Public Private Partnership to bring fiber to Ramsey County

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This weekend, the Pioneer Press profiles Ramsey County’s plan for fiber. We’ve featured the project before, but the Pioneer Press include some good details. The high level description is that Ramsey County wants a fiber network exclusively for government communications. They looked at building a network a while back but the cost was prohibitive. They have found a partner, Minnesota Fiber Exchange (MFE) that is willing to build the network and share the cost – as part of the deal, MFE will also be building their own network, which they will lease to folks such as broadband providers who want to serve end customers.

Incumbent providers (Comcast and CenturyLink) are skeptical of the deal. Other are concerned that residential customers may be the last of the last mile served. But it seems as if MFE are the folks who have stepped up to build the network and it seems as if getting the dark fiber in place is a step closer to fiber throughout the county.

Here are some of the details from the Pioneer Press article:

The county has long said the network would be exclusively for government use. Facilities without fiber connectivity, like the county workhouse, or governmental bodies like the City of St. Paul — which is considering leasing space on the network to replace its service from Comcast — would be the only users, the county says.

The county estimates its share of the construction cost, including the necessary lateral connections to its various buildings, will be about $14 million. Minnesota Fiber Exchange’s share has yet to be determined because the company is still negotiating with the county over its contract, but two years ago, the city of St. Paul and Ramsey County considered building a fiber optic network themselves, and the cost estimate then was $30 million.

Ramsey County’s desire for fiber is easy to understand. As people use more Internet video and download and upload large data files, movement on conventional broadband has started to slow.

Eventually, experts say, we will all need superfast fiber optic access directly to our homes and businesses. In response, phone and cable companies have been upgrading their networks by adding a patchwork of fiber.

Fiber optic cable moves data with light pulses through narrow glass tubes. It is exponentially better than traditional broadband in terms of capacity and speed. Could consumers tell the difference? In coming years, yes, as the increased movement of large data files creates an Internet traffic jam. Consider that traffic on Netflix — one company — now eats up 32 percent of U.S. bandwidth during peak times.

The disadvantage of fiber is that it has to be buried in the ground, making installation extremely costly and inconvenient for a number of parties — cities and counties, property owners and motorists, to name a few.

Ramsey County’s proposal calls for digging into more than 100 miles of street and burying an entire network of fiber connectivity.

Last time I wrote about Ramsey County I noted that the project reminded me of the original Minnesota Broadband Task Force Report and National Broadband Plan; both promote public private partnerships. It still does. I can remember years ago when government would build infrastructure that was closed to government-only traffic. So the courthouse hasd decent connectivity (which may have been a T1 back in the day) but the local businesses on the same block had nothing. It was very frustrating for those businesses. Building two networks seems like a good way to serve the different sectors.