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Connectivity Cornucopia: We Give Thanks!

This time of year, people come together to celebrate the things they are thankful for and appreciate. Here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we want to take a moment to appreciate all the communities, people, and wonderful ideas that help spread the concept of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

A few of us looked into the cornucopia that is feeding the growth of publicly owned Internet networks and picked out some of our favorites. There are more people, places, and ideas than we could write about in one post. Nevertheless, it's always good to step back and consider how the many contributions to the Connectivity Cornucopia accelerate us toward high-quality Internet access for all.

People: Colorado Local Voters

We appreciate the voters in Colorado who chose to reclaim local authority. This year, 26 more counties and municipalities asked voters to opt out of restrictive SB 152, and all chose to take back telecommunications authority. They joined the ranks of a groundswell of local Colorado citizens who have voiced their opinion to Denver - 95 communities in all. They know that they are the best situated to make decisions about local connectivity and, even if they don’t have solid plans in place, want the ability to investigate the options. Colorado voters rock!

Place: Ammon, Idaho  

The unfolding municipal fiber network in the city of Ammon, Idaho (pop. 14,000) continues to attract a steady stream of honors and opportunities. In August, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year.  Two months later, the city said it is partnering in a $600,000 initiative with the University of Utah to research and develop a series of next-generation networking technologies supporting public safety, including broadband public emergency alerts. With Ammon’s new fiber network, residents are giving thanks for a system that allows them, among other things, to change their Internet Service Provider (ISP) simply and quickly from a sign-up portal.

We give thanks for Ammon’s innovation and their desire to give people choice.

Policy: Clever Conduit Approaches

Multiple communities have created smart conduit policies to bring connectivity to their residents. Conduit is a reinforced tube that protects and guides cables that run underground. Despite how boring conduit policy might sound, it can bring about better connectivity and ensure community control of public infrastructure. Smart conduit policy is a cornerstone for municipal networks and creating infrastructure for potential future partners. For instance, Mount Vernon, Washington, has its own open access network with eight different Internet Service Providers. The city ensures that developers install conduit in all new developments and then turn control of it over to the city. There are many more excellent models of conduit policy, just check out Lincoln, Nebraska; Centennial, Colorado; or Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.

We understand the importance of smart conduit policy and are thankful for the fact that an increasing number of communities are onboard with implementing similar measures.

So Much To Appreciate!

These are only a few of the people, places, and policies that produce better connectivity for local communities. We're thankful for them and for many others as more communities realize the value of publicly owned Internet networks. We wish you a relaxing and warm holiday and hope you have a moment to pause and consider all you have to be thankful for.


turkeys.jpg

Photo of the turkeys courtesy of Farmgirlmiriam via Pixaby.

Photo of the cornucopia courtesy of Cliparts.co.

Gigabit Speed in Red Lake Nation in Minnesota

Native American communities throughout the United States have rather bleak figures when it comes to Internet access. That’s about to change.

In Minnesota, Red Lake Nation now has access to some of the fastest Internet service in the entire country. The telephone cooperative Paul Bunyan Communications has extended its GigaZone, offering a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second Internet service, to the tribal nation. 

Future Focused

In Red Lake Nation News, Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki, Sr., described the benefits of this new high-speed Internet access: 

“Having access to fiber Internet services is vital to our rural economy and impacts so many aspects of life. To start a new business, find a good job, or get a high quality education you need a quality high-speed Internet connection. The GigaZone is on the cutting edge of technology and enhances the Red Lake Nation's unique assets, including a large workforce and the Red Lake Nation College, for economic development and business expansion. We're excited about the positive impact this will have on our Tribe now and well into the future."

The Gigabit service will be available in the communities of Red Lake, Redby, Little Rock and Ponemah. The Red Lake Nation is home to about 13,000 Ojibwe members, and is the only “closed reservation” (meaning that the land is held in common) in Minnesota. The nation is a model of self-reliance: they just announced the launch of an all-solar electricity project.

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The high-speed Internet service is provided by Paul Bunyan Communications based out of Bemidji, Minnesota, which is about 45 minutes south of Red Lake. The telephone cooperative has built out one of the largest Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks in the United States. Read more of our coverage of Paul Bunyan Communications; we expect to see even more from this community focused rural cooperative.

An Expanding Movement

The Red Lake Nation is the latest community to work with a rural cooperative to get Internet access for the 21st century. Cooperatives are quickly becoming a prime source of high-quality Internet access for rural residents and businesses. When national providers won't invest in less populated areas, cooperatives are taking up the challenge. We've compiled a list of approximately 200 rural telephone, electric, and broadband cooperatives that are now offering Gigabit connectivity, mostly in rural areas. That list is expanding as rural America refuses to be left on the sidelines and cooperatives help their communities to stay competitive.

