Broadband deployment – bumpy ride, but moving forward


I was at a non-broadband meeting yesterday morning when someone came up to ask me about the problem with fiber. He had recently heard MPR’s story on fiber (Broadband projects take a bumpy ride) and it left him feeling like things weren’t going that well for broadband in Minnesota.

The article highlights the trials and tribulations with some of the ARRA funded broadband projects…

Eighteen local construction projects won federal grants and loans as part of the Recovery Act of 2009 totaling almost $229 million. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some will be owned by the public, while others will be built and run by small phone companies and electric coops. And they are at various stages of completion. The federal government’s website lists 14 as less than 50 percent completed, two as more than 50 percent completed and two as not yet started.

Many have proceeded without hitches. But others have faced obstacles like difficulty obtaining building materials, opposition from incumbent providers, cost overruns, frustratingly slow bureaucracies and trouble clearing environmental hurdles.

What’s funny is that the discussion in the article reflects fuzzily one of the sticking points in broadband adoption. It’s happening, but is it fast enough? We’re just talking about deployment here, not speeds. Ironically, another recent article in MPR raised the speed issue asking if wireless in rural areas was an improvement to existing broadband options in rural areas or rather a stop-gap measure that might delay a larger solution. I might ask a similar question here – are we seeing improvements or are we seeing federal funding getting in the way of other investments? I think we’re seeing improvement – at least in the 16 (out of 18) projects that have been started.

It’s true that some projects have run into hiccups – for the reasons listed by reporter Jennifer Vogel. (For a more comprehensive list of what’s happening with projects, you can check out the Minnesota Broadband Task Force Report (Dec 2011); it includes a table that details progress of ll of the projects that received ARRA funding.) Some projects are actually ahead of schedule. (According to the Task Force report, the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services is ahead of schedule.)

I might not look at whether the glass is half full or half empty with these federally funded projects – but I might celebrate the fact that the glass is filling! Lac qui Parle County (one community listed as waiting for fiber) may be stalled, but they are moving forward – as are most of the other projects mentioned. Federal funding (and I think results of federally funded mapping) has spurred other communities, such as Kanabec, Redwood Falls and Sibley Counties to take a more serious look (and/or strides) towards broadband deployment. The stimulus funding has stimulated broadband projects and an interest in more!

Finally I have to sing the praises of Blandin Foundation-led Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. Yesterday at the Task Force meeting we got to hear about the federally funded project and its impact on one community – Benton County. Here are a handful of their measures of success;

  • More than $20,000 in-kind match
  • More than 200 businesses assisted
  • More than 500 residents assisted

Benton County is just one of 11 participating MIRC communities – and some MIRC activities reach beyond the select demonstration communities. The project is making a difference in the quality of life in the area; it’s also boosting a demand for greater broadband, which will help support deployment efforts, which as the MPR article points out – can be a bumpy ride – but I’d emphasize that it’s a bumpy ride forward.