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County considers proposal for rural broadband

WORTHINGTON -- Though the process has been under way for a while, more rural Nobles County residents are needed to complete a survey the county is conducting to measure public need and desire for broadband.

During a special county board work session Monday, commissioners were presented information from Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, and Mark Mrla, business unit manager for Finley Engineering, on broadband expansion to unserved and underserved areas of Nobles County.

Broadband service within the city of Worthington is already “pretty good,” Dawson said. Service is also provided within and around Lismore, and on the far eastern end of the county. Everywhere else, Dawson said, “rural broadband is poor or non-existent.”

Both CenturyLink and Frontier have received $1.5 million, zero-interest loans to expand broadband in Nobles County through the Connect America Fund. Dawson, though, was critical of their ability to get fiber in the ground to service rural areas.

Broadband has been a buzzword at not just the local level, but statewide, as demands for high speed internet access continue to grow.

It’s to the point in some cases, Dawson said, that real estate agents are unable to sell houses in rural areas if they don’t have access to broadband.

“If the people next door to you have (broadband), that’s where all the people are going to go, where your tax base is going to go,” he said, adding that homes with access to broadband are worth more than homes without it.

Internet access is necessary for students to do school work, but it is also required for the growing number of adults who work from home.

Dawson said 4 percent of Americans work from home today -- a number than has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Ten years from now, he said people are predicting 50 percent of adults will work from home.

“The whole world is doubling its broadband demand every three years,” he said, adding that usage ranges from people watching Netflix to medical monitoring and telemedicine.

With CCG’s presentation, Dawson spoke of three options the county could consider to provide broadband to its residents  -- to build fiber only, to build a fiber-based wireless network that would ultimately be replaced by fiber, or to build a hybrid mix of fiber and wireless.

Dawson said it would take a 73-mile-long ring of fiber to reach all parts of the county, at a cost of $19.4 million.

A wireless system would include seven towers, two of which already exist, to provide service in rural areas. That system, which would be fiber-fed, would cost approximately $6.5 million.

“There’s a lot of wireless already in this county,” Dawson said.

The cost of the hybrid model is between $12 and $14 million, and would include building fiber to some of the smaller unserved communities in Nobles County and then building on that to serve everyone.

Financing broadband is the primary issue in getting a system built. The state authorized $35 million for broadband this legislative session -- an amount that will be in high demand.

Other options include bond financing, securing grants, getting commercial equity in a project or county financing.

“If you want to eventually get fiber everywhere, the two best business structures are through a cooperative or county ownership,” Dawson said, adding that ideally the county could get some grant money, some cooperative investment money and contribute some money of its own.

“There’s a lot of potential partners, but someone has to step up and take the lead,” said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson. “The county took the lead on the survey to get us this far.”

Dawson said the survey results thus far within Nobles County show 75 percent interest in getting rural broadband service, “which is awesome,” he said. “We have to see who’s willing to put some money into this thing.”

Commissioners were told they have one month to get an application together if they hope to access some of the $35 million the state has made available for broadband.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at farmbleat.areavoices.com.

(507) 376-7330
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