel networks, and we also highlight how future research needs to capture the interaction of alternate or parallel networks to the network at hand. Backed by empirical evidence, this will have wide-reaching policy and design implications, particularly for the role of subsidies or direct intervention for...

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Posted November 23, 2011 by christopher

Reedsburg Utilites, the owner and operator of a muni FTTH network north of Madison, Wisconsin, is finally moving forward on a project to connect rural areas of Sauk County. Last year, Reedsburg received a broadband stimulus award to expand its network but hit a series of stumbling blocks that called the project into question.

The first problem is a common one when taking federal money -- Davis-Bacon wage rules. The bids from contractors were higher than expected because the appropriate wages according to the law are sometimes based on flawed data. In this case, contractors based the wages on highway construction rates, which increased the costs of the project by 50%. In other cases, we've heard of Davis-Bacon setting rates in rural areas based on urban wages, making projects harder to finance.

Reedsburg apparently found a work-around (after first seeking a waiver from the provision):

Instead of accepting the bids, the utility decided to bid out rental contracts worth about $4 million to various companies, because the utility would not have to pay federal rates for temporary labor.

Then the prices for fiber-optic cable and duct rapidly increased due to the increase in demand from stimulus projects and the Japan earthquake. Finally, they were stuck waiting for final approval from RUS.

Now they are moving forward with the $9.5 million project ($5.2 million grant, the rest in revenue bonds), which is good given the apparent demand they are seeing for the service:

Douglas [Reedsburg Utilities Marketing and Media Specialist] said the utility has seen a very high rate of interest in the new service.

"I would say nine out of the 10 people I've talked to are on board, out of everyone we've met with so far," Douglas said.

Posted November 17, 2011 by christopher

Dunnellon, a small town in Marion County south of Gainesville, decided to invest in a community fiber network to spur growth and diversify its income stream. Though citizens did not want to cut government services, they have not been pleased at property tax increases.

364 days ago, we published a story discussing their financing.

The town itself is quite small, with 1,733 residents but the network will be serving areas in the County as well. Though AT&T and Comcast offer services in the area, they have big gaps in coverage and apparently the cable television packages are antiquated (only 50 channels???).

An article last year noted Dunnellon's Internet connections will range from 10Mbps to 125Mbps. They hope to sign up 1,647 subscribers within 6 months of launch -- the network is named Greenlight (not sure if they were aware that the city of Wilson, NC, already operates a triple-play FTTH network called Greenlight).

They hoped to launch 6 months ago. Bill Thompson's "Dunnellon dreams of a connectied future," offers a comprehensive look at the promise and the challenges Dunnellon faces.

Dunnellon's city manager comes from Valparaiso, which had a city-owned cable network that upgraded to FTTH. Unfortunately, Dunnellon is in the hard position of building a network from scratch.

logo-valp-net.jpg

Building a new network requires a massive up-front capital investment - in this case the city will have spent $4.4 million to connect the first connection. Good thing they aren't all that expensive!

The article identifies two main sources of the delays: difficulty in getting on the poles owned by Progress Energy and long delays in receiving the fiber-optic cable they ordered (stimulus projects have hogged the supply). Rather than taking 12 weeks, they had to wait 30. Delays cause problems:

The installation delay has put the city in a pinch with its lender, Regions Bank. The city was scheduled in November to pay...

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Posted November 9, 2011 by christopher

Minnesota's Governor Dayton has already done more for expanding broadband access in Minnesota than predecessor Pawlenty who took the "stay quiet and hope for the best" approach to expanding access in our state.

After being prodded by the legislature (including now-Lieutenant Governor Prettner-Solon) Governor Pawlenty appointed an industry-heavy "Ultra High Speed" Broadband Task Force that exceeded the expectations of many, including myself, with its report [pdf]. I give a lot of credit to a few members, especially "Mikey" and Chairman Rick King of Thomsen Reuters, for that report given the constraints of the environment in which it existed.

Minnesota's Legislature and Governor Pawlenty then created some goals for 2015 and generally ceased any work on ensuring Minnesota could meet the goals. However, some departments (like the Department of Commerce) are using that language to prod broadband providers to consider what steps they can take to get us closer. Despite my frustration, I want to recognize those who are doing all they can to expand access to this essential infrastructure.

Fast forward to this week, when Governor Dayton announced a new Task Force that is supposed to really do things (as opposed to the more common Task Force approach of creating the appearance of doing things).

I am heartened by many of the appointees. There are some terrific people, especially some terrific women who are too often under-represented in technology) that will work very hard to bring real broadband to the Minnesotans that either need their first option or a better option.

And they have their work cut out for them. The state has few options to compel investment from a private sector that sees little reason to invest in an industry with so little competition (St Paul has one high-speed provider: Comcast, and one slower, cheaper alternative - CenturyLink).

For instance, rural Kanabec County took the Ultra High Speed Task Force's recommendation and asked its incumbent to partner in providing better broadband. That went over about the...

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Posted October 25, 2011 by christopher

Last week, two of the organizations with which we regularly work to promote community solutions to broadband submitted comments to the FCC on the matter of USF reform.

Among the comments from the Rural Broadband Policy Group, is this passage:

Members and allies of the Rural Broadband Policy Group hold “local ownership and investment in community” as a core principle in broadband deployment. We believe that local ownership of broadband infrastructure can address problems such as lack of service, limited provider choice, affordability, slow speeds, and also enforce strong consumer protections. Policies that encourage local ownership create opportunities and wealth in communities. For example, local broadband networks employ IT professionals who live and work in the local community. When communities own their communications infrastructure, not only do they boost their local economies and create jobs, but are also held accountable to ensure that broadband is accessible to every resident. Moreover, the 70-year history of rural electric and telephone cooperatives proves that locally owned networks are vital stewards of public subsidies.

