Tag: "minnesota"

Posted March 4, 2010 by christopher

Minnesota is one of the eighteen states that have enacted specific barriers to prevent the public sector from building networks (protecting incumbents from any competition). It presently has the uniquely high - 65% - referendum requirement on communities that want to build a network that will offer telephone services (which thereby includes all fiber-to-the-home triple play networks).

However, up in Cook County, they could not meet that threshold. They had a referendum in which 56% voted yes - a majority but not satisfactorily large for a 1915 MN law. State Representative Dill and Senator Bakk realized this was crazy - state law set too high a bar for the County they represented. Cook would be unable to build the network they need - remember that the whole County was isolated following a single fiber cut because Qwest does not invest in communities where profits are scant (let's not blame Qwest though - private companies are not supposed to be charities and they should not be expected to build the essential infrastructure communities need).

Rep Dill and Sen Bakk introduced a bill to reduce the 65% to 50% referendum but the private providers must have thrown some sort of tantrum. Before the bill could even be heard, incumbent providers had reached some sort of a deal with Rep Dill and Sen Bakk, agreeing that they would not oppose the bill if it only applied to Cook County. Cook would be able to build its network, but all other local governments, many very rural and in similar but not equal severity, would be stuck with the 65% referendum requirement if they wanted to build a similar network. In the House, this "compromise" has flown through multiple committees with little debate.

In the Senate, some fought back, wondering if perhaps massive incumbent providers shouldn't be the ones to determine if communities can build modern networks -- especially when the providers won't. So the bill was introduced in the Senate. It was quickly amended to the incumbent demanded-text, but was then amended back again to a 50% majority for all MN (better than the 65% in current law). This was all in the Senate Committee dealing with Telecom. Confused yet?

It was next forwarded to the Committee dealing with Local Government, where the...

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Posted February 18, 2010 by christopher

Finally, a broadband stimulus project that we can get excited about. RUS has announced a grant to expand the publicly owned WindomNet in southwestern Minnesota. Windom was originally built to bring broadband to a small community that Qwest didn't think ready for DSL. They built their own fiber-to-the-home network.

In rural Minnesota, the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group (SWMBG) has been selected to receive an almost $6.4 million loan and a $6.4 million grant to extend fiber to the Jackson, Lakefield, Windom, Round Lake, Bingham Lake, Brewster, Wilder, Heron Lake, and Okabena communities. This funding, along with an $88,000 private investment, will provide high-speed Internet, voice, and cable television to the participating communities. This will improve the quality of life by increasing the availability of health, education, and public safety services across the region.

Now that network will expand to nearby communities, a move that will strengthen it financially as it can spread the fixed costs of such a network across a wider population base. And these communities will have actually have a choice in providers soon -- rather than relying on absentee incumbents that care only about increasing their profits.

They will be beginning expansion work quite quickly according to this brief article.

Posted February 10, 2010 by christopher

I've often wondered what it would look like if a reporter wrote about a Wi-Fi network without any ideological baggage to slam it. Now you can see - Mollee Francisco wrote a lengthy and fair article for a local paper in Chaska, a suburb of Minneapolis. Like so many publicly owned citywide Wi-Fi networks, Chaska.Net accomplished many goals but was a disappointment for others. In particular, it was more expensive and the technology was more difficult than expected, but it introduced faster broadband than was available at the time. It continues to service 2100 customers, one of which is a household with close friends of mine. They love having the option of taking service from the City - they've been happy with the customer support and lower prices. That the speeds are slower than what cable networks offer doesn't bother them, they prefer to save the money. The article also discusses the wireless network in Buffalo, Minnesota, a city further away from the metro than Chaska that sees a brighter future for its public wireless network.

Posted February 4, 2010 by christopher

For some 12 hours last week, entire communities found themselves without access to telecommunications due to a fiber cut to a Qwest cable that services the entire region. This is not the first time such a cut has marooned everything from Homeland Security to long distance phone calls to businesses that can no longer accept credit card transactions -- but Qwest has refused to invest in a redundant cable, showing their disregard for those communities.

I wonder how many businesses were hurt by their sudden and unplanned isolation from clients, partners, and others. How many missed contracts or deadlines?

It shows the insanity of putting barriers before communities that are trying to build the very networks companies like Qwest promise but never deliver (barriers like the 65% referendum to offer telephone services for publicly owned networks). Both Lake and Cook Counties are waiting to hear the status of their applications for federal broadband stimulus funds, with which they will build broadband networks. Companies like Qwest and Mediacom have opposed new networks in an effort to protect their turf, even while refusing to invest in those areas because they do not generate sufficient profits.

These County initiatives have not been denied stimulus funding but have also not moved into the "due diligence" phase, placing them in limbo and forcing them to prepare additional applications for the second round of funding before they even know why their application was denied (if it is denied) in the first round. Somewhere, Joseph Heller is smiling.*

MPR provided good coverage of this fiber cut even though they did not air an explanation as to why Qwest finds it reasonable to keep these communities connected with a single cable.

