Will Northfield hit the broadband stimulus jackpot? No. What’s next?

IMG_3647 I was in Duluth this weekend for the MN Voices Online Unconference (I blogged it here) and had the opportunity to meet Danna MacKenzie, the Cook County information systems director in Grand Marais. She was featured in a Strib article a couple of weeks ago about MN communities who are “lining up for part of the $7.2 billion in federal recovery money designated for broadband projects.”  Northfield is about to follow suit, as at Monday’s Council meeting, Northfield’s IT Director Melissa Reeder will ask the Council to appoint a workgroup to pursue a federal stimulus grant application for a Fiber to the Premise (FTTP) project. (continued)

This follows from the Fiber Feasibility Study (PDF of Powerpoint) presented at the last City Council work session by fiber consultant Doug Dawson from CCG (lower left at PC in photo above).

Resources:

29 thoughts on “Will Northfield hit the broadband stimulus jackpot? No. What’s next?”

  1. I’ve added 3 more links to the blog post re: North St. Paul’s PolarNet project. Lots of similarities to Northfield, including the same consulting firm, CCG. Citizens defeated a referendum there to fund the project on Feb. 23. The MinnPost story raises lots of questions, including some very bothersome secrecy stuff.

    The North St. Paul City Council seems to be blaming the outcome on ‘outsiders’ who helped finance the opposition. Would that be cable company and telco money?

    And in their March resolution, North St. Paul City Council puzzles over why when the survey showed overwhelming support for the project last fall, it was then defeated resoundingly.

    And in other news today:

    World’s Fastest Broadband at $20 Per Home
    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/03/the-cost-to-offer-the-worlds-fastest-broadband-20-per-home/

  2. Hi Ann. Good to have the Blandin on Broadband blogger chime in here!

    I see you blogged about PolarNet the day of the election in Feb:

    PolarNet vote on FTTH in North St Paul
    http://blandinonbroadband.org/2009/02/24/polarnet-vote-on-ftth-in-north-st-paul/

    Do you have any reaction to MinnPost’s Tom Steward’s criticism of the plan
    http://www.minnpost.com/community_voices/2009/02/23/6892/polarnet_more_risk_than_reward_and_should_government_even_be_involved

  3. Please note that Tom Steward is not from MinnPost – that was an opinion piece and he works for an anti-government group. This is not to say his opinions are worthless, but to be aware of his bias.

    One may find many or few similarities to North St. Paul – I don’t know what the cable situation is in Northfield – cable offers the fastest speeds aside from fiber and cable companies were the main opponents in North St. Paul.

    If people in Northfield want to have the best broadband in Minnesota- they will have to work for it. Incumbents and other anti-government groups will fight hard against anything that the local government is involved in because they don’t want competition. Monticello had to work at it – they overwhelmingly passed a referendum (also used CCG consulting, btw) – but they had a vibrant community group and engaged local government pushing hard for it. Of course, they are now locked in a legal battle because their incumbent realized they could delay the project for years for a few million in legal fees.

  4. Hey Griff –

    I ran into EDA President Rick Estenson on the sidewalk late last week. We were both racing for meetings in opposite directions so time was limited.

    However, he gave me about a thirty second update from his perspective on Northfield’s efforts in this area, including the opportunities, challenges and issues. We agreed to chat more at a future time. Perhaps you might be interested too.

    Personally, I’m looking for an incremental, and achievable, step that we might take to strengthen Northfield’s economic competitiveness within the region.

  5. I’m just back from Duluth – so a little behind. I remember Tom Steward’s editorial and two things came to mind when I re-read it. First, if a city feels their underserved, probably they are. This might happen when the city’s vision doesn’t match the vision of the incumbent. When that happens the city should be able to consider alternatives – or they’re kept hostage.

    Second – Steward says the city should focus on “essential services,” implying that broadband isn’t essential. To me, broadband is essential. It’s definitely essential to attract new businesses, to prepare for future healthcare applications and for the schools.

    The stimulus funding is a great opportunity to dive into a plan – and with the feasibility study in hand, Northfield is poised to be an attractive candidate for funds.

  6. Christopher, good to have someone from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s New Rules project here. (Say hi to David Morris for me. I got to know him back in the mid-90s when I worked at Utne Reader magazine.)

    I see your links to:

    St. Paul Community Fiber Network
    FiberNet Monticello

    It’ll be good for us to keep an eye on those.

    We have pretty good diversity of slow broadband here in Northfield: Charter Cable, Qwest DSL, St. Olaf Telephone Co (fiber and DSL), two high-speed wi-fi providers. And Jaguar Communications is installing FTTP in rural areas south of Northfield.

    And of course, the Colleges have their own Internet II backbone that runs right through the middle of downtown Northfield… but only the public library taps into that.

  7. Ross, I think the incremental has already happened, given the diversity of slow broadband providers that we have already (see above), plus the fact that Craig Dunton at St. Olaf Telephone can deliver decent speeds to businesses (15mpbs up and down) via fiber.
    http://www.stolaftelephone.com/rates/

    I have Charter’s 20mbps down/5 up service for $60/month.

    The ubiquity of free wi-fi, esp. in downtown establishments, is actually pretty amazing.

    I think it would help for the Chamber, the NDDC, and the City to promote what we have already.

