Tag: "minnesota"

Posted June 20, 2013 by christopher

It has been about a year since we checked in on FiberNet Monticello, a city-owned FTTH network about 40 miles northwest of Minneapolis. At that time, the network was generating insufficient revenue to meet debt payments, the private company operating the network (HBC) was stepping down, and Gigabit Squared was kicking the tires.

Since then, Gigabit Squared and Monticello decided against a partnership and the City ceased making payments to bondholders. Previously, the City had covered the difference between revenues and debt payments by borrowing from the City's liquor store fund, a municipal enterprise fund.

Monticello had financed the network with unbacked revenue bonds, meaning investors understood from the start that the full faith and credit of taxpayers would not "make them whole" in the event that the network did not create the revenues necessary to pay back the bond. Because Monticello chose that financing method, it had to pay a higher interest rate - those who buy bonds understand the differences in risk with different types of bonds and rates.

However, the City has been negotiating with bondholders for a settlement to avoid potential lawsuits over the telecom utility and because this is a typically what how these situations are worked out. Bondholders will "take a haircut" in the parlance of finance rather than risk a total loss.

Last week, Monticello City Council approved a $5.75 million proposed settlement in addition to the remaining funds left in the reserve fund, totaling approximately $8 million from an outstanding bond of $26 million. Final resolution may take many more months, but the major arguments seem to be worked out.

This means that Monticello will own and continue to operate FiberNet Monticello. It also means that rather than having a network financed by revenue bonds, the network will have benefited from City funds from the liquor store and will almost certainly be re-financed with other City funds. Monticello could issue a bond for the new $5.75 million but to my knowledge, no one has suggested that.

Thus far, the impact on...

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Posted April 24, 2013 by lgonzalez

After many delays, Lake County is now in the process of hanging in fiber for its extensive fiber optic network project called Lake Connections. A recent report from WDIO.com in Duluth reminds us that Mediacom and other opponents of the project have continued to obstruct the progress of a network that will connect thousands of households who presently have no broadband options.

As we have seen in a few other stimulus-supported projects, companies like Mediacom are trying to protect their overpriced, last-generation networks by working with Republicans that want to discredit anything stimulus-related. It is sad to see so many rural households caught in the crossfire, particularly knowing that Mediacom has no plans to expand outside a few towns in the County - this means that if Mediacom were able to stop this project, many people would have no hope of getting real access to the Internet.

From the article and the video we have reposted below:

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) is the branch of the USDA that approves money spent on the project. County Administrator Matt Huddleston said there is no indication the money will stop flowing.

“In the meantime we're focused on building the network and RUS is continually seeing our contracts move to them, and they're approving them and providing us the funds at this time to continue building it,” Huddleston said.

He said $20 million is tied up in contracts, and construction will move forward.

Connections to homes and businesses in Two Harbors and Silver Bay should be finished by July according to officials. Then a connection to Duluth will be built to connect the entire network to the rest of the world. Officials said the network will reach up to Ely by the end of 2015.

The project is divided into three phases with this first phase in full swing. According to the most recent Gaining Speed Newsetter [PDF], over 4,600 feet of fiber was placed on poles in Silver Bay during the first week of April.

The project has been slowed both by the intervention of Mediacom and its own decision to remove the original management team and bring in a new group.

Posted March 16, 2013 by christopher

Steve Downer is the Associate Executive Director of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, MMUA, and he previously served on the Blandin Foundation Strategy Board. He offered these thoughts on page 4 of the "The Resource" [pdf] from January 2013 and has allowed us to reprint them below.

According to online reports, House Commerce Chairman Joe Atkins has listed his top 10 issues for his Committee in 2013. Included on the list, at No. 4, is Telecommunications and Broadband Law Update. As municipal involvement has been a hot-button topic over the years, this should be of interest to municipal utilities.

