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Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 19

This was a big year for local governments and many year-end discussions have noted the role of cities in expanding high quality Internet access. Among them, The Free Press' Timothy Karr:

The rise of homegrown Internet infrastructure has prompted industry lobbyists to introduce state-level legislation to smother such efforts. There are at least 20 such statutes on the books. But in June, the FCC stepped in with a plan to preempt these state laws, giving communities the support they need to affordably connect more people.

and Broadband Breakfast's Drew Clark:

...viewed from the vantage point of the future, the far more significant development will be the emergence of opportunities outside of Washington for high-capacity broadband networks. It’s a world in which cities and municipalities are playing the leadership role...

The most direct crystallization of our municipal broadband moment is the new non-profit coalition dubbed Next Century Cities. Launched less than two months ago in Santa Monica, it now boasts membership from 50 cities, representing 25 states. From Los Angeles to communities along the Pacific Northwest, from Lafayette in Cajun country to Chattanooga, and from patrician Boston to a city that got its start as a cow town, Kansas City, each of these 50 cities have different motivations and approaches to Gigabit Networks.

Almost 60% of the United States has access to 100 Mbps Internet connections, but only 3% can get a gig. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin and Anne L. Kim from Roll Call both take a look at a new report from the Department of Commerce this week. 

The ESA report titled, “Competition Among U.S. Broadband Service Providers,” finds that far more competition exists at slower speeds than at higher speeds (only 8% can choose from at least two 100 Mbps providers.) 

"This report gives policymakers a deeper understanding of what is occurring in the ISP marketplace," says U.S. Commerce Department Chief Economist Sue Helper. “We know that competition typically drives down prices. And we also know that increasingly, higher Internet speeds are required for optimal functionality of popular, high-bandwidth computing applications. As more and more commerce and information move online, we risk further widening the digital divide if access to affordable, higher speed Internet doesn’t keep pace.”  

Anders Bylund with Motley Fool posted an article this week about why AT&T might nervous about the days to come. Bylund asks whether municipal broadband projects like those in Chanute, Kansas, and Google Fiber’s entry into the market are rendering AT&T obsolete. 

“You might think that AT&T would shrug its shoulders over new competition in such a laughably small market. But the company sees this as the beginnings of a much larger threat: Allow one high-sped service at incredibly low prices, and other cities will surely follow. Soon enough, this tiny insurgent will have turned into a nationwide trend, putting enormous pressure on AT&T's existing business model.”

Small towns, larger cities, counties and cooperatives all over the United States are catching on. 

In Renville, Nicollet and Sibley Counties in rural Minnesota, residents have a lot to look forward to in 2015. Cassandra Sepeda with KEYC Mankato reported on RS Fiber’s growing momentum. The fiber-to-the-home initiative could reach more than 6,000 residents by 2016. The groups financial planner, and local business man, Phil Keithahn works from home and is definitely on-board:

"...That's what this does. It levels the playing field for people who live and work in rural America with people who are in the twin cities. So it's an economic development tool for south central Minnesota."

In Virginia’s rural Bedford County— a cooperative partnership could soon connect thousands of homes. Last week the county’s board announced they would collaborate with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative to get high speed Internet in the area.

“[Internet infrastructure] is a public utility build-out — the biggest one so far in this century — and it’s pretty much equal to the rural electrification that happened at the turn of the last century,” said Allen Boaz, who presented the advisory proposal to the supervisors.

“That’s how important I believe it is, and a whole lot of other people are with me.”

The county’s economic development director says that residents might be connected within six months.

And, speaking of development, 10 Connecticut communities are rolling forward with high speed Internet goals in mind. According to Brian Fung with the Washington Post, half of the state's population could some day be wired for high-speed, fiber-optic Internet. Stephen Singer with the Associated Press writes that while the cities have committed to wanting businesses to build and finance Internet service, they don't want to get into the business themselves: 

Among the goals are to create a gigabit-capable network for targeted businesses and residential areas with a "demonstrated demand" to drive job creation and stimulate economic growth. The call [out to a business or partner] also seeks to provide free or heavily discounted Internet service of between 10 and 100 megabits to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas and deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber networks in the United States.

