More light on Ramsey County fiber?


Earlier this week the St Paul Pioneer Press ran an update on fiber plans in Ramsey County. (We posted over the weekend that Ramsey County has split from the private partner with whom they have been working on a joint fiber plan.) According to the Pioneer Press, Minnesota Fiber Exchange (MFE), the company formerly working with Ramsey County, is still ready to forge ahead…

The chief executive of Minnesota Fiber Exchange maintains his telecommunications business still could help Ramsey County build a fiber-optic broadband network for government work, despite the county’s recent decision to drop the company as a business partner.

“Going forward, we still think we’re a great model and a great opportunity for Ramsey County,” John Schultz, CEO of Minnesota Fiber Exchange, said Monday, Nov. 5.

However, Schultz stopped short of saying his company would rebid for the project if the county opens up the process again. He declined comment on Ramsey County’s decision to dump Minnesota Fiber Exchange as a partner in the multimillion-dollar project; the county board is set to take up the issue at a meeting Tuesday.

On the surface that’s good news, especially for those of us who live in Ramsey County. It sounds like a play for a network is moving forward, even if the players may or may not be changing. But read to the end and the article seems to indicate that the play may be going forward but if moved forward with the same plan for public-private partnership, they may run into the same issues. (The plan as you may recall was to build a dual network – one for Ramsey County and one for MFE. It realizes cost savings since building for two is not significantly more expensive than building for one.)

The fly in the ointment last time was that Comcast and the St Paul Chamber of Commerce had issues with the plan. But according to the same article, Comcast will speak up again if a similar plan is created again…

Comcast, the dominant cable provider in the state and a provider of broadband Internet to the city of St. Paul, has been an outspoken critic of the partnership. It says the county was putting taxpayer dollars at risk by seeking to own its own network, which could fail financially, instead of using services sold by broadband providers like Comcast.

Comcast also has argued that by seeking to sell high-speed Internet access to government bodies like St. Paul, Ramsey County is using taxpayer dollars to take away business from private entities like Comcast.

If the county reopens bids for the project using the same model it used for MFE, Comcast would continue to object to the project, Emmett Coleman, Comcast’s regional vice president for government affairs, said Monday.

“It seems that the county remains intent on that plan,” Coleman said. “And that continues to hold the same risk to taxpayers regardless of whether MFE is part of the equation.”

Coleman said that if the county reworks its business model, “Comcast would be willing to be part of that discussion.”

A spokeswoman for CenturyLink, which now provides Internet service to Ramsey County, said it was too early to say how the telecommunications company would respond to a new call for bids.

It will be interesting to see if Ramsey County has another approach to try. Right now the options seem to be the public-private partnership (such as they had with MFE) or the customer-provider partnership that has been in place with Comcast for years or maybe trying to find the funds to build themselves.