The idea of re-writing state telecom law was a priority of the Ventura administration but, even with agreement among various parties that state law was antiquated the discussion never gained much steam, largely because the telecom companies decided the law was just fine after all. Efforts have been made over the years to remove or reduce the super-majority referendum requirement to build a municipal telephone exchange, but have withered in the face of vociferous opposition.

On the other hand, efforts to further restrict municipal provision of broadband service, a concern in recent legislative sessions, have also languished. So, what does Chairman Atkins have in mind?

Perhaps local interests, working through organizations like MMUA, could suggest the state needs to be more open to partnerships and local government projects, if it is ever to reach its broadband goals.

Cities have proven fully capable of providing a full range of telecommunications services over the years. Counties are providing cutting-edge communications services. The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services project (a consortium of eight cities) shows how ordinary people, working through their local governments, can work together to provide high-quality voice, video and data service at reasonable prices.

Renville Sibley Fiber Project

After much work, a similar project in Renville and Sibley counties has recently been stymied due to concerns over the ability of city-county partnerships to issue bonds. The project itself has been enthusiastically supported by rural and city interests and was...

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Posted January 31, 2013 by lgonzalez

We want to thank Ann Treacy from the Blandin Foundation for getting out and reporting on many events dealing with telecommunications. We know we can rely on her to faithfully share her findings via the Bladin on Broadband blog.

Last week, Ann attended the Labor, Workplace and Regulated Industries Committee at the Minnesota House of Representatives. It is early in the session in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and legislators are being briefed on the basics. At the January 24th meeting, the Minnesota Public Utilites Commission (PUC) provided an overview and an update on the workings of the agency. Right around nine minutes into the presentation, the discussion shifted to telecommunication. While other areas, including energy, came up in the conversation, a large part of the meeting focused on telecom. You can listen to the entire discussion (a little over an hour) from the Committee Audio and Video Archives page.

Questions regarding telecom ranged from regulatory authority, to policy changes over time, to challenges we need to address. There was a basic message regarding broadband from the PUC - that broadband is a critical element for our schools, libraries, and government. PUC officials acknowledge that "there really is no regulation per se" in the broadband industry and that decisions are driven by private providers. The PUC representatives also expressed their concern on consumer protection due to de-regulation in the areas of telephone service.

Listening to legislative committee meetings on overview is a great way to learn how  mechanisms operate at the agency level. The meetings usually give a hint of legislators' concerns and what proposals you will see. You may hear something surprising or revealing; you will always be better informed.

Posted November 12, 2012 by lgonzalez

Lake County, a rural area on the north side of Minnesota's portion of Lake Superior, has long suffered with just dial up and satellite, with slow cable connections available in some of the towns. After receiving a stimulus project to build a county-owned FTTH project connecting everyone, many thought their broadband troubles were over.

But Mediacom attacked first, with unsubstantiated allegations of rules violations that investigators found to be lacking in merit. When Mediacom announced it would not further delay the project with a lawsuit, we again thought the project would proceed. 

But now a dispute over who owns some of the poles is holding up the project. The Lake County News reports that Frontier  asserts ownership of some poles on which aerial fiber optic cables sit as the project nears completion of Phase One. From the article:

There have been questions over the ownership of these poles in recent weeks. The poles, many of which Lake Connections has already utilized for attaching fiber, are within Two Harbors city limits. Frontier, a telecommunications provider in Lake County, said Lake Connections connected to their poles without submitting permit applications.

In an earlier report (reprinted here on mobilitytechzone.com and edited to include comments from Frontier), Mayor Randy Bolen declined to take an official position on the dispute between Frontier Communications and the install company, Lake Connections.

According to that October 25th report, there was a pole agreement between the two, but the agreement did not approach the issue of pole ownership. Rather than bring up the issue during negotiations, Frontier has waited until now to raise the challenge. Also from the article:

Jeff Roiland, project manager for Lake Connections, said the city has been maintaining the poles in question for years and wonders why ownership is an issue. Two Harbors Mayor Randy Bolen conceded that the city has been maintaining and replacing the poles as needed, but he said the question...