Students in South Bend, Indiana are now fiber-connected. Metronet's grant program helped pay for the high-performing school to connect to Metronet's dark fiber network. Before the upgrade, students often had to do their Internet research from their own homes. 

McHenry County’s Northwest Herald, and Charleston, South Carolina’s The Post and Courier, put their support behind competitive Internet this week. In Charleston, the paper threw down on South Carolina’s 2012 law that prohibits public networks, saying that the state cannot afford to continue to be left behind in terms of speed and connectivity: 

“South Carolina communities with limited or inadequate bandwidth access stand virtually no chance of attracting industries that increasingly rely on high speed Internet connections to do business. Gov. Nikki Haley's record on job creation is strong, but her decision to sign the 2012 bill dealt a serious blow to the state's ability to attract investments.

Perhaps regulating the Internet under a labyrinthine federal communications code would indeed slow innovation and hurt the economy. But preventing competition - the inevitable effect of South Carolina's law - can be equally harmful.

Companies like Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T operate like monopolies in too many markets, and monopolies require rules to prevent actions that harm consumers and other businesses.”

The Star Tribune and MSP Business Journal are reporting that Chaska’s city-owned Internet service will be switched off next year. The city opted out of the wireless Internet offerings rather than pay the $3 million to upgrade. Since it launched in 2004, the city has seen a rise in competition, with more providers offering service. 

“We never wanted to compete with the private sector,” Podhrasky said. “We just wanted to make sure our residents had access to [wireless Internet] until there were more options out there.” He said the city concluded the time has come, with people now having a variety of choices, including bundled services at high speeds through cable modems at prices close to chaska.net’s."

The city will continue to provide its fiber service to the school district and one data center.

And Susan Crawford came out another good piece: “The 3 Big Myths that are holding back America’s Internet.”

TING!

Charlottesville, Virginia could soon be home to what one alternative wireless carrier calls, “Google Fiber lite.” Ting announced this week they will build their own 1Gbps fiber-to-the-premises when they purchase Blue Ridge InternetWorks to serve Charlottesville customers— and, as Sean Buckley with Fierce Telecom reports, they don’t plan to stop there. 

"We'll be on the lookout for the next town or city in which we can lay down roots," wrote [Andrew] Moore-Crispin, [senior content manager at Ting.] “Roots made of fiber optic cable and ultimately leading right to the home. If you'd like to see Ting Internet in your town, let us know on the Ting Internet page… We admire what Google is doing with and for gigabit fiber Internet access, but for the Internet giant, access is more of a side project," wrote Moore-Crispin. "Also, Google is a lot of great things but human scale isn't one of them."

Jason Koebler with Motherboard covered the story as well

"When we got into mobile, we just took the same business processing and billing and applied them to mobile, which was suffering from incredibly high pricing and a low level of service," he added. "We thought, where else can we take these things we've gotten good and apply them to?"

Hypocrisy Department

And Time Warner Cable is fighting to keep its Broadband expansion projects private.

"'As outlined in our appeal, disclosure of Time Warner Cable build-out plans, including details like completion dates and the areas and number of potential customers served, would clearly harm our competitive position,' Time Warner Cable spokesman Scott Pryzwansky said Monday."

Time Warner Cable and other private providers regularly demand this information from local government providers. This is a frank admission that local governments operate from a position of disadvantage relative to private sector providers.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 12, 2014

This week in Community Broadband networks... partnerships, cooperatives, and going-it-alone. For a background in muni networks, check out this recent article from FiscalNote. The article highlights Kansas and Utah's fight for improving beyond the minimum speeds. 

Speaking of minimum, the FCC announced its new "rock bottom" for regulated broadband speeds. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reports that despite AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable and Telecom Association's protests, ISPs that use government subsidies to build rural broadband networks must provide speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads.

Rural Americans should not be left behind those who live in big cities, the FCC announcement today said. "According to recent data, 99 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service," the FCC said.

The FCC plans to offer nearly $1.8 billion a year to carriers willing to expand service to 5 million rural Americans. 

