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The League of Minnesota Cities has honored ten communities in the south central part of the state for their role in assisting to launch the RS Fiber Cooperative.
At its annual state conference on June 16th, the League awarded its “City of Excellence Award” in the 5,000 to 19,999-population category to the cities of Brownton, Buffalo Lake, Fairfax, Gaylord, Gibbon, Green Isle, Lafayette, New Auburn, Stewart, and Winthrop.
In a news release, League officials said:
“These 10 cities, along with 17 townships, worked collaboratively for five years to provide South Central Minnesota residents with access to high speed, affordable, and reliable “gigabit internet service. The cities created a joint governance structure that aligned local taxpayer interests across entities, and initiated a public/private financing structure that enables residents to obtain internet broadband services at minimal risk.
The cities developed grassroots support for the project by hosting more than 150 meetings and by personally contacting hundreds of residents, local businesses, and government officials. Over the next five years, thousands of households and rural farm sites and hundreds of businesses and community organizations will be able to receive high-speed internet service access that greatly exceeds previous services provided by national telecommunications firms.
Communities need reliable broadband access to attract and retain new businesses and residents. The success of the “RS Fiber Cooperative Project” confirms the value of small communities working together with private interests to make a positive difference in lives of constituents.”
Mark Erickson, former Winthrop city manager who was instrumental in developing RS Fiber, told us he was excited about the award.
"It was a cool award to get; an important recognition for our little towns," said Erickson, currently Winthrop economic development director. "I'm just proud of the mayor and councils in the ten communities for having the vision and patience to make the RS Fiber project happen. When communities take steps to insure better futures for their residents, good things can happen."
A new trend is emerging in rural communities throughout the United States: Fiber-to-the-Farm. Tired of waiting for high-quality Internet access from big companies, farmers are building it themselves.
Communities in and around Minnesota’s rural Sibley County are going from worst to best after building a wireless and fiber-optic cooperative. While federal programs throw billions of dollars to deliver last year’s Internet speeds, local programs are building the network of the future.
In “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Next Century Cities documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.
Tired of Waiting: Farmers Build Their Own Fiber-Optic Co-op
21st century farms require 21st century connectivity. Denied access by telephone and cable companies, they created a new model.
In the report you’ll meet:
- Mark Erickson, of the city of Winthrop. Erickson is the local champion that has breathed life into RS Fiber. Without the project, the city of Gaylord would have not attracted the forthcoming medical school. “We have that opportunity because of the Fiber-to-the-Home network. Without it, no medical school.”
- Linda Kramer, of Renville County. Kramer’s family farm relies on the Internet to upload soybean and wheat reports to business partners. DSL connections are simply not fast enough to handle the massive amount of data agricultural businesses need in order to stay competitive with the Farming Industrial Complex that is the reality of the 21st Century.
- Jacob Rieke, a 5th generation family farmer. Rieke’s motivation for backing the project was his pre-school aged daughters. Not wanting to put them at a disadvantage to their peers in other cities, he considered moving to a different location in order to have access to Internet.
From the technologies to the financing, rural communities can solve their problems with local investments.
Green Isle and nine other communities have reaffirmed their commitment to the RS Fiber Cooperative, reports the Belle Plain Herald. The project began in 2010 as a collaboration between a number of local county and municipal government entities in south central Minnesota. Local residents rallied behind the project, which was designed to connect both towns and surrounding farms.
Unfortunately, the project faced difficulties due to incumbent intimidation and the high cost of deployment in such a large geographic area. Sibley County officials chose to back out of the project, requiring a business plan reboot. Locals, recognizing the critical need for better connectivity chose to instead form the RS Fiber Cooperative.
The Herald reports that in its first 2015 City Council meeting, Green Isle voted 3 - 1 in favor of a resolution stating continued support to the project. Similar resolutions have passed in Winthrop, Gibbon, Fairfax, Lafayette, Gaylord, Stewart, New Auburn and Brownton.