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Posted October 7, 2012 by lgonzalez

We have shared updates on Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) as they roll out their fiber routes in Jackson and surrounding towns. Now, we want to share info about their use of wireless to compliment the fiber network. According to the U-reka website, LocaLoop, Inc. and its subsidiary, SynKro Southwest, will soon be working with SMBS to expand SynKro 4G wireless fixed and mobile broadband Internet service to eight rural communities in the region.

SMBS and SynKro Southwest collaborated on a six-month trial installation in Bingham Lake. Additionally, the pair continued to build out the network in seven other nearby rural communities. From the U-reka article:

"Coming off the Bingham Lake trial, we look forward to delivering the same high quality network performance and user experience to underserved rural areas  across the SMBS service territory,” said Carl-Johan Torarp, founder and CEO of  LocaLoop. “We are expanding the network to complement SMBS’s broadband  service as well as providing their customers with mobile broadband Internet.”

SMBS received $12.8 million in BIP funds to develop an FTTH network to Bingham Lake, Heron Lake, Jackson, Lake Okebena, Round Lake and Wilder. This latest endeavor will offer even more coverage to the local residents. Maps and more on the SMBS website.

Posted August 28, 2012 by christopher

If you were judging solely from the reaction of Comcast, you could be faulted for thinking Ramsey County and the city of Saint Paul were making a bold, if risky, investment to bring real broadband to local businesses and citizens in Minnesota's capital. But you would be wrong. Very wrong.

The City and the County are paying a company to build them a network to serve their own needs. The City and County are smart to want their own network but this particular approach is a poor one. Let's start with a little background:

Saint Paul and Ramsey presently rely on Comcast's network to transfer data files between locations and access the Internet. It is an old cable network, called the I-Net, that is failing to meet the present day needs for the City and County. Because Comcast provides the I-Net at no charge as part of the franchise, they put it up with its inadequacies. But government employees are less efficient than they could be due to this old, unreliable network. For instance, they have to wait for GIS files to crawl across the network.

St Paul's telecommunications problems aren't limited to just the I-Net. Even back in 2005, St Paul recognized that the Comcast/CenturyLink duopoly wasn't getting the job done for much of anyone. We had (and still have) the same basic connections that the rest of the country had, limiting our attractiveness for new businesses that have above average needs. So the City created a Task Force that produced this terrific report in 2007 [pdf]. But the economy crumbled and the report was largely forgotten.

No one, including myself, stepped up. I have lived in St Paul for 15 years and now own a home here. This has been a failure of leadership from elected officials, staff, and concerned citizens (in that order). Mayor Coleman has utterly failed to do anything but talk about the importance of broadband and the City Council has followed his lead since Lee Helgen lost his seat. A sign of this failure is an announcement that MISO is moving out of St Paul: One of its reasons for moving 90 jobs from St Paul to Eagan was better access to fiber optic connections. As long as St Paul continues to rely on Comcast and CenturyLink, there will be little reason for any entreprenuers or high tech firms to move here.

...

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Posted August 16, 2012 by christopher

In Star Tribune coverage of Mediacom's war against real broadband in rural Minnesota, we learn that Mediacom will not sue Lake County to disrupt its plan to serve thousands of unserved residents and local businesses.

And for all its accusations, Larsen says Mediacom will not sue. Spending millions of dollars on a lawsuit in a place where the company serves so few homes, he said, "is not a great business decision."

We have previously covered the many false and disproved accusations Mediacom have leveled against Lake County. The Strib article reiterates that these charges have been found to have no merit.

The article also reiterates that the County has a real need that private companies have failed to meet:

The conflict that ensued is part of a national struggle. Public officials and some of their constituents argue that rural broadband is like rural electrification: It's a lifeline for small-town America that the free market will not extend.