Paul Bunyan Communications Keeps Expanding Gigabit Territory

Paul Bunyan Communications in Minnesota reports it has expanded its “GigaZone” Internet service territory to Turtle River, Puposky, and Tenstrike and to additional areas of Bemidji.

More than 2,800 additional locations now have access to, among other services, Internet speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) following the recent upgrades to its fiber-optic communications network, the Bemidji-based co-op notes.  

"Over the next several months we'll be activating the GigaZone in many more areas,” Gary Johnson, CEO of Paul Bunyan Communications, said in a company statement. "We will continue to do as much as we can to bring the GigaZone to all our members and the communities we serve as fast as we can." 

GigaZone Locations Top 20,000 

The co-op said its GigaZone service is now available to more than over 21,600 locations. Previous areas served include rural Park Rapids, Lake George, Trout Lake Township east of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, Cohasset, and LaPrairie.

The co-op has an online map showing the active areas of the GigaZone as well as future areas that are set for construction. The co-op said that members who subscribe to GigaZone Broadband can also add PBTV Fusion and/or low cost unlimited long distance phone service.

Co-op Wins Award In 2015

About a year ago, we reported that Paul Bunyan Communications won the 2015 Leading Lights National Award for Most Innovative Gigabit Broadband Service. The northern Minnesota cooperative beat out both local innovative local firms like C Spire and national companies like Google. 

We first reported on Paul Bunyan Telephone Communications in 2009. The co-op began expanding its existing fiber network in 2007, but Gigabit connectivity did not become available to members until earlier in 2015. Upgrades began in Bemidji and will continue to include the cooperative's entire 5,000 square mile service area. As new lines are installed, older lines will also be upgraded to fiber in a makeover of the entire network. 

The cooperative first offered Internet access in 1996 as Paul Bunyan Telephone. In 1999, Paul Bunyan began infrastructure upgrades that enabled it to offer phone, high-speed Internet access, and digital TV. The network expanded incrementally and continued to implement technological improvements. In 2005, the cooperative expanded with fiber technology for the first time. In 2010, Paul Bunyan Telephone changed its name to Paul Bunyan Communications.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 225

This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits. Representatives of Midwest Energy Cooperative discuss their project to bring high-speed connectivity to rural southwest Michigan. Listen to this episode here.

Dave Allen: I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. There's a project taking shape in rural southwest Michigan and the nearby regions of Indiana and Ohio. It's headed up by the Midwest Energy Cooperative. At the recent Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference in Minneapolis, Chris ran into Bob Hance, President and CEO of the cooperative, and Dave Allen, the cooperative's Vice President of Regulatory Compliance. Naturally, we wanted to hear more about their project and share the details with you. They provide some history and how access to high quality connectivity has positively impacted a number of their rural members. Chris, Bob, and Dave also have some interesting thoughts on federal funding programs, project standards, and the different rules for cooperatives and big corporate providers. Learn more about the project at teamfiber.com, where you can also discover more about the cooperative. Now you may notice some background noise. We apologize in advance. While we advocate for local choice and access to technology, sometimes technology is just not on our side. We had a little trouble with the mic that day. Also, Chris is suffering from allergies, and until winter sets in, he may sound a little like the late Howard Cosell, but never fear, it is our Christopher. Now, here with Chris are Bob Hance, President and CEO, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for Midwest Energy Cooperative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with two folks from Michigan. Bob Hance, the President and CEO of Midwest Energy Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Bob Hance: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: And Dave Allen, the Vice President of Regulatory Compliance for the Cooperative. Welcome to the show.

Dave Allen: Thanks, Chris. Good to see you out in Minneapolis.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, Dave, it was terrific to run into you and to learn more about your approach.

Bob Hance: Not many people say that, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm happy to be the one. Now your cooperative is really leading Michigan, in terms of delivering high quality Internet access. Can you tell us about your regions that you serve?

Dave Allen: I can touch on the areas that we serve and set that up. Bob does a great job of talking about our history in the communication space. Midwest Energy serves twelve counties. Eight of those in Michigan, three in Indiana, and another two in Ohio. We have two distinct service areas. One in southeast Michigan, and one in southwest Michigan. The area we’re really focusing on, in terms of our initial phase of this project, is the southwest Michigan district. That scenario's characterized by Notre Dame, down in Indiana and South Bend, and you can go in a northeasterly direction toward Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan. We're those counties that fall in between that space. The area is really kind of identified by Whirlpool's world headquarters. Kellogg world headquarters is nearby in Battle Creek. We've got Pfizer up in Kalamazoo. A lot of industry that is in the area but not in our direct service footprint. The areas we serve are more rural areas, more characterized by seed corn industry, and perhaps to the south, the RV industry. My point being is that we are extremely rural. We probably serve about eight members per mile, but we do have large industry that's in the area that lives in our service footprint and really have a need for access to high speed broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to point out that after talking with some of the telephone cooperatives here in Minnesota, eight people a mile is a positive luxury in some cases.

