Tag: "minnesota"

Posted March 29, 2011 by christopher

Minnesota Public Radio, as part of its Ground Level Broadband Coverage has profiled WindomNet with a piece called "Who should build the next generation of high-speed networks?"

Dan Olsen, who runs the municipal broadband service in Windom, was just about to leave work for the night when he got a call. The muckety-mucks at Fortune Transportation, a trucking company on the outskirts of town, were considering shuttering their office and leaving the area.

"They said, Dan, you need to get your butt out here now," Olsen recalls. "I got there and they said, 'You need to build fiber out here. What would it take for you to do it?'"

Fortune, which employs 47 people in the town of 4,600, two and a half hours southwest of the Twin Cities, relies on plenty of high-tech gadgetry. Broadband Internet access figures into how the company bids for jobs, communicates with road-bound truckers, controls the temperatures in its refrigerated trucks and remotely views its office in Roswell, New Mexico. Fortune even uses the Internet to monitor where and to what extent drivers fill their gas tanks in order to save money.

Yet, when it was time to upgrade company systems three years ago, Fortune's private provider couldn't offer sufficient speeds.

That's where Windomnet came in. Though Fortune was a mile outside the municipal provider's service area, "We jumped through the hoops and made it happen," recalls Olsen. "The council said, "Do it and we'll figure out how to pay for it.' We got a plow and a local crew. We had it built in 30 days."

I have thought about this story frequently when I hear claims that publicly owned networks are failures. For years, lobbyists for cable and phone companies have told everyone in the state what a failure WindomNet has been - they crow about debt service exceeding revenue while ignoring the fact that all networks -- public and private -- take many years of losses before they break even because nearly all the costs of the network are paid upfront.

Toward the end of the article (which should be read in its entirely rather than in the snippets I repost here), Dan puts the matter in context:

Dan Olsen retorts that Windomnet was never designed to make money; one...

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Posted March 18, 2011 by christopher

The Roanoke Times recently published an extensive story about broadband, covering everything from what it is to why it is needed and who doesn't have it.

Aside from providing an excellent primer on these issues to those who are new to broadband discussions, Jeff Sturgeon writes about problems often ignored by the media, like the difficulties for companies and other entities can encounter when they need extremely high capacity connections:

Skip Garner directs the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which unites the powers of biology and information technology to advance medicine. It is at Virginia Tech. Garner said he, too, finds computing power a constraint. In spite of a 1 gigabit connection, "we are limited in what we could do," Garner said.

When the lab's DNA sequencers pile up data, "we will often put it on a 1-terabyte drive ... and FedEx it to our customers," Garner said.

An upgrade to 10 gigabits is coming. He expects it still won't be enough.

It might appear that new facilities would not have such problems, but even the 5-month-old Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute near downtown Roanoke is not satisfied with its Web service. While the speed is good at 10 gigabits, the cost it pays to service providers is staggering.

"It's in the tens of thousands of dollars a month," said Executive Director Michael Friedlander.

This is one world. Communities with their own fiber networks are another -- where these connections are not prohibitively expensive. And yet another world is the world of several rural Minnesota Counties, who cannot even get T.1 lines from incumbent phone providers. In Cook County, in 2008, a company was quoted $600,000 to install a T.1 line. Yes, $600,000 - I had to hear it twice to make sure I wasn't imagining it.

The article explores Design Nine founder Andrew Cohill's thoughts on improving broadband access. Cohill mentions Wired West, a network we have written about previously.

"We think it's got to be treated like essential public infrastructure," he said.

That way, access would be open to any service provider on equal footing. Just as anyone could launch a cab company or food delivery service over the road system, anyone...

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Posted March 16, 2011 by christopher

Lake County's County-wide FTTH network has encountered more than its fair share of troubles but residents are excited at the prospect of having broadband access to the Internet. While some of its troubles came from their own confusion and misunderstanding that led to the falling out with their consultants, National Public Broadband, they are now in the cross hairs of a powerful cable industry group - the Minnesota Cable Communications Association.

The Minnesota Cable Communications Association joined the fray at the end of February, sending a massive data request to Lake County and all the governments within the project area. County Attorney Laura Auron said she “objected to the characterization” the cable industry advocate group made about the project. The MCCA wrote that is was “deeply concerned about the shroud of secrecy” about the project, calling efforts to get the project in line with state and federal rules “opaque.”

The association demanded to see the county’s business plan and contracts for the project. It also asked all the cities and townships in the joint powers association, a requirement under the Rural Utilities Service rules for grants and loans, to provide all information regarding the fiber project discussed at council and board meetings.

MCCA exists to protect the interests of its members -- fair enough. Too bad for the folks in Lake County that have no access to the Internet. Because a portion of the project will give the resident of Silver Bay and Two Harbors an actual choice (disrupting the monopoly of Mediacom), MCCA is using a common tactic to delay and disrupt the project: massive public records requests. All the while, MCCA pretends its core mission is advocating on behalf of the beleaguered citizens of Lake County.