This is a step in the right direction, but we are alarmed to see a download:upload ratio of 10:1. People in rural areas need to upload as well as download - our comments to the FCC strongly recommended raising the upstream threshold as well and we are very disappointed to see that remain a pathetic 1 Mbps.

And, from TechDirt's own "who can you trust if you can't trust the phone company department," Karl Bode found that a study by the AT&T-funded Progressive Policy Institute concluded that if Title II regulations were passed, the nation would be "awash in $15 billion in various new Federal and State taxes and fees. Bode writes that the study cherry-picked and conflated data:

The reality the broadband industry doesn't want to acknowledge is that very little changes for it under Title II if carriers aren't engaged in bad behavior. The broadband industry is fighting Title II solely to protect potential revenues generated from abusing uncompetitive markets. That this self-serving behavior is being dressed up as concern about the size of your broadband bill is the industry's best comedic work to date.

Cities Pursuing Community Broadband

Nancy Scola reported on the growing collective of "Next Century Cities." 

[The group's] early expansion is a signal of what seems to be a shift in the way Americans are thinking about high-speed Internet access: the idea that cities will the battlegrounds for the playing out of the broadband debates. One effect of these cities working so closely with Google as it rolls out its fiber network in places like Kansas City and Austin is a realization that mayors can take broadband into their own hands -- whether that's through a municipal solution like Chattanooga's gigabit network or through partnering with traditional Internet service providers such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Other partnerships are also moving muni networks forward

At the same time as the Next Century Cities announcement, the Department of Agriculture announced $190.5 million in grants and loans for rural broadband and telecommunications infrastructure.

"Modern telecommunications and broadband access is now as essential to the businesses and residents of rural America as electricity was in the 1930s," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a USDA statement. The funding will go towards providing, “broadband in areas that lack it, help rural-serving public television stations begin using digital broadcasts and support other telecommunications infrastructure improvements."

Jason Meyers with LightReading explains why utility companies (like EPB in Chattanooga) are positioned so well to be home to gigabit networks.  

Several communities are considering local options for networks. Some are just in the earliest study phases: Medina County and Athens in Ohio and Walla Walla, Washington are among them. RS Fiber in Minnesota has approved its updated business plan and financial strategy, meaning it can move forward with its cooperative network, and several communities in Northeastern Oklahoma are pursuing a cooperative plan as well.

It looks like the push for local options in Colorado is having an affect on other communities. Aspen and Pitkin County have submitted requests for proposals-- perhaps inspired by Longmont, Boulder, and the rest of the communities we reported on after the November referenda.  

Meantime, Bruce Kushnick with the Huffington Post reported this week that communities all over the country have been paying for fiber infrastructure upgrades, but have seen almost none of the investment. 

Starting in 1991, the phone companies went state-to-state to get changes in state laws, known as "alternative regulations" to charge customers for the replacement of the copper wires that were part of the state-based utility, like Verizon New Jersey, with a fiber optic wire capable of 45 Mbps in both directions, the standard speed for broadband in 1992.

And though it varied by state, this fiber optic wiring was to be done everywhere -- urban, rural, and suburban, rich and poor communities and cities, and even the schools were to be wired in some states. All customers were paying for the upgrades of this future fiber optic broadband utility so they all deserved to be upgraded.

Check it out and see if your community is on the list. And if you think this isn't the first time you've heard about this Big Ripoff, you're right-- We interviewed him on Community Broadband Bits Episode 28

Net Neutrality

This week, New Jersey's Cory Booker and Maine's Angus King defended net neutrality on CNN. 

The Internet is one of the most powerful tools on the planet. Across the globe, millions of people connect every minute of every day to harness its wealth of information, exchange ideas in an open platform and foster the type of innovation and entrepreneurship that spurs economic growth.

And today, it's never been more at risk in the United States.

Washington Post's Brian Fung reported that there are hints that the telecom industry is preparing for a new Title II reclassification. Verizon's CFO Francis Shammo said, in a nutshell, that the company would do just fine if the FCC imposed the stricter regulations. 

