Tag: "minnesota"

Posted September 25, 2013 by christopher

Yet another Minnesota town is fed up with slow, unreliable Internet access and is examining what it can do to make sure it has the network it needs to succeed in the modern economy. Annandale is 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis with a population of 3,200 and has Windstream as the telephone company.

Windstream, as with other large firms that primarily serve rural America, offers a DSL more suited to the late 1990's than 2013. It has little capacity to invest in better networks, even if it had the willingness. We've covered Windstream several times in previous stories.

After a flood of complaints from residents to City Hall about slow speeds and frequent outages, the City issued a request for proposals for a feasibility study that will explore alternatives to the present reliance on Windstream.

Local leaders understand that the private sector is not likely to invest significantly in its community due to its density and rural location. But the town needs modern Internet access to retain and attract good jobs. The Annandale Advocate newspaper ran a story on September 17 but it is not available for non-subscribers.

At a chamber of commerce meeting later in the week Gunnarson added that strong broadband is a basic, essential feature of modern commerce.

"New businesses expect good Internet. When you buy a car you expect tires on it. Unfortunately, our car has wooden tires," he said.

logo-annandale-advocate.jpg

The same paper published a guest editorial by City Council members to explain how little power the City has over private providers. Many people falsely believe that towns are actively keeping competition out:

We even had some people angrily ask our staff why are we keeping the competition out. So to set the record straight, the city can't do much about it because it is all private wires, equipment, operations and corporate customer service.

Also, a recent call to the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission, confirms that not much can be done since broadband is not regulated. Sorry folks. As far as letting in competition, we have zero say in that. Any other provider can come in any time. In fact, many of us citizens would throw the...

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Posted September 19, 2013 by christopher

Monticello Minnesota may be located 40 miles outside Minneapolis, but it is the center of the planet when it comes to FTTH competition. We have tried and cannot identify another community localed on planet earth with two separate FTTH networks going head to head across the entire community.

We have long written about Monticello, most recently to look at hypocritical criticism of the project (which gives me an opportunity to note a similar dynamic in Lafayette, Louisiana). And we have covered the disappointing news that the network has not produced enough revenue to make full bond payments.

Short explanation for how Monticello came to be unique in having two FTTH networks: Monticello had poor Internet access from Charter and telephone company TDS. Each refused to invest after local businesses and elected officials implored for better networks. Monticello started building its own FTTH network (Monticello FiberNet) and TDS sued to stop the project while suddenly decided to upgrade its slow DSL to fiber. Lawsuit was tossed out and Monticello finished its network.

In most community fiber networks, the DSL provider seems to fade away because it cannot offer the fast speeds of fiber or cable, so the market basically remains a duopoly with the community network replacing the telephone company (which continues to offer cheap, slow DSL to a small number of customers). But in Monticello, Charter and TDS engaged in a price war, which has really hurt the City's ability to generate enough revenue to pay its debt.

Price wars are very hard on new market entrants because they have to amoritze the cost of their investment whereas the incumbents often have already done so. This means incumbents can almost always offer lower prices if they are determined to do so.

In many communities, we have lacked clear evidence of predatory pricing - that is pricing below the actual cost of service to run competitors out of business. This would violate federal law (if any agency bothered to enforce it)....

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Posted September 17, 2013 by christopher

The small town of Windom in southwest Minnesota has long been one of the smallest FTTH networks in the nation. I have long wanted to bring WindomNet General Manager Dan Olsen on our show because it has some of the best anecdotes in the world of community owned networks. We finally got him!

To understand WindomNet, you should know that it has fewer households than what many of us consider to be the minimum threshold for a viable triple-play FTTH network. Not only have they made it work, they have attracted numerous employers to town, as our interview discusses. It also kept a local employer located just outside of town in the area after a massive telelphone company operating in Minnesota found itself unable to provide the service that business requested. Tiny Windom ran a fiber out to the business and kept them in the region.

The network has expanded to nearby farm towns with the help of a broadband stimulus award. Even now, after bringing connections to a rural region that the big providers have largely ignored, the big cable and CenturyLink lobbyists that live in the capital in Saint Paul have relentlessly lied about Windom, calling it a failure and presenting skewed figures to suggest the investment had not succeeded.

In our discussion, Dan and I explore the reality of WindomNet and how it is benefiting a much larger region beyond its own borders. Read all of our coverage about Windom here.

Read the transcript for this show 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 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe 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.

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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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