We commonly hear from publicly owned networks that they have to deal with constant data requests from competitors. This goes far beyond any reasonable amount as incumbent companies use the requests themselves as a time suck attack against publicly owned networks as well as mischaracterizing any detail they can in an attempt to smear the network.

Communities should be ready for this onslaught. From what we can tell, it never really stops. This is another reason community projects should live in public to the greatest extent possible. Secrecy is not really an option and can consume...

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Posted March 2, 2011 by christopher

Despite the FCC's lack of interest (or rather, Chairman G's lack of interest) in actually defending Network Neutrality and protecting the open Internet, we must defend the right of the FCC to ensure an Open Internet. Such is life... And right now a House amendment would deny funding to the FCC to implement net neutrality rules.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), has authored Amendment 404 (aptly numbered, for us protocol geeks) to gut FCC authority to oversee companies like Comcast and AT&T. This goes above and beyond what even those carriers are asking for, though they no doubt hope it succeeds. For a quick primer on network neutrality, check out this infographic.

This amendment may be attached to the Continuing Resolution necessary to keep the government running -- a crucial resolution to pass. We have to get on the horn to ensure Representative vote against this resolution to ensure the FCC has the authority it needs to do its job (preventing AT&T, Comcast, et al. from becoming supreme gate keepers of the Internet). Many Republicans may be lost causes here due to party line discipline. However, a number of Democrats are leaning toward voting with Republicans on this issue, including one of Minnesota's: Representative Colin Peterson from the 7th District. If you are a constituent of these Representatives, make sure you contact them! Representative Peterson has previously voted in favor of network neutrality, so it is important to find out why he has changed his mind.

Network Neutrality had long been a bi-partisan issue with both Democrats and Republicans seeking to preserve the open Internet. But recently Republicans have been swayed by powerful interests that want big companies to decide how we can access the Internet.

 

These are key representatives that should be contacted. If you are a constituent or know people who are, make sure they call or email immediately!

...
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Posted February 24, 2011 by christopher

Too few posts on the blog this week - apologies.

But I want to make sure readers saw that the bill to strip North Carolina communities of the right to build broadband networks is no longer being fast tracked, an important victory that resulted from people making old-fashioned phone calls to voice their disapproval to elected reps. Thanks to all who called.

Keep calling. They need to know that this bill is totally unacceptable.

Craig Settles also discussed the victory.

I can't comment on it just now, but Stimulating Broadband broke a story about Mediacom continuing to harass Lake County. In order to protect their turf, they are willing to disrupt a project that will bring connections to thousands of people who have no other option.

Posted February 16, 2011 by christopher

As decision time approaches, the discussions in Sibley County (and Fairfax in Renville) are winding down. The county and local governments have to decide whether to commit to the Joint Powers Board. Mark Erickson, the coordinator of the project currently, recently responded to a good set of questions about the project and gave me permission to reprint them here.

Questions from a Sibley County Commissioner:

  1. Regarding parity of costs to build the fiber network into the townships (rural area) compared to cities.  It’s nearly twice as expensive to build out the rural areas and some cities feel they are subsidizing cost of putting fiber in country.
  2. How was the initial money spent for the feasibility study?  No one has seen the breakdown as to what that money went for.  We would like to see an itemized list of how the county's contribution and the Blandin dollars were spent.  How much of that money is left?
  3. There are concerns about how the budget of $150,000 was arrived at for the next phase.  Who established the budget and how was it decided how much money to spend for the different categories?  We haven't seen any details of this either, only general categories.
  4. Who is making the decisions on how money is spent and for what?
  5. Some people feel decisions are being made without elected officials - boards or council members - being part of the decision making process.

Response from Mark Erickson:

Parity of costs between City/County

Last summer when the county requested the rural area be included in the feasibility study, the issue of parity came up because of the higher cost of construction in the rural area.

The topic was discussed at all of the public meetings and the following are the reasons for blending the construction costs:

  1. This is a one time 100-year investment in the entire county (and Fairfax and Renville County) and since the city folks rely on the rural folks and visa versa it is viewed as an opportunity for everyone to invest in one another. The fiber network will benefit city and rural businesses, schools, city and county government, townships, ag producers, senior citizens, etc. If everyone benefits equally then everyone should be treated equally.
  2. When...
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Posted February 9, 2011 by christopher

For two years, National Public Broadband (led by Gary Fields and Tim Nulty) has worked with Lake County, Minnesota, to build a universal rural FTTH broadband network to everyone in the County and some nearby towns in Saint Louis County. Toward the end of 2010, the relationship became somewhat tense as some county commissioners questioned what NPB had told them about Burlington Telecom, and a number of media outlets raised questions about Nulty's relationship to BT's problems without actually investigating the story.

Now the Lake County News-Chronicle (which, over the course of this story, has taken the time to report facts rather than following the lazy lead of the Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune), reports that Lake County and National Public Broadband are kaput. Lake County is seeking a new partner to build the project.

