Before it Can Have Fiber-Optic Internet, Bigelow, Minn., Must Meet State Standards

A challenge by a service provider stopped a larger plan to bring broadband Internet to most of Nobles County, and now the provider must prove its connection meets state requirements.

by Karl Evers-Hillstrom, The Daily Globe / October 17, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- BIGELOW, Minn. — The Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co. (LCTC) project to deliver broadband internet to much of Nobles County is well underway, and Bigelow residents don’t need to be reminded that it won’t be coming to them.

The undertaking, which will bring fiber-optic internet directly to hundreds of homes and speedy wireless internet to most of the county, is partially funded by $2.94 million from the Minnesota Department of Economic Development (DEED) Border-to Border grant program.

Although LCTC originally planned to run its fiber route through Bigelow and provide fiber to every home, the plan was challenged by Frontier Communications under the grant program’s state-statute rules. In January, Frontier was awarded the challenge, and Bigelow was scrapped from the route.

In challenging the service, Frontier became obligated to provide state standards of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload within 18 months of the award date — by July 2018.

On Aug. 9, the DEED Office of Broadband Development (OBD) received a letter from Frontier certifying that the town had the capability of 55Mbps download, 6Mbps upload speeds. Those speeds aren’t as fast as fiber-to-the-home — which can reach 1-gigabit (1000Mbps) — but they represent a massive improvement over Bigelow’s notoriously slow connectivity.

However, Bigelow residents aren’t able to access speeds that quick just yet. Area residents reported increased speeds in August — as Frontier upgraded all customers from 1 Mbps to 6 Mbps — but the fastest speed currently available is still 12Mbps, significantly slower than state standards.

Christy Reap, a spokesperson for Frontier, could not say when 25Mbps internet would come to every home in Bigelow, but said the company is open to hearing from residents who want faster speeds. She added that it may be able to provide faster internet on a case-by-case basis, depending on location.

If Frontier doesn’t provide state-mandated speeds to Bigelow by next July, the internet provider would lose its ability to challenge for the duration of two grant cycles.

Bill Loonan, LCTC general manager, said he hopes to deliver 25Mbps download, 5Mbps upload wireless internet to Bigelow by sometime next year. Fiber is currently being installed to all homes in Leota; Wilmont will follow.

Worthington and Adrian are locations along the fiber route, but homes and businesses won’t have access to the blazing-fast internet. Loonan didn’t dare include the two cities — which are both served by multiple internet providers — among the cities receiving fiber in the initial plans, as he knew they would be challenged and swiftly removed.

The grant program’s challenge provision is controversial, as rural leaders argue the stipulation is anti-competitive.

“The whole underpinnings and philosophy of this is just anti-competitive, to protect the incumbent provider,” said Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. “If I was an incumbent provider, I’d want a monopoly, too — I get it. This is where government comes in, to prevent monopolies, because in a lot of these towns, people only have one choice for internet and it’s their cable company.”

Dorman recalls the storm of cable lobbyists that filled the Capitol when the grant program was being written. Initially, cable lobbyists pushed back on the program entirely, not wanting to allow new competition or increase their own capital.

“I had one lobbyist tell me, ‘we’re good, we’ve got all the capital we need,” Dorman said. “I never saw a company fight to be ineligible for a grant.”

Against their efforts, it became clear the program would be funded, which is where the challenge process came in. Lobbyists argued the incumbent provider should be given a chance to provide better services for their customers instead of an outsider.

However, Dorman noted that most cable companies don’t upgrade their infrastructure in small towns unless they absolutely have to, as doing so simply isn’t a profitable model.

“They make their money in these small towns keeping cable and internet as basic as possible,” Dorman said.

Danna Mackenzie, OBD executive director, said her office doesn’t have any latitude to challenge decisions; it is strictly guided by the state law that created the grant program in 2014.

The agency also doesn’t have regulatory power to force telecommunication companies to provide accurate numbers for internet speeds, though Mackenzie said most providers give accurate information.

For any of that to change, it would be up to the Minnesota Legislature to make changes to the grant program. Dorman will once again aim to remove the challenge rule during the next legislative session. He argues that rural towns cannot afford to be excluded from broadband internet, as it is almost a prerequisite in attracting and retaining some businesses and young workers.

“If you want to try to compete, broadband is becoming increasingly necessary,” Dorman said. “Maybe you’re OK today, but business decisions aren’t always made on what the world looks like today. For towns 7,500 and under, if they don't solve this, I don’t see in the long run how they can survive without it.”

©2017 The Daily Globe (Worthington, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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