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Mankato, Minn., Has Hopes for Internet Competition Dashed

An Indiana-based Internet/cable TV provider is no longer planning to offer service throughout the city of Mankato, but Consolidated Communications is rapidly installing fiber-optic cable both there and in North Mankato.

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(TNS) — An Indiana-based internet/cable TV provider is no longer planning to offer service throughout the city of Mankato, but Consolidated Communications is rapidly installing fiberoptic cable both here and in North Mankato.

The decision by the former was prompted by the actions of the latter, according to Mankato City Manager Susan Arntz.

“They’ve made a decision to move on,” Arntz said of MetroNet, which as recently as this spring was promising to provide top-speed internet service at low prices to virtually every neighborhood in the city.

Arntz told the council that MetroNet’s plans changed in response to Consolidated’s decision to upgrade its service to fiberoptic — a transformation from the historic use of copper wiring going back to its roots as Mankato Citizens Telephone Company.

The council in March authorized city staff to prepare a franchise agreement for MetroNet and was supportive of bearing the cost of inspection and oversight of the community-wide disruption that would result from crews installing the fiber cable along existing utility poles and underground. While the process was expected to cost much more than any franchise fee charged to MetroNet, council members favored the idea of a new competitor being available for business and residential customers in the local telecommunications marketplace.

“It is not uncommon for communities to have more than one (fiberoptic internet provider),” Arntz said. “Some have more than two.”

MetroNet officials, declining an interview with The Free Press, issued a somewhat cryptic statement that did not address Arntz’s explanation that the company’s plans had changed because of Consolidated Communications’ fiber buildout. The statement didn’t even confirm that the company’s plans had changed.

“MetroNet has completed our fiber build for Mankato and we are proud to serve the businesses and residential customers that we have in that market,” according to the statement. “We plan to expand with the growth of Mankato as opportunities arise. At MetroNet we believe that customers should have choice in broadband providers and we are glad to be a small part of that in Mankato.”

The city, however, never completed the franchise agreement that would have been required to allow the buildout to occur. MetroNet does have a very limited presence in Mankato dating to its acquisition of Owatonna-based Jaquar Communications a year ago, but something much more ambitious was being promised as recently as early March.

At that time, Arntz was warning the council that “this is a huge project we’re going to undertake together” and MetroNet executive Kathy Scheller was predicting the result of the cooperative effort “will be a game-changer for Mankato.”

Scheller, the director of government affairs for MetroNet, gave a lengthy presentation to the council covering the products and pricing that would be offered, MetroNet’s communication practices with property owners during installation, and a pledge that the company will bring its services to residents and businesses in virtually every part of Mankato — not just the most lucrative neighborhoods.

“When competition comes into the marketplace, everybody does better,” said Scheller, who estimated the project would take two to three years depending on weather. “We’re going to do, quite frankly, a ubiquitous build.”

But when Consolidated Communications began an aggressive conversion to fiberoptic service, MetroNet backed off, Arntz said.

“It is an area where competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “But we can’t force them to do the work.”

Consolidated is planning to provide fiberoptic service, which can provide much faster and more reliable service than traditional copper wires, to 70% of its service area within five years, company spokesperson Jennifer Spaude told The Free Press.

Larger communities such as Mankato-North Mankato will be prioritized in what will be “the largest broadband build in the company’s 125-year history,” said Spaude, the senior vice president of corporate communications at Consolidated.

Already, nearly 2,000 homes and businesses in North Mankato have fiberoptic cable at their property line, ready for the final connection from the street to provide symmetrical 1-gigabit service for a first-year price of $70 a month. For $35 a month, customers can get 50 megabits per second. An intermediate $60 plan offers 250 mbps.

In each case, the service is symmetrical, meaning upload speeds will match download speeds, there is no data cap, and the one-year price lock does not require a longer contract, Spaude said.

In Mankato, Consolidated has installed — or is in the process of installing — fiber to the property lines of nearly 3,000 potential customers, said Mark Sharpless, senior manager of network engineering.

Nearly all of the work is being done without the disruptive trenching that installation of underground utilities once required, Sharpless said.

“The large majority of it is directional boring,” he said.

Along with offering super-fast speeds, fiber is longer-lasting than copper wire or coaxial cable and allows the electronics required to support the system to be spaced farther apart — making for more reliable service, according to Sharpless.

Neither Spaude nor Sharpless could provide estimates on when most Mankato-North Mankato neighborhoods would be offered fiberoptic service or the timetable for a fiber buildout in other area communities. Spaude said more information would be available when Consolidated’s capital plan for 2022 is finalized.

In the meantime, people in Mankato can visit consolidated.com/Mankato to learn more or to preregister for the service, which will provide updates on when fiber reaches their neighborhood. In North Mankato, the website is consolidated.com/NorthMankato.

“That is live and updated continuously,” Spaude said.

© 2021 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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