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Willmar, Minn., Nears Construction on Broadband Project

Construction is expected to begin this year on a project that will allow multiple Internet service providers to operate on the same infrastructure. The project will be financed through general obligation bonds.

A bright orange sign reads "road work ahead."
(TNS) — The city of Willmar since September 2022 has been in the process of planning the construction of a city-wide, open-access fiber network in a public-private partnership with Hometown Fiber.

Construction is expected to begin this year on the estimated $22 million project that will allow multiple providers of high-speed Internet to operate on the same infrastructure.

Currently, the city is providing information to frequently asked questions regarding the city-wide fiber initiative on its website, as well as a survey asking for feedback from Willmar businesses and residents regarding their Internet needs and expectations. The survey is available through the week of Jan. 15.

The Willmar City Council has scheduled a work session for Jan. 22 specifically dedicated to discussing the open-access fiber network, including reviewing survey results, marketing, financing and the agreement between Hometown Fiber and the city.

The council last month heard an update on the progress of the project by City Operations Director Kyle Box, as well as broadband committee members Dave Sisser and Larry Fujan.

After forming the broadband committee in September of 2022, broadband infrastructure mapping was completed in December of 2022.

The mapping found that a large portion of the city currently has demand met, and that is expected to continue for the next three to five years. Internet in those areas is provided over copper wires and coaxial cables, according to Box.

A small portion of the city is served by fiber to the curb and then coaxial to the home or business, known as a passive optical network. It is expected to meet demand for the next 10 years, according to Box.

Noting that fiber is expected to be good for 20-plus years, Box pointed out that northeast Willmar and several smaller parcels throughout the city are currently served by fiber. Those areas served by fiber mostly consist of the schools and the Willmar Civic Center, he added.

In February of 2023, the broadband committee recommended that the City Council accept Hometown Fiber's proposal to build an open-access fiber network throughout the city. Then planning started, enlisting the assistance of several consultants and experts throughout the year.

"We were starting to assemble our super team, if you will," Box said during a Dec. 11 presentation to the council. "We wanted to make sure that if we were going to bring a project to the City Council, if we were going to bring a project to Willmar, we wanted to make sure we had people in place that had done this before and knew the ins and outs and what steps to take."

Coming up during 2024 will be the completion of the survey and marketing for the open-access fiber network; contract agreements between Hometown Fiber, Internet service providers and the city of Willmar; and the completion of network design by Hometown Fiber and construction documents by Bolton & Menk.

The project will be financed by issuing general obligation tax abatement bonds, which are similar to the bonds the city uses to finance its street improvement projects. The project is expected to cost approximately $22 million and will be completed in six phases over three years, according to Box.

It is expected that the first of the bonds will be issued in 2024 and the first two phases will be constructed. Phase one of the construction will be the Willmar Industrial Park, which is where everything started. The original request for proposals was to install fiber throughout the industrial park to better attract businesses.

The city will be responsible for billing customers. Revenues from the open-access fiber network will be shared between the city for repayment of the bonds, Internet service providers for providing the services on the network and Hometown Fiber for management and maintenance of the network.

"There's obviously risk involved in everything," Fujan said.

The risk to the city and taxpayers has been his biggest concern, but he said he has been impressed by the work of the city, staff and consultants.

They have been "doing their technology research that's necessary, searching out and vetting the vendors, market analysis, financial analysis, legal review. They have satisfied me, at least, that they have done the necessary work," Fujan said.

Box, Sisser and Fujan each went over the benefits of an open-access fiber network, one of which is a choice in Internet service providers. Box noted that the city already has a list of providers that are willing to provide services and are waiting for the city to move forward with the project.

Open-access fiber networks are "amazingly fast" and Hometown Fiber plans to offer speeds starting at 300 megabytes up and 300 megabytes down, and will offer speeds all the way up to one gigabyte up and one gigabyte down as technology develops and speeds increase.

A fiber network is reliable, can be easily upgraded and is affordable, providing the community with a system that enables remote learning, health care and work, thereby improving the quality of life.

"Fiber is the best technology that you want to go with," Sisser told the council. "It is the fastest with upload and download speeds, which is what you're going to need. It's scalable, it accommodates a low-end user or a high-end user — you can do that with fiber."

The open-access fiber network that will be built out in Willmar allows Internet service providers to compete for customers based on what services they offer over that network, Sisser added. "That's the biggest key right there."

Sisser and Fujan both also compared what the city is attempting to accomplish with what is happening with broadband throughout Kandiyohi County. Funding from the county, as well as grant funding, is allowing broadband to be installed throughout the unserved and under-served areas of the county.

"If we don't do something, it's not going to be very long down the road, maybe a year or two, before the rest of the county is going to have a better speed on their Internet than we do, because they'll have fiber and we'll still be trying to push everything across a cable," Fujan said.

However, Willmar's open-access fiber project will be different, because the city will own the infrastructure that will allow Internet service providers to compete, offering customers better prices and services.

The projects that are taking place throughout the county will be owned by the Internet service providers that installed them.

"Once you have competition, it drives down your price and it's going to drive them to provide the backbone, the services, which is what is going to sell this, to the community," Sisser added. "Without a good fiber network, the community is — we're going to be falling behind. We need this to grow, we have to have sustainable fiber for now and in the future."

©2024 West Central Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.