Dave Allen: In terms of municipals are 60-some-odd customers per mile. Investor on utilities run on the 30 members or customers per mile range. So at eight customers per mile, that's still pretty rural.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that a rule of thumb has been that you make money when you have eleven people per linear mile or more with a private sector business plan, but not if you have less than eleven people per mile. But let's talk about your history of offering communications services.

Bob Hance: Technically, we've been an active ISP since the mid-90's. That was all brought upon by a relationship we had with Trans World Network. We provided third party long distance, as well as ISP services through dial-up. As the Internet progressed, and people became more and more in tune with all things related to the electronic world and personal computers and the mobile devices that we have today, obviously dial-up service was just not going to be the thing of the future. So over time, we've had many, many folks who have left that to go to other options, including satellite, which we've entered in to providing terrestrial broadband, thinking that that was going to be a possible solution to the rural space that we were in, and a good replacement for dial-up. Unfortunately, we ran into problems such as limited band availability in the service territories that we were trying to serve. We had numbers of people who had signed up for that service but were let down because the capacity of the satellite just was not going to reach the demand. And even though they launched the second satellite, we ran into the same problem with that and eventually moved on to phase number three, if you will, with trying to provide rural America with some semblance of broadband. And that was broadband over power line. We were one of nine co-ops that were involved with a company called IBEC that was a single source provider of equipment and a process that would provide a signal across the power line. So an injection on our current equipment that sounded very promising as well. Unfortunately, we were two years into it and finally started to get past some of the technical issues that came with broadband over power lines when IBEC announced that they were bankrupt. That was back in December 2011. So here we have a few hundred people who had been hooked up with satellite and broadband over power line, and instead of abandoning them entirely, we just went back to the drawing board and said, "What's next?" Interestingly enough, at the same time, separate from communications, our utility folks, which includes me, were kicking around what we were going to do with respect to our needs in communications for the electric space. We have an active SCADA system. We know what's going to happen with the further smartening of the grid. So clearly utilities have been using various forms of communications between substations and their corporate offices at headquarters to get data back from the field. Eventually the light comes on and we say, "If we put in this fiber system, we take care of our utility needs, and at the same time, we can leverage that with the opportunity to replace what we've been trying to do by providing a true broadband to our membership, which married quite well together I can say."

Christopher Mitchell: Well, it's interesting because I think almost all electric utilities are involved in communications for internal needs, but there is a split between those who see themselves purely as an electricity co-op and not interested in doing anything externally, and then those that see themselves as more technology driven and bringing the technology of the day to their members. Is that your experience?

Bob Hance: I think you're spot on. I think those are the conversations that have been had across the country. I like to see it as we're doing what is required to continue to serve our membership in a relevant way. I'll just exercise that a little bit by saying that if not for the insistence of them for the last several years that we look at ways to provide them this service, I don't know that we would have. I think our principle responsibility and our duty is to our membership, and if the membership is asking us to consider other products and services that make being part of the rural landscape more enjoyable, more affordable, more reasonable for them, that's what we ought to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Dave, do you have anything to add on that?

Dave Allen: Yeah, just to add to that, we don't have an annual meeting per say, but we have district meetings where Bob goes out and engages our membership. And over the course of probably the last three or four years, the questions trended away from anything having to deal with electricity and more toward can you provide a broadband solution. We have a lot of folks out here that are on air cards. I think there are still some people on dial-up and folks utilizing satellite ... frustrations with usage allowances, with costs, with reliability, all these things that enter into the equation. They are just tired and fed up with that, so increasingly they have asked us to enter that communication space, where in all honesty, we were comfortable remaining an electric co-op. So we're a little bit of a reluctant participant. But there are a lot of things going on with respect to energy too, and Bob touched on some of the smart grid things we're doing. We have to do a better of helping people manage their energy use better, so this is one component of that.

Christopher Mitchell: I understand that you are not alone. There are other cooperatives in Michigan that are interested in working together to improve Internet access?