Henderson and Arlington, located in Sibley County, have opted to not participate in the coop.
Coop Directors endorsed an updated business plan in November, reported Prairie Business Magazine. The project will bring better connectivity options to approximately 6,200 customers in Sibley County, parts of Renville County, and portions of Nicollet and McLeod Counties. The revised business plan, scaled back from the original plan to bring fiber to every property in Sibley and Renville Counties, reduces project costs by more than 30 percent.
Participating communities will collectively issue $13.7 million in general obligation bonds. Local investors, bank loans, and other financing will provide the remaining $42 million. The project is scheduled for completion in 2018.
Phil Keithahn, RS Fiber Coop financial planner, told KEYC Mankato that the network will have triple-play capabilities, bringing Internet, phone, and video to remote rural areas. Community leaders are motivated by the need to improve connectivity for agriculture, tele-medicine, and education.:
The fiber-to-the-farm initiative in Sibley County, Minnesota, has completed the feasibility study and the towns involved are discussing a Joint Powers Agreement. One of the impacted incumbent providers -- Frontier Communications, a rural telco famous for slow DSL) -- has started to spread the usual FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that is common whenever a massive company is about to face competition.
Though I am tempted to comment directly on Frontier's letter, I'll let the community's response stand on its own. The way they misrepresent the record of Windom should be instructive - this same misinformation strategy is used around the country. We believe publishing these scare tactics and responses to them is helpful to everyone -- so if your project has received one, please let us know.
As a provider of telephone, internet, and video services to our customers in the Green Isle, Arlington, and Henderson areas, Frontier Communications is obviously interested in the "fiber to the home" proposal that has been presented. As a nationwide provider, Frontier is aware of other efforts by municipalities of various types to build and operate their own telecommunications network. While these proposals are always painted in rosy tones, it is important for officials to carefully review the underlying assumptions and projections that consultants make when presenting these projects. Unfortunately, history tells us that the actual performance of most of these projects is significantly less positive than the promises. Often times, these projects end up costing municipalities huge amounts of money, and negatively impact their financial status and credit ratings.
A nearby example would be WindomNet, the city-owned network in Windom, Minnesota. That network, which provides telephone, internet, and video service, began in 2005. The financial results to date have been poor; operating losses of $662,000 in 2006, $1,257,000 in 2007, $326,000 in 2008, and $93,000 in 2009. Additional borrowing by the city was required to make up those losses.
More than 50 elected officials -- county commissioners, city council members, township board supervisors -- gathered in the Arlington Community Center last night to inch ahead a plan to lay fiber optic lines to every home and business in the county plus those in and around neighboring Fairfax in Renville County. It's an ambitious plan that would require the community to borrow $63 million and then pay off those bonds with revenue from the service. The county-owned operation would offer the usual cable-phone-Internet triple plays, and backers are promising that right out of the gate it would be at a speed of 20 megabits per second, upload and download. That's quite a bit faster than what area residents get now via DSL or cable or wireless.If the project will move forward, the communities will have to form a Joint Powers Board and seed it with some start-up funds. The next steps will be to do a pre-subscription campaign to get a real sense of how many residents would take service from a new network. Responses are non-binding but will give a better measure of support as well as create an additional sense of responsibility for the project. From Dave Peters:
By the end of February, the 10 governments -- Sibley and Renville counties and the cities of Gaylord, Arlington, Winthrop, Fairfax, Henderson, Gibbon, Green Isle and New Auburn -- will each decide whether they want to create a joint powers board.The best scenario is that all communities would join. But if one or a few do not, the project may be able to continue as long as some of the remaining communities are willing to take additional risk (which would be rewarded with a higher percentage of net income down the line). As long as the JPA is able to continue, all communities will still be passed by the network and residents able to subscribe. The exception is Sibley County itself; if the County does not join, the project would be hard-pressed to run the fiber out to the farmers and residents outside town limits.