Lake County could not reach agreement on a permanent contract with National Public Broadband, its consultant firm for nearly two years. The two sides battled for nearly two months and couldn’t solve issues based on bonus payments and the ability for the county to fire NPB without cause and without penalty. The negotiations had bogged down work on the actual project, Commissioner Paul Bergman said, and the board wanted a fresh start.

Additionally, due to the state of financial markets, the County is planning to self-fund the $3.5 million local obligation required to access to the broadband stimulus award. Lake County hoped to bond for the matching funds but the current interest rates make that an fiscally unwise approach.

While this does not change the project, it will change the perception of the project and open it to increased attacks from those who don't want the County to build a network (despite the fact that private providers have no interest in providing anything other than slow DSL and cable networks).

The County had long maintained that no public money would be used. However, most people will likely not care as long as the project keeps its promise to deliver fast, reliable, and affordable broadband to the community. This is the need -- and people need to stay focused on achieving this goal.

At a commissioner meeting in late December, Gary Fields commented to the Board that...

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Posted February 7, 2011 by christopher

As Minnesota's rural county-wide FTTH projects move forward, we have the opportunity to learn more about them in upcoming events.  Thanks to Blandin's broadband blog for covering these issues!

On February 10, Cook County is welcoming Dan Olsen from WindomNet to discuss their experiences with a community-owned fiber network. You can listen to a previous interview on the North Shore with Dan Olsen.  In the interview, Dan Olsen mentions that a number of residents use WindomNet to work remotely, commuting only once a week to their jobs in South Dakota.  

For the rest of us, mostly located in the metro area of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, we can learn about the projects in Cook, Lake, and Sibley Counties at a Telecommuniations and Information Society Policy Forum at the HHH School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Posted February 1, 2011 by christopher

In a situation similar to the Frontier letters to Sibley we published last week, the cable company Mediacom has sent letters to Silver Bay and Two Harbors in Lake County to scare them into abandoning the rural county-wide FTTH network that they are building with federal broadband stimulus aid.

Interestingly, rather than sticking to the normal fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) campaign, Mediacom apparently based its threats on a draft previous version of the joint powers ordinance rather than the language actually passed by the resolutionsincluded in the current JPA. Whoops.  [See Update below]

Mediacom, perhaps you should focus on improving your networks rather than stifling potential competition.  Please send us copies of letters your community network has received from incumbent providers.

Without further ado, here is the letter [download pdf] sent to Silver Bay and Two Harbors on December 21, 2010 by Tom Larsen, VP of Legal and Public Affairs for Mediacom:


Re: Joint Powers Agreement with Lake

County Dear Mayor Johnson:

Mediacom prides itself in being one of America's leading providers of telecommunications services to small and medium sized communities. As you may be aware, Mediacom offers a highly competitive suite of high-speed Internet, cable television and phone services to homes and businesses throughout Silver Bay (the "City").

It has come to our attention that the City passed a resolution on November 15, 2010 approving a Joint Powers Agreement with Lake County (the "JPA"). Given the significant private capital that Mediacom has invested in order to make advanced telecommunications services available throughout the City, we were extremely surprised to learn that your resolution approving the the JPA includes the following finding in Section 4(e):

The Municipality hereby finds that the facilities composing the Project are necessary to make Internet and other communication services that are not and will not be available through other providers or the private market accessible and available on an equal basis to the residents of the municipality.

As...

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Posted January 26, 2011 by christopher

The fiber-to-the-farm initiative in Sibley County, Minnesota, has completed the feasibility study and the towns involved are discussing a Joint Powers Agreement. One of the impacted incumbent providers -- Frontier Communications, a rural telco famous for slow DSL) -- has started to spread the usual FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that is common whenever a massive company is about to face competition.

Though I am tempted to comment directly on Frontier's letter, I'll let the community's response stand on its own. The way they misrepresent the record of Windom should be instructive - this same misinformation strategy is used around the country.  We believe publishing these scare tactics and responses to them is helpful to everyone -- so if your project has received one, please let us know.

Frontier's Letter:

Dear Commissioners:

As a provider of telephone, internet, and video services to our customers in the Green Isle, Arlington, and Henderson areas, Frontier Communications is obviously interested in the "fiber to the home" proposal that has been presented. As a nationwide provider, Frontier is aware of other efforts by municipalities of various types to build and operate their own telecommunications network. While these proposals are always painted in rosy tones, it is important for officials to carefully review the underlying assumptions and projections that consultants make when presenting these projects. Unfortunately, history tells us that the actual performance of most of these projects is significantly less positive than the promises. Often times, these projects end up costing municipalities huge amounts of money, and negatively impact their financial status and credit ratings.

A nearby example would be WindomNet, the city-owned network in Windom, Minnesota. That network, which provides telephone, internet, and video service, began in 2005. The financial results to date have been poor; operating losses of $662,000 in 2006, $1,257,000 in 2007, $326,000 in 2008, and $93,000 in 2009. Additional borrowing by the city was required to make up those losses.

Another example is the city-owned network in Burlington, Vermont. Burlington Telecom was begun with high hopes in 2003, to offer...

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