Recipe for rural broadband: Start early, find partners

Here’s one way to get high-speed Internet access to a bunch of farmers and other residents of a shrinking rural county about to get left out of the information revolution.

1) Realize you have a problem well before the federal government decides to pour billions in.

2) Ask every resident you can find what they would like.

3) Get local elected officials to encourage private companies to take action and to collaborate.

4) Be fortunate by having a locally rooted phone company.

Then a $7.2 billion federal stimulus plan for broadband access doesn’t hurt, of course, but at least have handy a consultant whose advice might help you to the front of the line.

Those look like the lessons this week from Lac qui Parle County, a 7,300-resident chunk of western Minnesota lying on the Minnesota River next to South Dakota. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded it $9.7 million in stimulus money to build a 374-mile network of fiber optic cable that will bring high-speed Internet access to 1,738 residences and businesses that now rely on dial-up and wireless service.

(It doesn’t hurt to be in the congressional district of Rep. Collin Peterson, who heads the House Agriculture Committee, but that’s a story for another day.)

“I am so tickled,” said Pam Lehmann, who has been the Lac qui Parle economic development director since January 2007.

“Not long after I started I thought, wow, (high-speed Internet) is going to be the key to bringing Lac qui Parle to what it should be to be competitive,” she said. Businesses needed high-speed Internet access to expand markets, residents needed it to enhance their quality of life and to telecommute and continue living where they wanted to.

So she helped establish a group that got aid from the Blandin Foundation and proceeded to survey county residents. Some were happy with the service they received from their phone company but many had only dial-up service and knew what they were missing.

At the county fair in 2008 residents were standing in line to take a survey of their Internet attitudes. “And the reception from the area was ‘Absolutely, this is what we need.'”

So county commissioners took the next step and authorized a feasibility study — where should the focus be, what level of service? Blandin kicked in $25,000 to pay half; the county coughed up $12,500 and asked the two phone companies that operate in the county whether they were interested in providing a similar amount.

Frontier Communications, which is based in Connecticut, operates in 27 states and is the largest rural telecommunications company in the country, said no.

Farmers Mutual Telephone Company, which serves a total of 1,000 customers, all of them in Lac qui Parle County, said yes.

The result was an application to the federal government for stimulus money — $4.8 million in grants and $4.8 million in loans. (Consultant John Schultz of U-Reka Broadband in Stillwater advised the county to tell the feds it was willing to put some skin in the game. Hence the inclusion of a loan to be paid back with customer subscription fees.) So in the end, half the loan is being borne by the county, half by Farmers Mutual.

Lehmann said she was disappointed Frontier declined to get involved “but I understand how corporations work.”

Said Schultz: “My personal opinion is it wasn’t big enough (for Frontier) to worry about. It’s a harder story to tell for them for their stockholders.”

Frontier spokesman Steve Crosby said getting broadband to rural customers is indeed a primary company goal, but he said the Lac qui Parle project came along just as Frontier was trying to digest an acquisition of Verizon service areas that tripled the company’s size. Compared to existing Frontier territory, the Verizon areas were “underserved” when it came to broadband and that made them the priority for Frontier, Crosby said.

Meanwhile, the Lac qui Parle model for county-phone company cooperation is also instructive. There’s been a lot of rancor in some places when cities or other local governments have moved to become the provider.

Lac qui Parle, Schultz said, provides a “great model.” The private phone company has the experience to provide the service and doesn’t have to build from the ground up, but it shares risk with a partner. “I hope you’ll see more of this type of model,” Schultz said.

Rick King, who headed the governor’s task force on broadband, agreed. “The government acts as convenor and possibly can bond, but isn’t the full funder.” The relationship between local government and local phone provider can be key and isn’t always as good as it appears to be in Lac qui Parle County, King noted.

In Lac qui Parle’s case, Lehmann added, the county “has no desire to become a utility.”

But it does want to play a role in fostering an environment that gives residents better access to the information highway.

“We can’t be satisfied with DSL,” Lehmann said. “We can’t be satisfied with wireless because we have competition in the metro area. We have to have the best.”

  • Jake Sieg

    As a 20-year resident of Lac qui Parle County, this has got to be one of the most exciting things happening in our area in years. There is no better place to raise a family than in rural MN. We have great schools, virtually no crime, no traffic, and inexpensive housing. This project could open the door for many who want to enjoy that quality of life but have a job dependent on the connectivity traditionally only available in urban areas. Farmers Mutual, a telephone cooperative, is also the perfect partner for the project because it’s owned by its customers and run locally. Great job Pam!