Bob Hance: We are working in conjunction with the other electric co-ops in Michigan. There are nine of us, specifically. A number of them are going through this process of evaluating from a conceptual standpoint. Maybe moving forward they are doing their due diligence. There are some surveys that have been presented to the memberships. At least three of them are fairly active in this process, but of course it takes a little bit of time for them to walk through that. I think it's promising. I think they understand that we're here to help in any way. We're the example that is on their way with already building a project, so we're a ready resource, and a valuable resource in their process. We'll see where it goes.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Bob. I'm also curious if there is a difference in your members across different states in terms of appetites for delivering broadband or if the interest is pretty similar.

Bob Hance: Chris, I think there is interest from all kinds of areas. Even those co-ops that are serving closer to the suburban areas. What everyone understands, and you get this firsthand, is when Google showed up with this whole idea of Google-fying a city, or Google-fibering a city, and that whole contest that went on for the better part of two years, raised the specter of what does this mean, fiber, and what can this provide versus what we already have. This notion of this being like the technology that passes every other technology easily and to the extent that you can say it is future-proof, it just seems like there isn't any end to the desire of folks, even beyond our memberships, that would really like to get connected to fiber. If you look at who is signing up on our website, it is probably three to one right now. So for every three members that we have signing up to take service from us, we have a person signing up that is not an electric member of ours but is close enough to see what we're doing and hoping that they can get connected as well.

Christopher Mitchell: Interesting. You're getting pressure to expand even to people who are not members of the co-op at this point then.

Bob Hance: Yes, very much so. It's probably one of the hardest things for us to manage toward is this demand that is outside or external to our current footprint. And the strong desire for all these other people to get connected too.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that there are two key questions that come up. And Dave, I'd like to direct this to you first. In terms of a project like this, how do you finance it? There is a context here that rural areas have too little demand, and if you wanted to deliver high quality Internet access to them, it would be too costly. So how do you make it work?

Dave Allen: Well, in terms of your first question, our financing the project through member equity. We reached out to USDA, RUS, the Rural Utility Service, because as Bob mentioned earlier, we were looking at our need for better communications utilizing fiber. So we talked with the RUS about improving communications, utilizing fiber through our substations, through our facilities, and ultimately to the member home, and they agreed that that was a good purpose for us to pursue. You're looking at the clean power plan in the very near future in terms of what the ramifications might be to the users of electricity. Also in the state of Michigan, looking at a new energy bill, and our need really to help people manage their energy use better going forward. So that did resonate with the RUS, and ultimately, we're financing this project through an RUS work plan loan through the electric side. That provides us with the equity to pursue this project, which is going to be deployed over five years, running about 400 miles of fiber a year. As we're connecting homes, looking at those folks that would enjoy a voice or a data drop. So it's kind of an integrated project. Again, smart grid communications first and foremost for utility purposes, and then voice and data drops beyond that.

Bob Hance: You know our financial modeling bears the fact that we'll be cash positive after three years of building on our project, so we're very confident that despite the fact that we're in rural areas, there is an ability to realize a profit for the entity, so that beyond the five years, we can begin looking at those areas that are not an immediate part of our service footprint. It's been a very good and very positive project for us, and certainly resonates with members and non-members alike.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's clarify though Rural Utility Service financing. This is loan financing, right?

Dave Allen: Yeah, correct. We did receive a small, rural broadband experiment through the FCC. Bob has been very engaged in the past, advancing the notion that non-traditional providers of broadband services should be considered in the Connect America Fund, and as part of that, we applied for that rural broadband experiment, received a little more than $200,000. Probably the better part of that was just becoming eligible for the CAF phase 2 options, which will hopefully happen some time in 2017. But for the most part, yes, we are doing this through member equity, but there is an opportunity to engage CAF phase 2 and receive some funding that will really help us build out a little bit faster and perhaps consider some of the folks in those census blocks that we build out to that are not part of Midwest Energy.

Christopher Mitchell: Bob, I really want to make this very clear for everyone, that even though it took a tremendous amount of investment to take electricity to everyone, I don't think it really cost the American tax payers very much.

Bob Hance: I'm not trying to mix things together too much here. We have roughly $120,000,000 of plant that took us 80 years to build. What's interesting about this project is that although we are telling people that we're going to build 2,000 miles of fiber from scratch, and we're going to do it in five years, it doesn't seem to be fast enough. And the fact that it's nearly a $60,000,000 investment. So it can be done with the help of RUS, with respect to seeing the need and the opportunity, as Dave was projecting, the notion of smart grid and getting connections all the way to the home so that we can deal with in-home devices at some time in the future is invaluable.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right. The point that I really want to hit on is that when the federal government is giving out loans, the budgetary impact is quite small compared to other programs. The electric co-ops receive billions of dollars of loans, followed by billions of dollars in repayments over many years and over decades, so the interest rate may have been subsidized, but overall, this type of program seems like a very reasonable investment.

