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Group of rural towns to become ‘gigabit communities’

WORTHINGTON -- As a general rule, internet bandwidth usage increases by about 50 percent every year. This isn't any different in southwest Minnesota, where DSL has struggled to provide speeds that can keep up with the ever-increasing demand.

WORTHINGTON - As a general rule, internet bandwidth usage increases by about 50 percent every year. This isn’t any different in southwest Minnesota, where DSL has struggled to provide speeds that can keep up with the ever-increasing demand.

 

To meet expectations, on May 15, Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS) will offer 1 gigabit internet speeds to customers in their service area, which includes Jackson, Lakefield, Round Lake, Bingham Lake, Brewster, Wilder, Heron Lake and Okabena.

 

“Over the past few years, we’ve just seen the demand increase - as technology has advanced, the demand for more bandwidth comes right with it,” SMBS General Manager Travis Thies said. “So, over the past five to six years, we have basically been upgrading our backbone to sustain those types of speeds.”

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With the help of a $12.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the consortium built a 125-mile fiber ring in 2011. Customers in Lakefield were the first to be connected in late 2011, and the route was completed by 2012. Thies estimates the fiber ring now serves roughly 2,600 customers.

 

Theis said the fiber route is unique in that it’s redundant - meaning it has extra safeguards to prevent it from failing.

 

“We've got a fiber main that comes in one end of a town and comes out the other end - think of it as a big ring - and all of the cities fall into place along that ring,” Thies said. “So if there’s ever a rural fiber that is damaged, with that redundancy, that keeps us from having an outage in an entire town, we’ve got the ability for all of our data to flow the other way around the ring until the network is restored.”

 

In addition to building out cities along the fiber ring, houses and businesses on the route have access to the broadband service. The service doesn’t veer far off of the route, as extending fiber out to individual households generally isn’t economically viable for the provider.

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“Ultimately, fiber is always going to be your best bet, but it’s not always going to be your most financially feasible option,” Thies said. “When you talk about trying to go out and feed entire counties, now you’re running miles and miles of fiber, and you’re only passing a number of homes. So to feasibly repay the construction costs and the capital dollars it takes to do that, that’s where it gets tough.”

 

Nonetheless, the push for fiber-to-the-home in rural areas of the state has amped up in recent years. In January, the Department of Employment and Economic Development announced Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co. had received a $2.94 million grant to create a hybrid fiber and wireless network that will eventually bring high-speed internet to the entire county.

 

“Everybody is eager to find a way to bring broadband to the rural areas, which I think is a great thing,” Thies said.

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