There’s lots of talk about improving the nation’s high-speed access to the Internet, comparing the U.S. to Europe and Asia and wringing our hands about why we’re not getting better faster. The Federal Communications Commission is apparently about to unload a national report, for example, decrying how far the United States is behind where it should be.
But, as we’ve been saying for some time at Ground Level’s broadband topic page, some of the most interesting parts of that conversation are taking place in town halls, in county meeting rooms and on farms as people try to figure out what they want, what they can afford and how best to get it.
So we’re picking seven places around Minnesota where this conversation is in gear. We’re calling them Ground Level’s Broadband 7 and planning to tune in as residents, service providers and local officials work things out — or not.
Here’s a Google Fusion map of the seven communities. Click on each for more information.
Some of the seven have been at it for a while and snagged federal stimulus money, others are early on in the discussions. Some have leaned on local government action, others put more onus on private providers.
If there’s one lesson right now, it’s that the road can be a bumpy one. But we plan to keep checking in over the coming months and years.
Lake County — Big money, troubled start
Lake County on the North Shore is interesting for three reasons at least. It garnered the biggest federal stimulus broadband award in Minnesota, $66 million. But it stumbled out of the gate and had to find a new partner to proceed with engineering and construction work. And the stimulus grant for Lake County to own a network has drawn strong criticism from private providers and even the cable industry nationally.
Paul Bergman, owner of The Vanilla Bean cafe on Highway 61 in Two Harbors and a county commissioner, has been a champion of the project, which would provide fiber access to every household in the county and some in neighboring St. Louis County. He’s remained optimistic in the face of complications and criticism but says the project is getting increased scrutiny from federal officials responsible for overseeing the stimulus awards.
“Right now, everything is about cost-saving.” Local planners are responding to questions from the Rural Utilities Service branch of the USDA but still are hoping to have crews out in May starting work. Bergman says the county can save money by coordinating with the Northeast Service Cooperative, another stimulus recipient that broke ground this week to provide fiber to a number of institutions around northeastern Minnesota.
Connect Minnesota says 75 percent of Lake County residents have access to non-mobile, non-satellite broadband coverage of at least three megabits per second. The project has been sharply criticized by Mediacom, the cable TV and Internet provider in much of the county, which argues that the government is taking customers away. In fact, Lake County’s stimulus award was one of three cited in a national cable industry press release this week that argued stimulus broadband grants were going to places the industry covered well already.
Lac qui Parle — Questions over how much to pay workers
This project has seemed like a model of cooperation between a county and local telephone provider, Farmers Mutual. Farmers Mutual already provides fiber optic service to 40 percent of the county’s area and, in partnership with the county, snagged a $10 million federal stimulus award to wire the rest of Lac qui Parle County. The latest numbers show 80 percent of the county’s residents can get speeds of up to 3 megabits per second.
The problem is that the phone company now expects costs to be $600,000 to $1 million higher than earlier anticipated. Previous estimates assumed wage costs of a little over $20 per hour but federal officials are insisting that workers be paid prevailing wage rates under the Davis-Bacon Act. That puts them somewhere north of $30 per hour, says Kevin Beyer, director of Farmers Mutual, and means bids likely will come in high.
He’s expecting bids from contractors this month and will take the results to the phone company board in May to see how or whether it wants to proceed. Not an option is simply doing what the company can with the expected $10 million. The proposal was for the whole county and that’s what the company will be expected by the Rural Utilities Service to provide, Beyer said.
Todd County — Beef talks
This central Minnesota county is earlier on in the process. The idea to build a broadband network has floated around for a few years, but in March about 30 beef farmers who make up the Todd County Livestock Advisory Council sent a resolution to the county to encourage a project.
The county, in turn, passed its own resolution setting a goal to make high-speed access available to all residents. The county is hoping for a fiber network in the cities and fast service of some kind — wireless, perhaps — in the rest of the county. “We’re prescribing the service, not the ‘how,'” says county administrator Nathan Burkett, who is spearheading the conversation. On the table, but not determined, is the possibility of a county-owned utility, Burkett said.
A key point in the conversation will be a meeting at Long Prairie High School at 5:30 p.m. on May 12. The goal? To answer the question, “Is the community willing to put its energy behind it?” Burkett says.
As far as the farmers go, Randy Pepin, who coordinates the livestock council activities, says, “Broadband is part of the puzzle in today’s agriculture.” Like everybody else, it seems, livestock producers need high speed in order to access information, deal with complex record-keeping that can involve the Internet, attend auctions online and view webinars.
Redwood County — Just starting
Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota has just about the lowest rate of high-speed Internet coverage in the state. Forty two percent of residents have speeds of three megabits available, according to Connect Minnesota.
Like every other outstate economic development specialist, Julie Rath of Redwood Area Development Corp. sees better access as crucial. So far, two meetings have brought local officials, four Internet providers, schools, businesses and residents together to talk.
As is typical, service is OK in the towns, but not so good in the country, Rath reports.
“Check back with us in six months,” Rath says.
You can read about the rest of the Broadband 7–Windom, Sibley County and Cook County–here.