Bob Hance: When you think about bang for the buck, I can't imagine that there is another federal program that you could point to that has been as successful, or as deeply successful as the REA RUS program, bar none.

Christopher Mitchell: That's what I want to hear.

Bob Hance: You think about this over time and what was accomplished with loan dollars as you pointed out may be subsidized a little bit with respect to the interest rates, but when you see what we've accomplished and what we continue to accomplish with those loan dollars, and now carrying on the position as we did with the electric systems now with another product that is becoming more and increasingly important in the mix with respect to services to folks, we're just repeating what we did back in the 30's.

Christopher Mitchell: You mentioned the CAF 2 dollars. That's one of the ways that the federal communications division is giving out these grants, but as we move into the final question of this show, I want to talk about the response from your members to this service. But first, let's just finish the CAF 2 discussion by noting that the FCC has just given, without any hope of repayment, these are just grants, billions of dollars to the biggest private telephone companies so that they can build out to the obsolete 10 Megabit down, 1 Megabit up standard. You all got $200,000 to deliver much faster connections. Do your members appreciate the difference between what you're doing, versus what that 10 Megabit by 1 Megabit minimum is?

Bob Hance: Chris, I think unfortunately most folks don't get it. Most folks don't really understand what's really happening with Universal Service Fund and now CAF. I think there would be a country-wide outcry! I think you would have pitch forks and other things arriving in our nation's capital if they knew what we know. Dave and I, having gone to the FCC for the last almost four years now and seeing firsthand how quickly it is to throw $30 billion through the fan without ever giving a second thought to what we are getting for the $30 billion other than second class citizenry for our folks getting 10/1 when the rest of the country is moving toward these other standards. It's close to being criminal. I fashion it to be like you just shoved one of those metal objects into the sore part of my mouth. It's just crazy. Even with CAF 2 and the struggles we've had to help them get rules in place so that you have this stupid auction in the first place. And all the restrictions on $2 billion that they never put on the $30 billion. It's just crazy. It's ludicrous.

Christopher Mitchell: Dave, let me jump in quickly before you respond. I just want to make sure the people understand that making loan guarantees to co-ops requires a 10% budget hit. That is to say that doing $30 billion in loan guarantees requires budgeting only $3 billion. The $30 billion that is being misused from the CAF, from the Connect America Fund, that could have wired the entire country if it was spent in co-op loan guarantees. So now, Dave, can you please pile on?

Dave Allen: My only point in talking about the $30 billion, which has gone out the last 15 months to the price cap carries and rate of return carriers, is to point back to a conversation I had with Danna MacKenzie, who is the chief of Minnesota's broadband office, and they've set an appropriate benchmark of 25 download and 3 up, state-wide in terms of what they are promoting in the state of Minnesota, which is a national broadband standard. But of course that $30 billion went out with the only expectation that they build out to a 10/1 standard. So I had that chat with her, "Are you frustrated, are you disappointed?" And she said, "Immensely so." If the FCC from a policy standpoint had the intestinal fortitude to set that standard at 25/3, they essentially would have realized their goal well ahead of the date they had set, which I think was 2020 to hit that standard. Our frustration in going in and chatting with the FCC is, let's not set it at 10/1, let's at least set it at the broadband standard of 25/3 so that we can incent people to build out better networks like fiber going forward.

Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting that the Minnesota requirement is not only 25 Megabits by 3, but that you also have to be using a technology that can scale all the way up to a 100 Megabits. I think that's a really good approach.

Bob Hance: Chris, I think that's consistent with the New York standard now too.

Christopher Mitchell: I think it's important to make sure that we're wisely investing so that we don't have to spend more in three more years for a new round of upgrades on networks that we've just subsidized. But I want to end on a more positive note. Dave, can you give us a testimonial from your members explaining why this is so important?

Dave Allen: I mentioned that when we were out in Minneapolis. We've actually taken over 100 pages of testimonials in to the FCC and left them with commissioner offices because they do resonate. They hear from us, but to hear from our members, our customers, folks in the rural space, really resonates with those folks. And even now, when we go back out there, they ask if we've updated that because we get these testimonials daily. My favorite, and I'll let Bob chime in with a couple of his, but this person from Metridgeberg said, "We're so pleased with Midwest, as we thought this service would never come down our dirt lane off of a dirt road." I think that really explains what we're doing. We're not going out to the urban areas, areas of high density. We came down a dirt lane off of a dirt road to provide this person with gigabit-capable fiber.