"I mean to be real clear, I mean this does not influence the way we invest. I mean we're going to continue to invest in our networks and our platforms, both in Wireless and Wireline FiOS and where we need to. So nothing will influence that. I mean if you think about it, look, I mean we were born out of a highly regulated company, so we know how this operates.

Despite this very clear statement, we expect to see still more claims from groups like the AT&T puppet Progressive Policy Institute that Title II would somehow cause major carriers to invest even less in networks across the United States. Though, if the market were half as competitive as they claim, any firm that invested less would be in big trouble! How do we know when they are lying? Well, are their lips moving?

Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Video and Materials Now Available from Blandin

Our friends at the Blandin Foundation recently sponsored another Minnesota Border to Border Broadband conference. Video and materials are now available

In addition to the archived video of the November 19th event in Brainerd, Minnesota, Blandin on Broadband's Ann Treacy provides links to summaries of each session, some of which also have PowerPoint presentations or video available for viewing:

Interest in rural broadband projects has risen sharply in the past two years. In 2013, the state legislature set aside $20 million in grant funding for rural broadband projects; applications have recently come due.

A Star Tribune article reports that entities seek approximately $44.2 million in total for Minnesota projects. Sen. Matt Schmit, the lead author on the grant funding bill also spoke at the conference and told attendees:

“Above all, I think what we wanted to do was prove there was interest out there — that there’s a need."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 5, 2014

After successfully fighting a Kansas state law proposed in February that would have outlawed community networks entirely, the city of Chanute is being required to follow an outdated 1940s law that requires them to ask permission to move forward with a bond initiative that would fund a high speed Internet network to businesses and residents. And, AT&T is officially intervening in the city’s efforts. 

Our most favoritest headline of the week about this story comes from Brad Reed with BGR: “AT&T wants to know why a town is building a 1Gbps network when it already offers 6Mbps DSL." Yah, Chanute, what gives?!

Dion Lefler with the Wichita Eagle reported this week that the city has been ordered to follow a 1940 state law requiring it to get permission to sell bonds that would fund a project to provide the town’s 9,000 residents with high speed Internet. 

Chanute officials say the law requiring commission permission to expand is outdated, because it was written in the days when the telephone company was a monopoly… “AT&T is the incumbent telephone company and Cable One is the incumbent cable TV operator,” the city’s filing to the commission said. “Neither of those providers offers the level of service throughout Chanute’s utility service area that Chanute will be able to offer its citizens as a result of the investment planned for Chanute’s network. As such, there will not be a duplication of existing services, even if such a consideration were still relevant today.

Kate Cox with the Consumerist goes further:

AT&T has a long track record of very vocally opposing even the mere idea of municipal broadband projects. The company has worked hard and spent lots of money helping enact state laws that prohibit public broadband expansion.

They have also argued that not only should public fiber projects be banned any place that they (or anyone else) already serves, but that those projects should be banned anywhere they might choose to do business later on.

And Jon Brodkin with Ars Technica noted the real cause for AT&T’s worry: the city would charge people just $5 more per month for Gig service than AT&T does for its bargain-basement 6mbps service. Yikes!

Wendy Davis with MediaPost covered the story as well:

If the new network moves forward, residents would have every reason to defect from AT&T in favor of the new service -- unless AT&T can step up its offerings.

So far, AT&T hasn't shown an inclination to do so in Chanute. While AT&T plans to expand its fiber optic network to dozens of cities, Chanute isn't one of them, according to advocacy group Public Knowledge. That organization today issued a public call for AT&T to avoid putting up obstacles to a new fiber network. “No one should deny rural America the choice of building high-speed broadband networks in a world where the Internet is so vital to a community’s growth.

MSMolly with FireDogLake offered her insight this week on the delicate balance ISP’s walk when it comes to regulation:

AT&T isn’t opposed to government handouts, though, as long as they are flowing to the private sector. The company argues that community broadband networks “should not receive any preferential tax treatment,” and that only private companies should be given special treatment. AT&T said, “Indeed, any tax incentives or exemptions should be provided, if at all, to private sector firms to induce them to expand broadband deployment to unserved areas.”