Bank ATM's failed. No one could use their credit cards. But as bad as that was for business, the 12-hour-long outage knocked out what the federal government calls a "vital part of our nation's emergency response system."

The outage killed 911 emergency service in Cook County, Chief Deputy Leif Lunde said.

...

With no 911 service, county officials turned to volunteer firefighters to field emergency calls from normally un-staffed fire halls. Fire truck radios relayed the information back to Grand Marais. Ham radio operators provided a backup way for the Grand Marais...

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Posted December 8, 2009 by christopher

After reading an impressive article in the South Washington County Bulletin, I am convinced that most Americans now understand that broadband is essential infrastructure for communities. Don Davis' "Speedy Internet could boost rural Minnesota" is a lengthy and thorough discussion of why every community needs broadband connections.

He starts by noting the MN Broadband Task Force, which found that the state should make sure broadband access is ubiquitous in the coming years at minimum speeds considerably above what is available currently in most of Minnesota. What it lacked was a suggestion of how to get there.

Don delves into the Lake County solution:

A northeastern Minnesota county is doing just that and may have the answer, at least for those in the "second Minnesota."

Lake County hopes to blaze a trail to a faster Internet with private businesses paying most of the cost.

County officials want to lay fiber optic cable, capable of carrying high-speed signals, to every home and business with electricity. If it happens, Lake County could become a model not only for Minnesota but the country by offering its rural citizens the same service as their big-city cousins receive.

As detailed in the article, Lake County has lost economic development opportunities precisely because they cannot guarantee fast and affordable connectivity to those who otherwise want to locate there.

What he does not make clear is that Lake County will own this network. It will be operated by National Public Broadband - a nonprofit. The private sector is not interested in bringing true broadband to the North Shore and local citizens should be glad of it - they will get a far superior network than Qwest could have built.

Once the public builds this fiber network (using private sector contractors), other private sector companies will provide services over it. This is a good model - the public builds the infrastructure and allows private companies to deliver services. The public can ensure everyone has equal access by physically connecting every residence and business.

Unfortunately, one of the MN Task Force members - who should know better - is quoted as saying it isn't "financially feasible" to build fiber to every home. What is or is not financially feasible is...

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Posted November 6, 2009 by christopher

Minnesota's Ultra High Speed Broadband Task Force (created by the legislature last year and largely appointed by the Governor) is releasing its report today (the report will soon be available here). I've had a chance to skim it and found it disappointing in some ways but otherwise to be better than what I expected when I learned about the Task Force.

Being in Minnesota, I guess we should just be thankful the Governor did not attempt to make the report a secret as he recently did with other public broadband information. The Task Force was remarkably open as it went about its process - something I think we can attribute to Chairman Rick King's seriousness in running the operation and trying to move Minnesota forward.

Unfortunately, the political reality of such a task force is that many private interests have to be represented. So the irony of having a Task Force to study why the private sector has failed to invest in the broadband Minnesota needs is that those who have failed to invest get to make demands or refuse to sign off on the report. This is how Task Force's typically devolve into a colossal waste of time. My observation is that while this Task Force seemed headed in that direction, in did not get there.

While the report sets decent targets for future levels of service, it is relatively silent about how to get there. There is some talk of local governments "partnering" with the private sector to aggregate demand (meaning, collect customers for the companies) but when the local governments partner in other ways (say, to build a modern network) they get sued as did Monticello. Thus the report is rather timid in its suggestions of what kind of public-private partnerships should be pursued - we are left to believe that the best partnerships are those where the public sector does the work and the private sector collects most of the benefits.

The report is silent on the role of municipalities directly building their own networks although Chairman King is reported to have said that some on the committee had doubts about the abilities of local governments to run these in the long term. Surveying the landscape, I have to wonder about the ability of private companies to run these networks over any...

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Posted November 5, 2009 by christopher

A few local elections on Tuesday had questions relating to publicly owned broadband networks. In Seattle, candidate McGinn strongly supported a publicly owned fiber optic network for the city and he may yet get his way as the race is a dead heat and ballots are still being counted. We previously discussed Seattle's broadband deliberations.

In Longmont, Colorado, voters voted against giving the municipality authority to expand the city owned fiber-assets into a network offering retail services. As usual, the proponents of the public network were significantly outspent by incumbents seeking to prevent competition.

A group called No Blank Check Longmont, backed with $150,000 from the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, spent more than $143,000 in cash and benefited from more than $46,000 in in-kind contributions in its campaign to defeat 2C.

Up on top of Minnesota's North Shore, the Cook County Broadband project got a mixed reception. Though they received the authority to raise a 1% sales tax that would have helped pay for the project, they failed to achieve the necessary 65% super majority required under ancient Minnesota law (1915) to operate a telephone service. A majority supported the idea - 56% - but without the ability to offer a triple-play, the county will have to reconsider its approach.

Though such results are disappointing, every community with a locally owned community network has had to deal with such setbacks. The question is how organizers can respond to challengers and how badly the community wants fast and affordable broadband networks.