Christopher Mitchell: And Bob, do you also have one that you would like to share?

Bob Hance: The one that's striking to me is this one. Another customer that's hooked up now says, "When you live out in the country, you learn that not all things are easy. Not all things are accessible at a moment's notice. The country teaches you patience and understanding. Today, with the blink of an eye, something that I was told would never happen to the rural people, we have Internet. Not by tether of a phone or an air card with an astronomical price tag on it. Thank you Midwest Connections for being the stand up people that you said you were. I cannot tell you thank you enough."

Dave Allen: I'd just add too, it's interesting how life-changing this is for people in our area. They have been used to poor service, dial-up service, and to have fiber optic available to them has been just amazing for them. It's taken me by surprise in all honesty.

Bob Hance: There is a certain class of people though who live in cities and might be thinking, "What do I get out of it if they have better Internet access out there in the country?" My answer is a thought experiment. What if we did not electrify the country with the REA, the Rural Electrification Administration, and we thereby save a few billions of dollars in federal budgeting over many decades, maybe, we don't even know that we would save that much. But if we did, we would also end up with smaller markets. We wouldn't have people being as productive in the rural areas, and they would not be buying things that other people are producing. And my point is that this is not charity. It's in my self interest, as someone living in St. Paul, to make bigger markets everywhere because we're going to have a better economy.

Dave Allen: We're seeing for the first time in our nation's history the fact that rural areas are losing population. As they continue, births aren't keeping up with the rural out-flight. As people move back to cities and urban centers to avail themselves of services like broadband, that's going to tax those urban centers from an infrastructure standpoint. That should be a concern to urban areas in terms of how to maintain roads, sewer systems, and things like that as people move back to cities.

Bob Hance: I'd like to remind folks, but for rural electrification and now this new valuable service with respect to particularly how farms operate today, we have the food out here. We're the producers!

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, the food doesn't just magically appear in Kansas then, I guess! That's a good reminder. I'm excited about your project, and I really want to thank you for joining us on the call. Thank you very much.

Dave Allen: Chris, we have reminders of our past scattered throughout our office of when this co-op was constructing the lines back in the 30's. And one that's really striking to me is a lady who is reaching up to turn on that light bulb for the first time. And that's exactly what this feels like to all of us, and it's really helpful to get the kind of affirmations that we're getting from members. I really see this as a re-lighting of rural America.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I'm with you. I think sometimes people say that this isn't as big as electricity, but when electricity was first rolling out, people didn't know where that was going to go either. So I think you're doing the right thing. What we have to do is make wise investments, and then let time do its thing.

Dave Allen: I like to think that we spend once. Build once, spend once.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much.

Dave Allen: Thank you, Chris!

Bob Hance: Thanks, Chris!

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Bob Hance, President and CEO from Midwest Energy Cooperative, and Dave Allen, Vice President of Regulatory Compliance from the cooperative. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family. You can do it on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song "Bodacious," licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 225 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Connectivity's Community Impact: Looking At The Numbers

People rave about next-generation connectivity’s possibilities in rural economies, but what does that mean for locals? A recent survey quantified the actual impact of a reliable high-speed Internet connection in an underserved area.

Central Minnesota telephone cooperative, Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC), released the results of an impact survey on their newest fiber Internet service customers. CTC had extended their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to an underserved area south of Brainerd, with funding from a 2015 state broadband grant.

A Positive for Small Businesses and Farms

The survey of the CTC customers in the grant footprint highlighted the importance of connectivity for the community. Forty percent reported that they could not live in a home without a reliable high-speed connection. At the same time, fifty-six percent of the CTC customers currently use their home Internet connection for work purposes.

The new connectivity had a positive impact on small businesses and farms. More than twenty percent of the CTC customers maintain a home-based business or farm, and thirty-six percent of them reported that Internet service reduced their overall operating costs. Meanwhile, nine percent of all the CTC customers surveyed stated that they plan to start a home-based business in the next few years.

Reaching Goals

These results are especially refreshing for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program. CTC received more than $750,000 from the program in 2015 to improve connectivity for telecommuting and home-based businesses in the area. 

The previously underserved area sits south of Brainerd and extends to Fort Ripley. To encourage survey responses, CTC offered the chance to win an iPad and sent reminder postcards and emails to their customers. Twenty-eight percent of CTC’s customer base in that area took the survey either online or over the phone

The Co-op Perspective

Blandin on Broadband recently published videos from a co-op panel at the 2016 Minnesota Broadband Conference. In this short video from the conference, CTC representative Kristi Westbrock discusses the survey and the role of rural co-ops in expanding access to high-quality Internet service. 

