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A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198
When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access. After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it. City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.
We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.
This show is 35 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."
Fact Sheet On Rural Connectivity In North Carolina
The Coalition for Local Internet Choice North Carolina chapter (CLIC-NC) and the Community Broadband Networks Team here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) have teamed up to create a new fact sheet: Fast, Affordable, Modern Broadband: Critical for Rural North Carolina.
This fact sheet emphasizes the deepening divide between urban and rural connectivity. The fact sheet can help explain why people who live in the country need services better than DSL or dial-up. This tool helps visualize the bleak situation in rural North Carolina and offers links to resources.
Rural North Carolina is one of the most beautiful places in the country but also one of the most poorly served by big Internet access providers. The gap between urban and rural connectivity is growing wider as large corporate providers choose to concentrate their investments on a small number of urban areas, even though 80 percent of North Carolina's counties are rural.
To add insult to injury, North Carolina is one of the remaining states with barriers on the books that effectively prohibit local communities from making decisioins about fiber infrastructure investment. CLIC-NC and ILSR encourage you to use the fact sheet to help others understand the critical need for local authority.
Download it here, share it, pass it on.
Learn more about the situation in rural North Carolina from Catharine Rice, who spoke with Chris in episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Minnesota Public Officials at Home and In D.C.: Funding Rural High-Speed Internet
It’s getting to be a sad, repetitive tale: crappy Internet for rural populations. Minnesota public officials hope to change that. At both state and federal levels, they’re advocating for greater funding for rural high-speed Internet.
They’ve proposed several ideas to fund rural connectivity. At the state level, Governor Mark Dayton is pushing to use $100 million of the Minnesota government budget surplus for rural broadband projects. In D.C., Congressman Rick Nolan has introduced a bill to provide funding for regional solutions, and Senator Amy Klobuchar is working on a bill for coordinating broadband installation and highway construction. Will any of these ideas work?
Minnesota Budget Surplus
Minnesota’s state government expects a $1.9 billion budget surplus, which presents an opportunity to fund large, one-time investments. The Star Tribune notes that such one-time investments in infrastructure, “especially when infrastructure is defined broadly to include roads, transit, public buildings and broadband capacity,” could prove a welcome idea. Fiber networks have high, up-front construction costs, but they offer next-generation, high-speed connectivity. Depending on what state leaders do, those high construction costs may no longer be a barrier.
With the news of the budget surplus, Governor Dayton renewed his call for $100 million (just 5% of the budget surplus) to improve broadband in rural Minnesota. Last spring, however, state legislators only approved about a tenth of that amount - around $10 million. The year before that, they had only put in $20 million. The money funds competitive grants in which companies and local governments match state dollars to build networks. Promising a “border to border broadband” approach, Dayton continues to push for funding for rural projects, but it is up to state legislators to determine what to do.
Ideas for Regional Solutions from D.C.
Yolo County, California Ready for Better Broadband
The Yolo County Board of Supervisors in California voted unanimously recently to accept consultants' recommendations to take steps improve broadband in the county. Some of those recommendations included investing in infrastructure to improve both urban and rural areas in the northern county.
The Davis Enterprise reported on the meeting from February 24th:
With its diverse mix of rural and urban areas, the county has communities where little or no broadband service is available. And even in urban areas with greater access to service and providers, many residents complain of slow and unreliable connections, according to the Yolo Broadband Strategic Plan, which also provided direction for county officials on closing the divide in the coming years.
The strategic plan, commissioned in 2013, notes that in some areas residents must rely on dial-up or satellite:
“Residents are generally limited to low-speed connections that prevent these users from accessing the majority of online content,” reported John Honker of Magellan Advisors LLC, which prepared the report.
“Using the Internet for anything but simple Web browsing is challenging in these communities,” he said.
The situation is especially critical for farming communities in the county, reports the study:
Yolo's agricultural populations are also challenged by poor access to broadband, especially in the farming and seed technology industries. Yolo farms are often unable to keep up with the technological advancements in the agricultural field that would allow them achieve greater productivity and better management of their natural resources.
In the more urban areas, such as the City of Davis (home of UC Davis), residents complain they cannot get the service they need in households with multiple devices. In those cases, the bandwidth they need is just too expensive if it is available. These same communities complain of unreliable networks.
Local Communities Still Committed to RS Fiber Cooperative
Green Isle and nine other communities have reaffirmed their commitment to the RS Fiber Cooperative, reports the Belle Plain Herald. The project began in 2010 as a collaboration between a number of local county and municipal government entities in south central Minnesota. Local residents rallied behind the project, which was designed to connect both towns and surrounding farms.
Unfortunately, the project faced difficulties due to incumbent intimidation and the high cost of deployment in such a large geographic area. Sibley County officials chose to back out of the project, requiring a business plan reboot. Locals, recognizing the critical need for better connectivity chose to instead form the RS Fiber Cooperative.
The Herald reports that in its first 2015 City Council meeting, Green Isle voted 3 - 1 in favor of a resolution stating continued support to the project. Similar resolutions have [no-glossary]passed[/no-glossary] in Winthrop, Gibbon, Fairfax, Lafayette, Gaylord, Stewart, New Auburn and Brownton.
Henderson and Arlington, located in Sibley County, have opted to not participate in the coop.
Coop Directors endorsed an updated business plan in November, reported Prairie Business Magazine. The project will bring better connectivity options to approximately 6,200 customers in Sibley County, parts of Renville County, and portions of Nicollet and McLeod Counties. The revised business plan, scaled back from the original plan to bring fiber to every property in Sibley and Renville Counties, reduces project costs by more than 30 percent.
Participating communities will collectively issue $13.7 million in general obligation bonds. Local investors, bank loans, and other financing will provide the remaining $42 million. The project is scheduled for completion in 2018.
Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99
Rural California Farms Need Fiber to be Fertile
An even more efficient use of water, said Bryon Horn, is to put moisture sensors into the soil beneath individual trees, like olives and almonds, so that each tree gets exactly the right amount of moisture. But that requires something that the valley lacks: wireless connectivity. In fact, even commercial cellphone coverage in the area is spotty. ... But doing so has been difficult. The larger telcos, she said, are not interested, and a consultant representing smaller telecommunications companies told Hogg and other officials that the large telcos make it almost impossible to expand to underserved areas. To buy wholesale Internet access from AT&T in the Salinas area, the consultant said, costs $136 per megabit per month compared to 50 cents per megabit per month in the city of Sunnyvale. [emphasis ours]Wireless works best where it has access to abundant wired connectivity. Just like plants need water, wireless towers need fiber to backhaul the data. Having AT&T as your only option is bad news. AT&T exists to make profits, not provide essential services at affordable rates. This is precisely why we argue that residents and businesses must have some voice in the telecom networks upon which they depend -- they are too important to entrust to massive corporations like AT&T or Comcast. The public built the roads that allow these farmers to get their crops to market and it ensured that they were connected to the electric grid. Despite entirely too many subsidies, the large providers have not only failed to offer a modern connection but are actually hindering others from doing it. It is time to stop subsidizing those companies and embrace the benefits of ownership by cooperatives or local governments that are locally accountable. From what we can tell, some in the San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium get it and are trying to solve this problem for good.
Broadband on Modern Farm
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.