In the near term, I hope that both the Minnesota Broadband Task Force Report (due Friday) and the FCC National Broadband Plan recommend abolishing such barriers to public ownership as a 65% referendum.

Posted October 29, 2009 by christopher

Monticello Minnesota, the small community located 40 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, recently returned to the news when its telephone incumbent, TDS, began offering a fast 50/20 Mbps residential broadband connection for $50/month.

Nate Anderson, of Ars Technica, covered both the story and backstory (something he has extensively reported).

But the entire congratulatory press release glosses over a key fact: the reason that Monticello received a fiber network was the town's decision to install a municipal-owned fiber network to every home in town… spawning a set of TDS lawsuits that went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the town.

I might also note that the press release and much of the coverage also glosses over a one-year contract and early termination fee (though it isn't clear if this is applied in all circumstances). However, Nate nails the story by framing it with the title "Want 50Mbps Internet in your town? Threaten to roll out your own."

We spoke to TDS about the situation last year, and its director of legislative and public relations told us that TDS didn't act earlier because it didn't actually know that people really, really wanted fiber; once the referendum was a success, the company moved quickly to give people what it now knew they wanted.

Of course, TDS did not start rolling fiber after the referendum. They waited. It was only after the City successfully bonded for the project that TDS acted (first by filing a lawsuit to block competition and second by investing in their network to be competitive when the doomed lawsuit would inevitably be dismissed). TDS did not change course because they suddenly realized that people wanted better broadband, they did it because they knew that they would have to invest or perish when confronted with actual competition.

Nate's article looks at other communities that have followed a similar trajectory. This story seems to have inspired another excellent post by Phillip Dampier at Stop the Cap: Municipalities: If You Threaten to Build It Yourself, Your Faster Speeds Will Come.

I take some issue...

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Posted October 6, 2009 by christopher

The Minnesota Independent took Pawlenty's Administration to task last week for its decision to give more money to the telecom company front group Connected Nation. To be clear, this is not the money for infrastructure (yet - time will tell how the state encourages the feds to allocate the grants). This was the mapping money.

Peter Fleck, of PF Hyper blog, put it well:

“My understanding is that we have allowed the companies that have not provided the needed broadband coverage in our state to steer the broadband mapping process itself because of a stated need for confidentiality. That need is questionable,” said Fleck.

“And it puts the state in a position where if the maps show there is no problem with broadband coverage, then we won’t need legislation, regulation, or any other policies and it creates the risk that the telecom industry can continue to provide inadequate coverage to underserved areas — usually areas of low-density and low-income. And because of the inadequacy of these maps, eventually we will have to undertake broadband mapping again at taxpayer expense. To me, this is an irresponsible use of public money.”

The story also quotes me and links back to our story on Connected Nation in Minnesota.

I want to note that states and federal agencies can demand more in terms of better maps and data transparency. It is somewhat disingenuous to lay the blame solely at the doorstep of this telecom-front organization when elected officials refuse to demand more from an industry that has long retained legions of lobbyists. Make no mistake, Connected Nation's conflict of interest is a serious problem, but we need our elected officials to stand up to the telecommunications companies and demand better mapping data. We had higher hopes from the NTIA, but clearly that was misplaced.

More recently, Sharon Schmickle of MinnPost wrote about plans for a publicly owned network in Cook County, Minnesota. It touches on the major issues that many communities face when deciding whether to build...

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Posted September 11, 2009 by christopher

Our focus on the broadband stimulus is almost entirely on last-mile infrastructure because it is the most challenging and expensive problem to solve before all Americans will have affordable access to the broadband networks they need in the modern era. As we are most familiar with Minnesota, we decided to take an in-depth look on who is proposing what projects in our state.

Total Infrastructure Grants Requested for Last Mile solely in MN: at least $240 million
Total Infrastructure Loans Requested for Last Mile solely in MN: at least $85 million

Groups seeking stimulus funds to deliver last-mile broadband access in Minnesota have asked for hundreds of millions of dollars. By my tally, some 17 applicants are seeking to serve Minnesota with last-mile access (I threw out applications pertaining to middle mile infrastructure, digital divide, and those last-mile projects that combine Wisconsin and North Dakota areas) have requested some $240 million in grants and $85 million in loans.

If one assumes that the total amount of money is divided evenly among the states, this is somewhere around 3x as much stimulus money that will be awarded to Minnesota applicants over the course of the multiple rounds of funding.

At some point, this list will have to be winnowed and prioritized, so let's delve into it. All applications still must survive the peer review process (ensuring they met NTIA/RUS requirements), the incumbent challenges (incumbents can veto applications by showing that targeted areas already have broadband advertised to them), and the prioritization of surviving projects by each state (no one seems sure of how this will happen in Minnesota, our Governor is too busy not running for President in 2012).

There are two applications that should be jettisoned immediately, Arvig Telephone Company and Mid-State Telephone Company, both of which are owned by TDS Telecom. [Update: I have now heard conflicting reports on whether Arvig is, in fact, a subsidiary of TDS]

When...

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