Broadband Communities Regional Conference Fast Approaching: Oct. 18 - 20

As you say good-bye to September, consider making your way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to attend the 2016 Broadband Communities Mag Annual Conference at the downtown Radisson Blu. The event is scheduled for October 18 - 20 and you can still register online.

The Economic Development Conference Series brings Fiber For The New Economy to the "City of Lakes" as part of its Community Toolkit Program. The conference is full of information you can use if your community is looking for ways to improve local connectivity through fiber. There will be presentations on economic development, financing, and smart policies that help lay the groundwork for future fiber investment. There are also some special sessions that deal specifically with rural issues and a number of other specialized presentations and panel discussions.

Christopher will be presenting twice on Wednesday, October 19th at 10:00 a.m. and again at 11:15 a.m. with several other community broadband leaders on the Blue Ribbon panel. They will address questions and discuss important updates, review helpful resources, and describe where we need to go next.

Next Century Cities will present a special Mayor’s Panel on October 20th and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) will arrive on October 18th for a special day-long program.

Check out the full agenda online.

Key facts on the Broadband Communities’ Conference

What: “Fiber for The New Economy”

Where: Radisson Blu Downtown Hotel, 35 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402.

When: Oct. 18-20, 2016


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Photo of Lake Harriet and the Minneapolis skyline courtesy of Baseball Bugs

Saint Louis Park is Prepared for the Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 219

Saint Louis Park, a compact community along the west side of Minneapolis, has built an impressive fiber network, a conduit system, and several deals with developers to ensure new apartment buildings will allow their tenants to choose among high speed Internet access providers. Chief Information Office Clint Pires joins me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 219.

In one of our longest episodes, we discuss how Saint Louis Park started by partnering with other key entities to start its own fiber network, connecting key anchor institutions. Years later, it partnered with a firm for citywide solar-powered Wi-Fi but that partner failed to perform, leaving the community a bit disheartened, but in no way cowed.

They continued to place conduit in the ground wherever possible and began striking deals with ISPs and landlords that began using the fiber and conduit to improve access for local businesses and residents. And they so impressed our previous podcast guest Travis Carter of US Internet, that he suggested we interview them for this show.

Clint Pires has learned many lessons over the years and now we hope other communities will take his wisdom to heart. Well-managed communities can make smart investments that will save taxpayer dollars and drive investment in better networks.

Read the transcript of the episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 40 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Examining Connectivity Alternatives: Op-Ed In Rochester

When the Rochester Post-Bulletin published Christopher Mitchell’s opinion piece in August, it wasn’t only because he is an expert on municipal networks. Christopher’s interest in all things geeky started in Rochester - he went to Rochester Mayo High School.

A Budding Idea

For the past few years, various elected officials, and member of the community-at-large have expressed dissatisfaction for services offered by incumbent Charter Communications. In addition to poor services, City Council members have faced complaints from constituents about awful customer service. Over the past year, the community began showing that they will not abandon the idea of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The city, home to the world-class Mayo Clinic, is a hub of healthcare discovery. As medical technology becomes more intertwined with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, Rochester’s expensive and lackluster incumbent Internet providers are showing that they just aren’t cutting it.

Local Support And Early Analysis

In June, the Post Bulletin Editorial Board published their support for a review of the options:

We'd encourage the council and Rochester Utilities Board (RPU) board to make every effort to explore the costs and benefits of installing municipal broadband Internet services as a way of ensuring our community stays effectively connected to the world around it.

Considering Rochester's economic dependence on science and technology, having access to the highest speeds possible is crucial to the city's future. Unfortunately, existing services lag behind those being offered in other cities, putting Rochester's businesses and residents at a competitive disadvantage.

Many questions and concerns remain, but finding answers is the best way for the city to make sure it is serving the needs of its constituents to the fullest.

RPU staff consulted experts as it investigated options and presented their estimates to the City Council and the RPU Board in July. They concluded the city would need to invest approximately $53 million in capital to build a fiber-optic network. With the cost of bonding, staff estimates the total cost for a citywide municipal fiber-optic network would be $67 million.

Smart Move

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Soon after the city heard RPU staff’s findings, the Post Bulletin published Christopher's piece. He points out that the city makes a smart move in evaluating the options. Businesses and residents are lacking choice and the community’s economic foundation is likely at risk unless connectivity improves:

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 3 out of 4 Americans only have one choice of high-speed Internet provider. If you hear claims that Rochester has many providers, dig deeper. Those statistics are aggregated, which means that while you could have four different providers in a single neighborhood, most homes probably only have access to one or two of them.