AT&T has been going state by state paying asking state lawmakers to get rid of most remaining consumer protections, such as those requiring continued 911 access to the elderly, so it can get out of DSL markets it doesn’t want to upgrade.

But AT&T isn’t all bad, right? I mean last week we reported that the telecom giant would back down on its threats to halt fiber rollouts, that’s good, right?

Thomas Gryta with the Wall Street Journal and Brian Fung with the Washington Post say that while AT&T might have said it would pull its investments in fiber if they didn’t get more certainty from the FCC about net neutrality, what they really meant was...

The issue is complex for AT&T. As a major Internet service provider, it has a deep interest in how the Internet is governed, but the company also needs approval from the commission for its pending acquisition of satellite broadcaster DirecTV.

In other words, “We didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers before the FCC approves our merger.”

Community Broadband Communities

The Slog’s Ansel Herz is at it again. He is frustrated that Seattle has not yet invested in a municipal fiber network. The city’s chief tech officer, Michael Mattmiller says the study he’s commissioning on muni broadband will likely not be complete until April (these things cannot be completed overnight!).

The threat of competition is giving cities all over the country more power in franchise agreement talks. Bill Neilson with Broadband Reports cites Lawrence, Massachusetts; Lexington, Kentucky; and New York City for using their franchise talks to get more from incumbents, or head for the door. 

After being told for years that previous franchise agreements would magically increase local jobs and improve customer service (which never occurred on either front), some cities are now demanding guarantees in writing before agreeing to a franchise agreement. Now, some cities are also demanding that franchise agreements be reduced in years so that cities may see just how well the cable providers are acting during the agreed upon years.

Residents in Torrington, CT are one step closer to fiber in their city. The council approved using part of $1.7 million in Nutmeg Network grant money set aside to fund a fiber optic connection for community anchors. The network would run alongside its existing AT&T connection.

Alaska's Statewide Broadband Task Force is up and running. The group is committed to bringing 100 mbps speeds to every household in Alaska by 2020. Carey Restino with the Arctic Sounder has the story:

"We have reached a point in the development of modern communications wherein the Internet is firmly woven into our fabric of everyday life. America is in a race to the top in order to compete in the globalization of trade and development," the report concludes. "Alaska is part of this race. The same factors that make broadband deployment difficult in Alaska — geographic remoteness, lack of roads, high costs — also mean that Alaska, more so than other states, has the most to gain from making sure that affordable and reliable high-speed broadband is available to all its residents. Very soon, social pressure will be too great for government and civil society not to act, whether collaboratively or alone. A clear plan is in the best interest of the state."

Despite its relatively small dollar amount, communities in Minnesota are competing for the state's $20 million broadband kitty. Jenna Ross with the Star Tribune:

[Ron] Brodigan, owner of the Snowshoe Country Lodge on Sand Lake [near Two Harbors], gets Internet service with download speeds of 5 megabits per second — “almost adequate,” he said. Once the county’s fiber-to-the-premises project reaches him, he expects to pay $80 a month for 30-megabit service. “It’s going to be a boon when we get it,” he said. “But it’s been setback after setback,” he said, referring to challenges from cable companies and other delays. But, he added, “they’re really humping now.”

Lake County Provides Gap Funding To Keep Project On Track

Lake County has faced a number of challenges since it began deploying its fiber network in 2012. The latest wrinkle comes as the Rural Utility Service (RUS) is late in distributing funds to pay contractors. The agency is administering the stimulus funds used to build the $66 million project. The Lake County News Chronicle recently reported that the County Board of Commissioners will pay $500,000 to cover expenses until federal funds arrive.

The Chronicle reports:

County Administrator Matt Huddleston said the County typically submits financial requirement statements (FRS) to RUS, and the federal agency usually processes the request for funds within 20 days. FRS 15 was filed more than 50 days ago and RUS still hasn't paid the County. A second, more recent FRS has also been delayed.

Commissioners were concerned delayed payments to contractors would further delay the project, scheduled for completion by September 2015.

