Sibley County commissioners take next broadband step

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Sibley County commissioners this morning took another step toward providing high-speed Internet to farmers and other rural residents of the county, about an hour and half southwest of the Twin Cities. By a 3-2 vote, the commissioners opted to join a joint powers board with many or all of the county’s cities to continue studying the issue.

For months, Sibley has been debating a plan that could run fiber optic lines to every home, business and government office in the county, providing telephone, cable TV, and Internet. If the $63 million network is built, it would be jointly owned by the cities and the county, and would make 20 megabit-per-second service available to every resident. That’s faster than most people have in the Twin Cities.

Right now, many of those outside Sibley County’s cities are stuck with dial-up connections.

Around 30 people attended the commissioners meeting, many standing when the chairs ran out. Linda Kramer, president of the county library board, attended with her 5-year-old daughter, Anna, who played games on an iPad. Kramer says many students in the county come to the library to use its relatively-fast connection for homework, since they don’t have high speed at home.

Kramer, whose husband is a corn-, soybean- and wheat-farmer in Moltke Township, says their DSL connection of 1.5 Mbps is too slow. “My husband tries to upload USDA maps,” she says. “We stream the occasional movie. It’s not nearly enough. We’re as frustrated with that as we were with dial-up 10 years ago.”

Without county participation in the project, it likely would have been limited to residents of the county’s towns.

Concerned about how to fund the broadband project, Commissioner Jim Swanson said, “I’ve talked to township board members. They’d love to have it. If you ask people they say they’d love to have a Cadillac. But how do you pay for it?”

Mark Erickson, city administrator for Winthrop and a champion of the broadband plan, argues there likely would be few, if any, taxpayer dollars on the line. “We’re going to build a Chevy, not a Cadillac,” he answered.

But settling on a concrete funding scheme is still a few moves down the line.

The next step is to run a campaign to measure interest among residents. The commissioners also voted to give the joint powers board up to $50,000 for the campaign. Quipped commissioner Bill Pinske, one of the no votes, “If you have to come back for more money, bring bigger people.”

If the project is ultimately approved by county residents in a referendum, it would rely on paying for itself with user subscriptions. Project backers have said they would need 70 percent of the county’s residents to sign up for at least two of the services. Existing Internet providers already have expressed opposition.

Following the vote, Erickson was pleased but also a little disappointed. “This was the first group that didn’t vote unanimously in favor,” he says, referring to the cities in Sibley that have voted to join the joint powers board (four cities haven’t voted yet). “This is how kids are going to learn,” he says. “This is the way governments are going to reach out to citizens. Broadband will be the catalyst for our lifestyles in the future.”

In some ways, farmers have an even greater need than people in the cities, argues Tim Dolan, the county’s economic development director who also farms beans and corn.

Dolan has a dial-up connection at his home. What’s more, the wire runs along the ground and has been cut twice by snow plows. He acknowledges that it can be tough to sell people on the economic advantages of a technology whose uses haven’t all come to light. “Farmers could order parts online,” he says. “They could use it for marketing. The uses are only limited by the imagination.”

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