Another challenge that Rochester faces is that some nearby communities like St Charles have HBC, a private provider from Winona with an excellent reputation, that is expanding a gigabit fiber-optic network throughout smaller towns in the region. Those communities will increasingly draw high-tech people out of Rochester, trading a commute for far better Internet access.

Christopher points out that there are a number of possibilities and that the city is already ahead because they have an electric utility. He reminds them that they need to consider the future of the community and that the greatest peril comes from inertia:

None of these approaches comes without risk — but then, many communities have found that doing nothing is an even greater risk. Just don't let anyone fool you into thinking the choice is between borrowing $67 million and doing nothing.

Rochester should continue examining its options and decide on the best step forward for it as a whole for the long term. We all want a solution to meet our needs in the near term, but as RPU demonstrates, smart investments can continue benefiting the community decades upon decades later.

Middle Mile vs Last Mile - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 214

As the next President considers how to improve rural Internet access, the administration will have to decide where to focus policy. Some at NTIA - the National Telecommunications Information Administration, a part of the federal Department of Commerce - have argued for more middle mile investment. NTIA oversaw major investments in middle mile networks after the stimulus package passed in 2009.

To discuss the relevance of middle mile investment against last mile investment, we brought Fletcher Kittredge back, the CEO of GWI in Maine. Fletcher has extensive experience with both middle mile and last mile investments.

We talk about whether more middle mile will actual incent last mile investment and, more importantly, how to build middle mile correctly to get the best bang for the buck. Along those lines, we talk about avoiding cherry-picking problems and one of my favorites, how to ensure that rural investment does not inadvertently promote sprawl.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

"YES!" RS Fiber Wins More Recognition

Minnesota's RS Fiber Cooperative is getting well-deserved attention from a variety of sources far beyond the Land of 10,000 Lakes. In addition to kudos from experts in the telecommunications industry, their story was recently shared in YES! Magazine.

Innovative Partnership

On August 1st, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) announced that RS Fiber Cooperative had received that 2016 Community Broadband Innovative Partnership Award. NATOA President Jodie Miller said of this award and the other 2016 distinctions: “These pioneers were selected based on their extraordinary efforts, achievements and innovation in community-based approaches to broadband technology.” NATOA will present the awards in September at their 36th Annual Conference in Austin, Texas.

Earlier this summer, the communities that belong to the co-op were honored with an award from the Minnesota League of Cities.

YES! Magazine Profiles RS Fiber

Ben DeJarnette from YES! Magazine spoke with our Christopher Mitchell about the cooperative:

“I don’t want to say that everyone can do this, but a lot of places could do it if they had this effort,” Mitchell said. “And I don’t think anyone’s going to have to go through the same level of challenge again, because now there’s a model.”

DeJarnette's article described some the struggles of rural life with poor or absent Internet access based on our report, “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative”: farmers unable to share crop data with business contacts; local businesses with no access to online commerce; and school children with no way to complete online homework assignments. The article explains how the RS Fiber project is helping this collaboration of small rural communities overcome the rural digital divide.

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The article also dedicates sufficient coverage to the way the RS Fiber Cooperative is funding their infrastructure build. With no federal funding, and investment from community banks, this project is truly locally grown. From the article:

As long as local demand meets projections, revenue from the broadband network will more than repay government loans, and taxpayers won’t owe a dime. 

“That’s the win-win,” said Chris Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, who has studied the project. “It’s a model in which local governments can take on the risk if they’re willing, and local banks can get a very reasonable return.”

The Fifth Utility

Lisa Skubal, vice president of economic development for the Cedar Valley Chamber of Commerce spoke with DeJarnette about the roll that high-quality Internet access plays in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “From an economic development standpoint, fiber optic high-speed Internet is the fifth utility…We live in such a globalized society right now that having broadband connectivity is imperative for businesses.” Last year, President Obama visited the community to highlight the potential of publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

The RS Fiber Cooperative network has already attracted a new endeavor to the region. The Minnesota College of Osteopathic Medicine, attracted by the new fiber network, will be operating out of a building in Gaylord, one of the communities that belong to the co-op.

More On RS Fiber

Learn more about how farmers use this new utility and how the co-op has changed life in rural Minnesota in a recent PBS News Hour video, which features RS Fiber and a similar project, in Massachusetts, Wired West.

Get the details on the RS Fiber Cooperative from our report, free to download and to share.

You can also check out our other coverage, including Christopher's interview with Mark Erickson, City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director, and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke in Episode #198 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with Mark and Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz early in the process during Episode #99. You can find more at the RS Fiber Coop and Sibley County tags.