We are disappointed that the proposed USF/CAF reforms ignore the advantages of local ownership and prohibit community broadband networks, anchor institutions and Tribal governments from receiving USF/CAF support. The proposed reforms do not create avenues for local ownership in rural, Tribal, and low-income communities. This is a lamentable flaw in the proposal, and we respectfully request that the Commission include the following recommendations:

Communities that self-provision should be eligible for funds.

Currently, proposed USF reforms exclude community-based networks that have done the most to build out broadband infrastructure to provide essential services in underserved areas. These self-provisioning projects range from municipal networks to private sector nonprofit networks, and play a critical role in the future of their communities. Yet, they are not eligible for the proposed Connect America Fund. Self-provisioning communities have invested their social and financial capital in broadband infrastructure and services because incumbent carriers refused to make these investments. We are innovators, entrepreneurs, digital literacy educators, and Internet Service providers – it is essential that our communities have all the available options to build the...

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Posted October 17, 2011 by christopher

I recently joined some other grassroots groups in talking to FCC Commissioner Copps about the ways the FCC could improve access to telecommunications for most Americans -- you know, the mission of the Federal Communications Commission.  This was the day before FCC Chairman Genochowski announced the broad outline of Universal Service Reform.  

Presently, it appears that the FCC will broadly adopt the industry's plan of taking more money from subscribers and spreading it among private companies and coops that are providing services in rural America.  We have called up on the FCC to recognize the important role of community broadband networks and make them eligible recipients of USF funds but the FCC appears to be ready to double down on its past mistakes of relying on absentee-owners who have little incentive to actually provide reliable services at affordable prices.  (Fred Pilot has also called upon the FCC to make this change.)

The result is that communities like rural Sibley County in Minnesota's farm country may build their own next-generation broadband network, only to find the federal government subsidizing a vastly inferior DSL network from a competitor. This is a fiscally irresponsible approach that prioritizes the profits of a few private companies over what is best for the vast majority of private companies and residents in communities that need networks that are actually accountable to them.  

If you care about this issue, you should ask the Rural Broadband Policy Group or Media Actions Grassroots how you can help.  They have been working to break through the beltway bias against solutions that encourage local self-reliance.

The FCC will soon release its USF reform approach and I fear it will do very little to actually help communities while doing a lot to help a few companies continue to receive federal funds while ignoring community needs.  It is long past time the FCC stop entrusting our communications future to absentee landlords and look to community networks ... or at least locally owned private alternatives embodied by WISPs. 

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Posted October 14, 2011 by christopher

Listen to a great conversation about rural broadband needs from a hearing on October 12 in Kentucky. From the show description:

On October 12 a group gathered at Appalshop to talk about the importance of accessible, affordable high-speed Internet in Appalachian communities. Residents from across the region came to share their concerns and ideas with special guests Jonathan Adelstein, administrator of the Rural Utilities Service in the US Department of Agriculture, and Mark Defalco from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The first broadband hearing to be held in rural America, was co-sponsored by the Center for Rural Strategies, the Center for Media Justice, and Free Press, with the local support of Appalshop, the Partnership of African American Churches, and the Central Appalachia Regional Network. This WMMT Mountain Talk highlights excerpts from the presentations and public comments shared at the event.

Posted October 7, 2011 by christopher

Rachel Maddow reminds us that many areas of America still do not have broadband in her coverage of the broadband stimulus funds prior to an interview with USDA Secretary Vilsack on October 5 (transcript).

While introducing Secretary Vilsack, Rachel had a terrific explanation of why public investments into broadband are essential:

The idea here behind spreading broadband to America`s rural areas is the same one behind the rural electrification program from the 1930s. The idea that even if it`s not profitable for private industry to extend the basics of modern economic life, electric light then and the Internet now, even if it`s never going to be profitable to some private company to extend those things to every last home down every long dirt road in America, it is worth it to America, worth it to us, that everybody has access to those things. That we`re all plugged in.

It is the right kind of jobs investment for the country to put people to work laying those lines and connecting those Americans to the grid and it is the right things to do for the rural parts of the country so that people and businesses in every part of the country can compete economically.

Extremely glad to see Rachel devoting time to this important issue.

Visit msnbc.com for...

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Posted September 20, 2011 by christopher

Too many policy and decision makers have little idea what life is like in flyover country, let alone on the farm. Many have been convinced that people living in rural areas either have no interest in or use for fast, reliable, and affordable connections to the Internet. This idea is actively pushed by powerful companies that don't want to invest in anything better than last-generation DSL or wireless in areas that won't be sufficiently profitable.

So it is worth pointing out the many ways in which farmers are already connecting to the Internet and incorporating modern communications technology into their lives. Robert Bell's "What Do Rural People Need Broadband For Anyway?" column offers some insight.

Errotabere farms 3,500 acres (14 sq km) in the state of California. He and his staff use the Web to communicate with and deliver documents to government officials, manufacturers, packers and retailers. His staff catches up with pest control advisors via email, and Errotabere checks prices and trades agricultural commodity futures for his crops online.

Another California farmer, Alec Smith, says that one of the most important advances available online is in pest control. When plants show signs of disease, Smith's staff snaps photos and emails them to plant disease specialists at universities, who email back advice on combating the disease.

Mike Smith, who runs a small, 40-acre (162 sq m) farm in the same area, sells his crops directly to customers online. He posts photos of his farm on Facebook, updates the farm Web site weekly with available crops and runs a blog. Customers email their orders. "The Internet means survival to a lot of small farmers," he told the AP. "If you don't have a Web site, nobody's going to know about you."

He has other examples, including the very real problem that life in remote areas can be lonely. We are social animals -- being connected to the Internet allows people who are alone to still connect with others in very important ways.

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