After the original partner and the County dissolved their partnership and a threat of a lawsuit from Mediacom slowed deployment, Frontier asserted ownership of a number of utility poles within Two Harbors. According to the Chronicle, Lake Connections and the County recently made the decision to bury fiber instead of stringing them on poles as a way to avoid more delays.

Commissioner Rick Goutermont said he was hopeful after speaking to RUS officials on a conference call Monday that RUS would approve the new plan, the project would move forward and RUS would reimburse the $500,000 quickly.

"If we make some kind of movement in the form of some gap financing ... to keep the boots on the ground out there working on it, I believe that would send a stronger message to RUS of our commitment and that we want to move forward," Goutermont said Tuesday.

We documented Lake County's story in our report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. 

State of Minnesota's Border to Border Broadband Fund - Community Broadband Bits Episode 119

Earlier, this year, the Minnesota Legislature established a "Border to Border" Broadband fund to expand Internet access to the least connected in the state. Senator Matt Schmit and Representative Erik Simonson led the effort to establish the fund that is now administered by Danna Mackenzie. All three of them join us this week to discuss the program.

We discuss the state of Internet access in Greater Minnesota and why these elected officials fought to create a fund to improve the situation. Then we move on to discuss the details of the fund with the Executive Director of the Minnesota Broadband Office, along with some lessons for other states that may be considering taking action.

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 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or 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.

Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

Dakota County is Fiber Rich Thanks to Dig Once Approach - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 117

Calls for "dig once" policies have resonated for years. The general idea is that we can more fiber and conduit in the ground at lower prices if we coordinate to include them in various projects that already disturb the ground. In the south Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dakota County has been tweaking its dig once approach for more than a decade.

This week, Network Collaboration Engineer David Asp and .Net Systems Analyst Rosalee McCready join us to discuss their approach to maximizing all opportunities to get fiber and conduit in the ground. They work in a county that ranges from rural farms in the south to urban cities in the north, offering lessons for any local government.

We discuss the award-winning software they developed to coordinate projects and the many benefits of the network that have already produced millions of dollars in savings. And now the county is examining how it can use its fiber to spur economic development and investment in better Internet access for area residents.

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 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.

Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Austin, Minnesota Releases Fiber Network Feasibility Study Results

Austin has been thinking about getting a gig for a while now. The city of 25,000 near Minnesota’s southern border had campaigned to be picked for the initial Google Fiber deployment, but was disappointed when Google selected Kansas City instead in 2011. As with some other cities around the country, however, the high profile Google competition got Austin thinking about the benefits of a gigabit fiber network, and how they might bring it to their residents. Last month, a committee tasked with bringing such a network to every premises in Austin released a feasibility study they commissioned, with generally favorable results.    

The study recommended further exploration of a universal fiber optic network, but found the idea to be generally feasible. The cost of such a network was estimated at $35 million, and would cover the entire footprint of the Austin Public School District, which extends to rural addresses well beyond the city limits. The study recommended universal fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for many of the same reasons we’ve been talking about it for years: its nearly unlimited data capacity and speed, future-proof and damage-resistant properties, and reliability.  

The study was commissioned by the Community Wide Technology committee of the Vision2020 campaign, a broader planning movement to revitalize the greater Austin area. The Technology committee has since launched the GigAustin website and campaign to advocate for a FTTP network.

The GigAustin team has representation from the Austin Public School District, the city public power utility, private companies and foundations, and other potential anchor institutions. Hormel, the food products giant headquartered in Austin (and the people who brought you the SPAM Museum), is a major employer in the area and their presence on the GigAustin team and support of the feasibility study is notable.   

This is no slam dunk, however. The study did not recommend a specific funding source, and there appears to be little appetite for significant public expenditure

Committee members say the project could be funded in large part by state and federal grants and don’t currently plan to seek local tax dollars to pay for Gig Austin.

...The FCC set $100 million aside for broadband projects on July 11. In addition, Minnesota created the Office of Broadband Development in 2013 and budgeted $20 million to it earlier this year.

