Official Calls for Fiber Partnership in Blue Earth County

Though most Internet service in the Minnesota county meets state goals, Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said service will need to keep improving if the region expects to grow and attract economic development opportunities.

by Trey Mewes, The Free Press / December 12, 2018
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(TNS) — The Blue Earth County Board already has a New Year's Resolution: kickstart efforts to bring more broadband options and data fiber connections to the area.

Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg called on county officials Tuesday to lay the groundwork for a future public-private data fiber partnership as recent data show Blue Earth County is lagging in internet connectivity.

Stuehrenberg said during a board meeting Tuesday he was concerned only about 14 percent of the county was equipped to handle at least 100 mpbs download speeds and 20 mbps upload speeds. While almost all of Blue Earth County's internet options meet the state's immediate high-speed goals — at least 25 mbps downloads and 3 mbps uploads by 2022 — Stuehrenberg and other commissioners believe the county needs to have better internet access if it wants to continue growing and attracting more economic development.

"It's kind of disheartening to hear that in Mankato and Blue Earth County, we don't have the same ability to get internet service as some of those smaller communities," Stuehrenberg said.

In recent years, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development has given tens of millions of dollars in grants to smaller communities and counties to install broadband infrastructure, which includes fiber networks. Lawmakers allocated $35 million in 2017 toward high-speed internet grants.

Yet larger communities and rural areas haven't received as much attention from the state. Larger cities generally have more than one internet provider and thus more opportunity for competition to improve high-speed infrastructure. In rural areas, homes and farms aren't close enough together to install fiber networks in a cost-efficient manner.

"It's a very short distance around the communities, which are pretty well served by that internet service," Commissioner Will Purvis said. "It's the rural areas that aren't served."

Stuehrenberg suggested future highway reconstruction projects include installing fiber to help offset connection costs in rural areas. Yet he and other commissioners said it will ultimately be up to area internet providers to use and maintain fiber networks.

The county finished installing fiber infrastructure around Mankato and nearby cities over the last two years, according to County Administrator Bob Meyer. He said county officials have been in preliminary talks with internet providers to expand broadband access throughout the county.

"It's on our radar," Meyer said.

©2018 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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