Broadband 7 revisited: Going without the stimulus

The federal stimulus program has been one way to jump start broadband projects around Minnesota. But not the only way.

I dealt yesterday with four projects that were awarded federal stimulus money to help extend high speed Internet access to underserved areas. Progress varies, some bids came in high and there’s a fiber shortage, but construction is about to get under way in some places.

But other communities are trying to proceed differently and last spring we included three of them in our “Broadband 7″ places to watch. These efforts don’t have the three-year deadline imposed by the stimulus program and, of course, they don’t have millions of dollars to apply right out of the chute. But the conversations are moving ahead nonetheless.

Sibley County. Still talking.

When I first wrote about Sibley County, I suggested residents were about to enter into one of the most interesting broadband conversations in the state.

They’re still talking.

Proponents of the project known as RS Fiber (for Renville and Sibley counties) want to lay fiber to all 8,000 homes, farms and business in the service area of Sibley County and part of Renville. It would be cheaper to stick to the towns but one of the selling points has been that it should be a one-for-all, all-for-one effort that serves the entire community, including farms.

The joint powers board overseeing the project has held more than two dozen public meetings to explain it, drawing maybe 300 people in all, Winthrop Administrator Mark Erickson estimated.

The immediate goal is to get 4,000 people to sign a pledge card expressing their interest in eventually subscribing to two of three services (voice, cable, Internet). The card isn’t a commitment to take the service if the network ever gets built, but when planners hit their goal, they’ll take it to bond houses to try convincing them to issue revenue bonds to build the system. Subscriber payments would go toward repaying the bonds.

The board mailed out 7,300 cards and got 1,500 back. It originally established late August as a deadline but that’s not crucial, Erickson said.

Erickson says the project has been well received, but at least two telephone providers in the area, Winthrop Telephone and Frontier, have been critical, saying that the Internet service they provide fills the market demand.

Todd County. Testing the waters with a private partner.

Todd County commissioners have hooked up with Arvig Communications Systems, which serves a third of the county with telephone and DSL Internet service, and the Blandin Foundation to conduct a fiber feasibility study.

The $80,000 study is expected to be completed in September or October and determine how many residents of the rural central Minnesota county might sign up for high-speed Internet, phone or cable, how a system to serve all residents might be deployed and how much subscribers would have to pay.

At that point, says county administrator Nathan Burkett, the county board will conduct another public meeting before taking further steps.

Burkett calls Arvig a “good partner” but there is no long-term agreement for the county and Arvig to work together after the feasibility study.

Even at this point, however, Todd County’s ability to find a private partner is in contrast to Sibley County’s lack of such a partner.

Mark Birkholz, Arvig business manager, said his company would love to provide fiber service but has to make the numbers work in terms of distance and population density. Even if they don’t work now, Arvig needs to know more and be in position to move if conditions change. He pointed to the cooperation between Lac qui Parle County and Farmers Mutual Telephone, a cooperative, as a good example.

Acknowledging that local telephone companies bring a variety of attitudes toward cooperating with communities exploring broadband, Birkholz said, “We (Arvig) are just progressive enough to know (the market and technology) are going to change.”

Redwood County. Looking to Sibley County.

About 77 percent of the residents of Redwood County, which lies along the Minnesota River in southern Minnesota, have high-speed Internet access available. (That’s based on the definition of “high-speed” as less than 1 megabit per second, which is pretty slow by most standards these days.)

So it was natural for economic development and other officials to start meeting to improve service earlier this spring.

The going is slow so far. A broadband committee is keeping a close eye on Sibley County’s efforts to develop a community network, said economic development specialist Julie Rath, of the Redwood Area Economic Development Corp.

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