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All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access
Update: Read an updated version of this report, published in July 2021, here, titled Minnesota Broadband: Land of 10,000 Connectivity Solutions [pdf]. It revisits all of the below communities to see how they fared over the intervening years, while adding new counties, communities, and, for the first time, two local Internet Service Providers.
Original Report: Minneapolis, MN —In 2010 the Minnesota legislature set a goal: universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state by 2015. As 2015 approaches we know that large parts of Greater Minnesota will not achieve that goal, even as technological advances make the original benchmarks increasingly obsolete.
But some Minnesota communities are significantly exceeding those goals. Why? The activism of local governments.
A new report by ILSR, widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable organizations on municipal broadband networks, details the many ways Minnesota’s local governments have stepped up. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access” includes case studies of 12 Minnesota cities and counties striving to bring their citizens 21st century telecommunications.
- Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
- Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
- Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.
Local Voices Show Support for Local Connectivity Options
Our readers have heard the media murmur around municipal networks steadily grow to a loud hum during the past year. An increasing number of local press outlets have taken the opportunity to express their support for municipal networks in recent months.
In communities across the U.S. letters to the editor or editorial board opinions reflected the hightened awareness that local decisionmaking is the best answer. Support is not defined by political inclination, geography, or urbanization.
Last fall, several Colorado communities asked voters to decide whether or not to reclaim local telecommunications authority hijacked by the state legislature and Qwest (now CenturyLink) lobbyists in 2005. Opinion pieces from local political and business leaders in the Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera encouraged voters to support the measures. Downtown Boulder Inc. and the Boulder Chamber wrote:
Clearly a transparent public process is appropriate for identifying the best path to higher-speed infrastructure. One thing is certain. Approving the exemption to State Law 152 is a step in the right direction.
Expensive service, poor quality connections, and limited access often inspire local voices to find their way to the news. Recently, City Council Member Michael Wojcik from Rochester, Minnesota, advocated for a municipal network for local businesses and residents. His letter appeared in the PostBulletin.com:
If we want to control our broadband future, we need to join successful communities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., and create a municipal fiber network. In many cities around the world, residents get 1 gigabyte, bidirectional Internet speeds for less than $40 per month. In Rochester, I get 1 percent of those speeds for $55 per month. I believe if Bucharest, Romania, can figure this out, Rochester can as well.
Public or Private Ownership? Community Broadband Bits Episode 132
Ever since the last time I spoke with Blair Levin on Episode 37, I have wanted to have him back for a friendly discussion about public or private ownership of next generation networks. Though Blair and I entirely agree that local governments should be free to decide locally whether a community broadband network investment is a wise choice, he tends to see more promise in partnerships or other private approaches whereas we at ILSR tend to be concerned about the long term implications of private ownership of essential infrastructure. In what may be the longest interview we have done, Blair and I discuss where we agree and how we differ.
We weren't looking to prove the other wrong so much as illustrate our different points of view so listeners can evaluate our sides. Ultimately, we both believe in a United States where communities can choose between both models -- and some may even seek solutions that incorporate both. Blair Levin was the FCC Chief of Staff when Reed Hundt was Chair and was instrumental in forming Gig.U. In between, he did a lot of things, including being Executive Director for the FCC's National Broadband Plan. He is currently with the Metropolitan Project at Brookings.
This show is 37 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.
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Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."
Athens, Ohio Learns from Neighbors and Considers Fiber Investments
Recently, we ran a story on the Columbus suburb of Dublin, which has a growing fiber optic network that has paid huge dividends in public savings, economic development, and facilitating technology research with the Ohio State University. Apparently others are taking notice of Dublin as well: Athens, a city 90 miles to the Southeast, has its city council discussing how to get fiber in the ground and the possibility of a public WiFi network.
After meeting representatives of Dublin’s economic development department at a conference in November, Athens mayor Paul Wiehl came away impressed enough to start a discussion with the city council about how the Dublin model of extensive conduit networks and fiber access for businesses and public buildings might be adapted to Athens. Athens is a college town, home of Ohio University, which may mean that like Dublin (which is only a few miles from the Ohio State University) it could be well positioned for research partnerships using fiber optics.
While specific plans have not yet been worked out,
[Mayor] Wiehl said that the city's public works director, Andy Stone, recently has been looking at ways to incorporate fiber-optic line capacity into city infrastructure projects. The lines likely would be maintained by the city, and probably would run only to local businesses, who would pay the city for use of the Internet service.
Unfortunately, Athens’ city leaders may be overly enamored with the idea of citywide Wi-Fi. DubLINK launched a citywide WiFi network several years ago, but like nearly every other citywide WiFi system in the country it has not been able to deliver reliable high speed connections blanketing the entire city due to technological limitations. WiFi can still provide considerable value if deployed intelligently in specific public spaces as a supplement to other forms of access. But if Athens officials are expecting a cheap and easy answer to providing robust home access over a wide area, they are likely to be disappointed.
SpringNet Sells Underground Colocation Facility
SpringNet has spurred economic development in Springfield, serving small businesses but also providing high-speed data to big employers such as Expedia. The network has steadily increased revenue over the years, even though it serves only commercial and public sector customers.
Demand for services has lead to the need to expand so SpringNet is opting to go lean. In 2002, the utility developed SpringNet Underground, a secure data and colocation center. The venture has been successful, says General Manager Scott Miller, but SpringNet sees investing the fiber network paramount and recently sold the facility. Bluebird Network purchased the facility for $8.4 million and will continue to serve the existing customers.