"We've been ridiculously underserved in this area for years," said Andy Fisher, who owns a Lake County bed-and-breakfast and a rural cross-country skiing lodge. The cable companies "are working in the interest of their profits. But if they're not going to serve this area, what are we going to do?"

And yet, Mediacom sees itself as the underdog!

"Lake County wants to make this into a David and Goliath story, where Mediacom is Goliath and poor little Lake County is David," said Tom Larsen, Mediacom's group vice president of legal and public affairs. "The truth is we're David because we're fighting [the government]. It's just the same story repeated all over the country."

Fascinating. Mediacom has billions in revenues whereas the County deals with budgets in the millions. Sure Mediacom is between 100 and 1000 times bigger than Lake County, it still wants to stop a project serving thousands of unserved people (that it believes is doomed to fail) because it is too disadvantaged.

Mediacom logo

If Mediacom actually met the needs of its subscribers, it...

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Posted August 10, 2012 by lgonzalez

In April, we reported on Spring construction of fiber installation by the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) in the Jackson area. This is a stimulus-funded expansion growing out of the community-owned WindomNet. The original plan was to have construction completed in Jackson by the end of August, but the job was 97% completed in July freeing the way for business and residential installs.

The Jackson County Pilot reported on the July Kiwanis Club meeting where SMBS's Naomi Pederson presented an update:

As of this past Monday, Pederson said 176 miles of the 181-mile main line had been built.

“People have been thrilled with the service,” Pederson said. “I’m sure businesses will be too.”

Pederson said crews will begin residential installs in Jackson July 16. She anticipates crews will be able to hook up around 100 homes per week.

“Jackson has been one of our best towns, with 73 percent sales — much more than anticipated,” she said. “People are very receptive and are signing up for more services than people in our other towns. More services and more sign-ups mean we’re trying our best to keep up.”

As of this past Monday, Pederson said 176 miles of the 181-mile main line had been built.

“People have been thrilled with the service,” Pederson said. “I’m sure businesses will be too.”

SMBS received $12.8 million in stimulus funds to develop an ftth network to Bingham Lake, Heron Lake, Jackson, Lake Okebena, Round Lake and Wilder. Check out a map of the fiber route on the SMBS website.

The high level of interest in these communities comes in the face of policymakers in Washington, DC, and many state capitals - they assume rural residents don't know how to use broadband or don't want it. This program shows that when you make good broadband available to people for a reasonable price, they take it in high numbers.

Thanks to BlandinonBroadband for alerting us to this story.

Posted August 2, 2012 by christopher

Of all the broadband stimulus projects, the Lake County FTTH network in Minnesota has been one of the most embattled in the nation (possibly only behind AT&T's attacks on South Carolina projects).

Mediacom has pulled out all the stops, including filing complaints with the Inspector General that included dubious allegations at best and then complaining after the Inspector General investigated and found nothing worth following up on.

What we have here is a company that wants to block a project that will deliver essential infrastructure to thousands of people who are presently lacking access. Why? Because part of that project will overlap with an outdated and overpriced Mediacom cable network that prefers its subscribers to have no choice in providers.

Recall that this is a part of the nation where a single fiber cut previously cut off all communications for 12 hours. Police could not run plates, no business could call outside the North Shore or run credit cards, ATMs were useless, 9-11 ceased functioning, and US Customs and Border Protection needed to use Canadian communications.

Minnesota Public Radio ran a solid article that explained the need for real broadband up there. It starts by talking about a local business, Granite Gear, that has suffered from the lack of proper access. (The rest of the quotes in this article come from that article.)

"The upload speeds that we have available to us here, are such that our art director frequently comes in at night and does that, when no one else is tying up the Internet bandwidth," Johnson said.

To help businesses like Granite Gear and solve the internet woes of northeast Minnesota residents, Lake County began stringing fiber Tuesday in Two Harbors, which is on Lake Superior's North Shore....

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