    1. Thanks for the welcome, I’ll tell David.

      Regarding North St. Paul, they view FTTH as a lifeline for the future of the community. They are getting feedback from the community regarding how to finance the network.

      I would be surprised if they do not go after stimulus money, but I not expect them to stop if they don’t get the stimulus money.

      They recognize that they do not show up on the map for the their multi-state incumbent providers (except when they have a referendum) and want to ensure the community has excellent access to the networks of the future.

      Whether enough people from North St. Paul agree and are motivated to vote yes on a future network remains to be determined.

      It is not so different from communities 110 years ago that had to vote on whether to electrify. The costs are high and the break-even point takes a long time. And you can count on being outspent at least 10-1 by those who say you will fail.

      It is not an easy path, but one that few regret – as I learned from speaking to people from Reedsburg, Wisconsin; Burlington, Vermont; even Ashland, OR – where they had several problems and ran up debt but have still greatly increased the number of small independent businesses and forced incumbents to upgrade their plant to provide better services at lower prices.

  8. Ross, former Northfielder Lois Quam is in the news. Can you and Rick convince her to locate her new Norway-related business here, luring her with the promise of fiber to her desk?

    Lois Quam leaves Piper Jaffray to start incubator

    Quam said Tysvar will help facilitate
    the transfer of clean technology
    between Minnesota and Norway, which
    has a large sovereign wealth fund and
    expertise in renewable energy. She
    also will help start-ups build a
    diversified business model to better
    withstand economic cycles.

  9. Christopher, are their any good examples of partnering (actual co-ownership) between a municipality and one or more of the local incumbent providers? CCG has listed this as an option.

    At Monday’s Council mtg, Councilor Jim Pokorney made a good point, that if we ARE able to get stimulus money to pay for 80% of the infrastructure costs, then we might NOT want an ownership partner.

    1. Being in Minneapolis, I’m always happy to come down if our work would be helpful in a meeting.

      In most of the networks with which I am familiar, the city, or utility, provides the network services. However, times are a little different now. Monticello would have partnered would HBC if the lawsuit didn’t drag them down.

      Powell, Wyoming, has a unique partnership with a local provider, but I don’t know that it is old enough to yet draw conclusions from it.

      Danville, VA, owns the network but services are provided by others, including incumbents…I think. However, this is not a citywide project yet. It is a Design Nine – Andrew Cohill – project if you want to look more deeply into it.

      Partners were less important when anyone could get into the NCTC to get fair contracts on television content. Now that it is more difficult, partners that have access to those contracts are good to have. Television may be disappearing according to most, but it will drive enough revenue in the near future that it cannot just be left out of a FTTH network.

      However, I have also heard that there are IPTV aggregators that are reasonable now so I may be too hasty in encouraging a partner for those reasons. But I think these are things that need to be considered as primary motivations for partnerships.

      Getting your own contracts for television content is always possible, but the costs are high and the frustration is even higher.

  10. Christopher, when you wrote “Television may be disappearing according to most…” do you mean delivery of TV content via broadcast, cable and satellite may be disappearing in favor of IPTV (delivery of TV content via the internet)?

    1. Griff,

      I have heard a couple of different predictions, but that is the main one – and one that I think is inevitable. Just not sure what the timeline is.

      Some have talked about just delivering a lot of bandwidth to the home via a network rather than formally providing channels and phone service because users can get a lot of content already over the net (between Hulu and MLB.com). But I think that is premature now.

      Television over fiber is basically an unlimited number of channels, which leads one to think we’ll see URL like “channels” rather than clicking from channels 00001 to 99999.

  11. Ann, yes, the Council appointed two Councilors to the stimulus app workgroup, Betsey Buckheit and Erica Zweifel, with 4 or 5 staffers as needed. I think IT Director Melissa Reeder will be the one to convene the group and do the heavy lifting on the writing. The Council message was clear: Do it and do it quickly.

  12. If someone needs FTTP, they are welcome to come to Dundas. I’ve got the slowest fiber available and my download speeds are consistantly over 12 MBps (MNConnect and Speedtest). Fiber is in the ground and available to most of the homes and businesses in the community. The company, Jaguar, represents they can provide speeds up to 100 MBps.
    In addition Nfld. WiFi will be installing a new array on the Bridgewater Heights water tower which will serve most of the area.
    I agree w/ comment 12 which seems to suggest the area might be better off promoting and improving on what is already here.

  13. I’ve appended the words “No. What’s next?” to the title of this blog post. On tonight’s Council Work Session agenda (P. 21 of the packet):

    At a July 2009 City Council work session, items 1 through 4 above were completed or closed. It was reported that Northfield had greater opportunities to fund a FTTP network by pursuing a low interest loan rather than applying for federal stimulus dollars. Staff was asked to research alternative financing options and report back to Council. This discussion item will update the Council on the financing options that were researched.

  14. The historian in me would just say “organize.” Northfield is in a tough spot – you have a greater need for fast, affordable broadband than many similar towns due for a variety of reasons. However, you also some options already, which makes it harder to get normal users excited about a better option.

    If there is something to come next – speaking as an outsider – you probably need someone who sees this as an imperative and will work tirelessly to get it done. These projects are never easy, but it seems like things have gotten harder for y’all.

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