OzarksFirst recently ran the story:
Minnesota's Chaska.net to End Service in 2015
The rumors have been swirling for months now that the city of Chaska was considering putting an end to its municipal Wi-Fi service, Chaska.net. A recent Chaska Herald article confirms that city staff recommends the Council choose to end its residential service. If the Council follows the recommendation, the remaining business Wi-Fi customer, KleinBank data center, and School District 112 will still receive Wi-Fi service.
According to the article, the city explored the possibility of selling the system to the private sector, but the idea did not garner a favorable deal:
[City Administrator Matt] Podhradsky said that it appeared that the proposals were more of an attempt to gain access to the city’s water towers. “We started asking ourselves, ‘Should we be in the business of picking winners and losers?’” said Podhradsky. “We decided that’s just not the right direction for us.”
City staff is recommending that the service end when the contract for support for the existing equipment ends in July. They also recommend that the last four months of service be offered free of charge. Customers will be notified by letter in early 2015.
The end of Chaska.net is bittersweet. When it was new, it was much celebrated as one of the first municipal Wi-Fi networks in the U.S. The past few years, however, have proved difficult. Waning subscriptions, competition from private providers, and old equipment have taken a toll. In order to replace the aging equipment, the city needs to spend $3 million.
Podhrasky said the city is proud of what it accomplished with Chaska.net. “When you think back, there were a lot of cities that tried things and spent a lot of dollars to get something like this off the ground.”
He noted that the goal of the Internet utility was to provide high-speed service at an affordable cost until the market caught up. “We were a gap,” he said.
Today, that market has caught up. “It sort of feels like we completed our goal,” said Podhradsky.
Erwin FTTH Pilot Project Moving Forward
Erwin, Tennessee announced last summer that it was planning an FTTH pilot project to connect 1,200 customers. After receiving the necessary approval from the state comptroller this summer, Erwin Utilities began construction in October, reported the Erwin Record.
The pilot project focuses in and around downtown and leadership at Erwin Utilities plan to use the network for the town's electric system, water system, and wastewater system in addition to high-speed connectivity. Lee Brown, General Manager of the municipal utilities, reported that the network will provide services up to a gig.
From an August Johnson City Press article:
“This project will enable Erwin Utilities to provide improved electric, water and wastewater services while enhancing the quality of life and creating economic opportunities for citizens within Erwin Utilities’ service area,” he said. “I expect the benefits of this project to our customers and community to be substantial.”
“It’s our intent to be able to deploy this over our whole customer service area in the future, and of course, the success of the pilot project will somewhat dictate how quickly we’ll be able to do that,” Brown said.
LightTUBe Lowers the Price of a Gig; Increases Speeds for Free AGAIN
The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) began offering gigabit service in 2013 through its municipal FTTH network, LightTUBe. In a recent press release the TUB announced it has lowered the price of residential gig service to $99.95 per month.
In addition to slashing the price for the highest tier, TUB increased all other Internet speeds at no additional cost. This is the sixth time since its 2008 deployment that LightTUBe customers have enjoyed a free speed increase. From the LightTUBe website:
Brian Skelton, TUB General Manager, said in the press release:
“We’ve grown our Internet business in such a way that we can offer Gigabit speeds at a more affordable price.”
Skelton has said in the past that the decision to offer Gigabit Internet was an easy one.
“We want to make Tullahoma a much more desirable location for technology companies to locate, due to our ultra-high speed Internet and our highly skilled workforce,” he explained in spring of 2013. “Tullahoma is light-years ahead of most cities in the United States with the ability to offer these incredibly fast Internet speeds.”
LightTUBe has brought jobs to the community, increased the efficiency of the electric utility through a smart metering program, and implemented a "TV Everywhere" option for customers. Even thought the network is restricted by state law, it has remained financially stable while keeping rates in check.
Chanute Receives State OK to Bond for FTTH Deployment
The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) will allow the city of Chanute move forward with its plan to serve residents and local businesses with its municipal network reports the Wichita Eagle. KCC staff had recommended that the community, which has built out a network over the course of decades, receive KCC approval.
In keeping with an antiquated 1947 state law, K.S.A. 10-123, the city needed KCC approval to issue the revenue bonds. In keeping with the statutory requirements, the KCC found that the expansion is necessary and appropriate for the city, its consumers and investors. The KCC also also determined that the expansion will not duplicate an existing utility service.
In its filing [PDF], Chanute indicated that its network is an essential part of the local economy and the community's future:
Chanute is a rural community, and like all rural communities, access to broadband is fundamental to the well-being of its citizens and even to the survival of the community itself. Chanute does not need to convince the Commission of the importance of having access to a high- speed broadband network. The Commission is well aware of that need. The investments contemplated for Chanute's broadband network are necessary and appropriate to allow Chanute to meet that need in its territory.
As the city points out, incumbents AT&T and Cable One, do not offer anything close to the level of service of the planned gigabit FTTH network. As we cover in our 2012 report on Chanute, AT&T and Cable One seem to have no interest in serving the community beyond minimum expectations. It was the need for better services that inspired the city to build out its infrastructure and offer services to local businesses.
Mark Cuban Supports Local Authority on Muni Networks
Even guys who don't support Title II handling of the Internet support local authority. Even if those guys are cigar smokin', basketball-team buyin', swimmin'-with-the-shark type guys. We are referring to a recent interview with entrepreneur Mark Cuban in the Washington Post.
While the interview covered Cuban's fear that changes may stifle innovation, we zeroed in on one particular question and his very astute response:
WP: Cities in Colorado have recently bucked a spate of recent bans on municipal broadband and approved letting themselves build their own ISPs. Do you support government getting involved in broadband in that way?
Cuban: I love it. I have no problem with it at all.
(Image of Mark Cuban from his Twitter page @mcuban)