Sibley County weighs broadband for farms

Week by week, the residents of Sibley County in central Minnesota are coming to judgment about building a community fiber optic network that could deliver high-speed Internet access to every home and business.

Four cities — New Auburn, Gibbon, Green Isle, Winthrop — have agreed to join a joint powers board that would take the next step on the project. If it is created, that board could authorize borrowing more than $60 million to lay fiber and deliver fast speeds to all 18,000 people in a proposed service area that includes the whole county and part of neighboring Renville County. Plans call for the debt to be repaid with subscriber payments, so success would depend on lots of customers signing up for the cable, voice and Internet services.

A big decision lies with the Sibley County board, which is scheduled to take the matter up on Tuesday, Feb. 22.

The board agreed earlier to provide $40,000 to study the effort, but if it declines to proceed, it likely would mean the project would not include Sibley County farmers.

“I think there will be a joint powers board,” said Winthrop city administrator Mark Erickson, who has spearheaded the project. But without county involvement, it would only include cities. Erickson thinks at least six towns will join the effort.

That would disappoint farmers who say they need faster Internet access and are relegated now to dial-up and wireless services. It would also make the overall project cheaper because laying fiber to farms is the most expensive part of the project.

Some of the debate over the past half year has centered on whether farmers should pay more than town residents for access or whether the county should think of this as a one-for-all and all-for-one infrastructure investment. See here for details on that conversation.

Officials in Sibley County (and neighboring Fairfax in Renville County) have been chewing on this in earnest since last fall. Some seem ready to forge ahead; others want to go slow and make sure the costs are well aired. Frontier, a telephone and DSL provider for some cities, has opposed the effort.

There’s a meeting set for Feb. 28 to launch the joint powers board. It will be interesting to see who shows up.