With its most recent initiative to spread internet access throughout the region, Meeker County is setting the vision for broadband expansion over the next five to 10 years.

The county is looking at developing infrastructure to support more access to broadband and improve the coverage area to spread to more than 96 to 98 percent of the county. Design Nine, technology and broadband planning consulting firm, assessed the services currently available to businesses and residents, recommending the best technology options – fiber, WiFi and infrastructure elements – based on the county’s geographical needs. Meeker County contracted Design Nine to conduct a study of current internet services in the county. The study looked at the county’s current providers, assets, infrastructure and created a map of towers and fiber currently available in the county.

After conducting paper-based and internet surveys, the study suggested that most residents or users of internet in Meeker County were “Not at All Satisfied” with their current broadband services.

The Meeker County Economic Development Authority presented key findings for its Improved Broadband for Meeker County study, assembled by Design Nine Broadband Planners Dec. 6.

Project history, broadband task force and economic development

Meeker County Executive Director of the Economic Development Authority Dave Krueger said the study looked into what the county’s needs were for internet access, providers and infrastructure.

“Mainly what we found right away as a preliminary view was that most areas near cities have adequate broadband at the time for the needs they had, but for sure, in townships, rural areas, [they had] just not great coverage or no coverage at all in some cases,” Krueger said.

Meeker County looked into getting a Blandin Foundation Broadbrand grant, which it received in 2015 for $25,000. The Blandin Foundation works to strengthen rural communities and expand opportunities for their residents. The EDA put in additional money, and through private donors, raised about $60 million. A county broadband task force was created to get different ideas of what the county should look for when creating a study of broadband and internet connectivity in Meeker County.

“We had the funds and interviewed three different candidates for a study and Design Nine, [Senior Business Analyst for Design Nine] Jack Maytum was [in Minnesota], and had been here three or four times in the past unveiling information, and they have got the contract for the study,” Kreuger said. “Part of the reason was we liked that they had worked in Minnesota, knew the political climate and understood Minnesotans, which sometimes folks from other states don’t understand.”

The county went through several renderings of the study to get more data and input from residents and businesses. Krueger said this was to come back with more finite numbers on return investment and strategies for positioning different internet technology options, including WiFi, Wireless Internet Service Providers [WISPs] and fiber-optic internet. Krueger said since the study was published in September, some major changes have happened throughout the county.

“Since then, what’s happened in our county to move it forward a little bit, a study was conducted and really showed a high-level of demand and the prices that people are willing to pay for services,” Krueger said. “Others who have looked at investing in the past may look at reinvesting in the future.”

Meeker Cooperative announced it would be providing what it calls vibrant broadband in its November newsletter. Meeker Co-op will install a fiber-optic backbone that will connect to all 13 of its substations, providing around 96 to 98 percent of broadband coverage to Meeker County. The Vibrant Broadband will supply a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second [mbps] upload and 3 mbps download and a maximum of 100 mbps download and 10 mbps upload.

Krueger said Vibrant Broadband will be accessible almost anywhere in the county.

Another company, who wishes to remain unknown at this time, is also looking at investing a significant amount of money in Meeker County for broadband access to compete. Krueger said other WISPs are looking into doing some additional increases to internet speeds.

“Those are some very big changes, and to equate how big that really is, according to the Office of Broadband, who I talked to last week, they suggested that no other counties in out-state, other than the nine-county metro area, no one else has invested or said they were going to invest at this level or this rate of coverage at 25 [mbps] or better without government assistance,” Krueger said. “This is an awesome venture and a real gift here in Meeker County. We are thinking it’s going to be a model for other counties to look at in the future.”

Study findings

Some of the new technologies like 5G are more suitable to urban environments, but that does not mean that rural areas have to go without, according to Design Nine Senior Analyst Jack Maytum.

“Meeker Co-op is going to step up, and they are going to take their skills, which is owning the telephone polls and knowing how to put wires on polls, reading electrical meters and the course of watering-out their substations are going to provide a lot of fiber to residents and businesses,” Maytum said.

Maytum said as far as improvements to broadband, he does not want to raise expectations unnecessarily.

“This project is going to be a five-to-10-year effort, and it’s going to be continuing long after that,” Maytum said. “But at least now we are taking the first step, not only in doing the study, but having the study unleashed, to some extent.”

Maytum said across the country, until a study is done, many of the local providers will not talk to municipal and county personnel.

“As soon as the study is initiated, they are much more forthcoming about providing plans for what they are going to be doing for the future,” Maytum said. “Particularly for more local providers rather than national providers.”

Maytum said while doing the study, the company found the usual suspects in that large telephone providers have wireline service that is usually around 50 years old, and broadband is eating into the traditional telephone and television services.

“The companies are trying to get as much use out of that aging technology as they can,” Maytum said.

Based on the current assets, Design Nine recommended that the county not sell internet directly to consumers, but rather, the county create a partnership with private entities and invest in the region’s infrastructure to allow for wider broadband coverage. The study suggests that the county will look at replacing conduits in the ground, replacing telephone polls, building towers and then lease out the assets to multiple services providers so that residents could have multiple options for internet providers.

“We think, ultimately, from our perspective that economic development is a primary driver for this, and we think this is a real source of this,” Maytum said. “We’ve seen over the past five years or so the responses from different providers, but the counties and communities who hired us initially five to 10 years ago, it was more of an academic study. But now, it’s more we know we need a network and we want you to tell us how to build it.”

Maytum said it just takes a few people with some initiative to get the ball rolling, and the county has already done that with the broadband task force and study.

“In any successful community broadband project, we’ve seen always a few champions who view this as a key to economic development,” Maytum said.

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