Securing grant funding from outside sources is nice, but not always possible - particularly when much of the community already has DSL and cable available. Given that the Austin network alone is projected to cost $35 million, it is easy to see how quickly $20 million or even $100 million could dry up on a statewide or federal scale. There are also hopes in Austin for securing grants from private nonprofits, which also seems like a long shot to make a significant dent in project costs. It is worth noting, however, that the funding for the feasibility study itself came from private sources: the Blandin Foundation, Hormel Foundation, and Ag Star Financial. 

There also does not appear to be any consensus yet on an ownership model, with both public and private options on the table. The public power utility, while participating in the GigAustin campaign, does not appear interested in ownership:

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur said the company will likely partner with Vision 2020 and may contribute dollars to Gig Austin, but the utilities board may decide not to operate the fiber network.

“I don’t think there’s any interest in ownership,” he said.

While leaving the governance and ownership structures as an open question, the study did note that private providers were unlikely to build such a FTTP network any time in the foreseeable future (a finding that will surprise exactly no one). 

The next step in the process is a survey of Austin area residents to determine the level of interest in ultra high speed connectivity. The feasibility study estimated a take rate of 40-50% would be necessary for the network to be sustainable. The survey got under way in July, and should be completed in August or September.

Minnesota's Lake County Fiber Network Begins Connecting Customers

The Lake County fiber network is now serving a limited number of customers in northern Minnesota. According to the Lake County News Chronicle, the network's triple-play services are lit and bringing better connectivity to Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

About 100 customers in Silver Bay take service via the network; beta testers in Two Harbors are helping Lake Connections, the entity managing the network, straighten out any kinks in Phase One. Phase Two, which is more than 60% complete, will bring service to Duluth Township, Knife River, Silver Creek Townships, and Beaver Bay Township. Phase Two is scheduled for completion this summer; Lake Connections anticipates network completion in the fall of 2015.

The Lake County project has been plagued with problems, including delays cause by incumbents. Mediacom filed complaints with the Inspector General based on unsound allegations. While the cable company was not confident enough to sue, its accusations wasted time and money for Lake County. Frontier asserted ownership of a significant number of Two Harbors utility poles, even though the City has maintained them, and the two are still involved in negotiations over ownership and fiber placement on the poles. The Minnesota Cable Companies Association (MCCA) delayed the project further by submitting a massive data request.

The FTTH project is one of the largest stimulus projects, totaling approximately $70 million in grants, loans, and local matching funds. The project will cover almost 3,000 square miles when complete, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and provide services to over 1,000 businesses.

As we have noted before, the project was sorely needed. On more than one occasion, a single fiber cut to the area created Internet black outs to homes, businesses, hospitals, government, and any other entity depending on connectivity to function.

In Two Harbors, outdoor equipment supplier Granite Gear is on the new network. In the past, the entire company shared one DSL connection, forcing the company art director to work at night when bandwidth was available. Now, everyone works normal hours. From the article:

Dave Johnson, the strategic accounts manager for the 28-year-old company, said fast internet has become essential to Granite Gear in recent years.

“It’s not just nice having faster internet, but it has become an absolute necessity,” he said.

“Business is not just pushing emails back and forth. We maintain a website,” he said. “Doing business has become real bandwidth intensive.” A new technological era has dawned and companies are evolving to keep pace with their competitors.

Granite Gear Logo

Johnson told us via email that uploading files for customers in the past used to take hours but now the task takes a few minutes and does not disrupt service for other employees.

Delays have created extra expenses and Lake County will need more customers like Granite Gear to make the network strong. According to the article, the County has already started making loan payments:

[County Commissioner Rich] Sve said he understands his constituents’ concerns that the network may not be viable.

“I share that concern as a taxpayer. I think it’s legitimate,” he said.

But, he added, private companies have not stepped forward to provide the service, despite encouragement by federal and state government to do so. The county, therefore, opted to undertake the task.

“So far, we’re pleased with what we’re getting in Silver Bay and hopeful that it continues,” [Lake Connections Project Manager Jeff Roiland] said.

Businesses and residents interested in signing up for service from Lake Connections can contact them today to make arrangements:

“The biggest thing to do is contact our staff,” Roiland said. “They can call in (or) walk in and the gals at the office can explain to them what to do.”