Originally posted in Blandin eNews
We live in interesting times and that is not always for the best. It is, at best, a chaotic broadband scene in the rural countryside. We have a host of emerging and improving technologies (many of which are highly touted, but unable to meet Minnesota’s 2026 state broadband goal). We have existing and emerging broadband funding programs (funded, unfunded and promised) that spur community hope. And we now have many projects to compare to look for models that meet goals of speed, coverage area, economic development and financial stability.
For those active in trying to spur quality broadband deployment (for me, that is a minimum of the 2026 state broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb), it is so important to have and share accurate information. For those actively seeking better broadband in their county, city or township, it is critical that you be prepared with questions that require real answers for your local candidates. “Yes, I support rural broadband” is not an informative answer. You should also be knowledgeable to be able to respond to their questions, especially about projects that are facing financial challenges.
As we compare projects, consider the following:
- In northeastern Minnesota along the North Shore, the Arrowhead Electric Cooperative project in Cook County is considered a success while the Lake County project is facing significant financial challenges and is up for sale at deep discount. You should know that the Cook County project was financed primarily through a federal grant while the Lake County was financed primarily through federal government debt. If the financial packages were reversed, I suspect that the success aspects of the projects would follow.
- In southwestern Minnesota, the Rock County project is considered a success while long-time critics call the RS Fiber Cooperative a failure since communities are likely to contribute relatively small sums of local tax dollars to make bond payments. Yet in Rock County, $7 million of the $12 million project costs were public grants (almost 60%), including a $2 million county grant to the project. In comparison, less than one-third of the RS Fiber project was financed with a state grants while all local government contributions have been repaid.
- A widely-touted fiber to the home project in Sunrise Township deployed by CenturyLink was financed with approximately 80% public grant funding combining state, FCC CAF II and township bonding.
What these stories show is that rural broadband projects require public subsidy if the deployed networks are going to meet state goals. More than one rural broadband provider has told me that the areas left unserved at this point will all require at least 50% public funding and long ROI hurdles to be feasible.
I am sure that leaders in Lake County and in the RS Fiber project area wish that they had received more in grants and assumed less debt. While it’s a current struggle, the benefits of the network are now emerging. Recent research projects continue to demonstrate the current and projected community benefits from broadband availability (https://blandinfoundation.org/learn/research-rural/broadband-resources/broadband-initiative/measuring-impact-broadband-5-rural-mn-communities/ and https://www.pcrd.purdue.edu/files/media/006-RPINsights-Indiana-Broadband-Study.pdf ). Local leaders might rather deal with some debt issues than with declining population and economic viability. Places with ubiquitous fiber broadband networks have a long term economic asset on which to build their future.
Those places without at least one quality broadband option are feeling the real pain of being left behind – economically, educationally and socially. I have heard many specific examples of these negative effects in my work with community broadband teams across the state. I am sure that each of the thousands of Minnesota households lacking adequate broadband access has such a story.
Adding to this pain suffered by rural communities is the mixed message that they receive about broadband from national Internet Service Providers. Through the advertising media – online, mailings, television commercials – consumers hear from providers how important broadband is for business and family life. Recognizing that they are just an asterisk to these providers (*Service may not be available in all areas) is incredibly irritating! After all, no one wants to be an asterisk!