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Broadband service spreading in rural Murray, Pipestone counties

(Special to the Globe)

REGIONAL — Fast, reliable, broadband internet is quickly creeping up on the priority list for leaders of rural communities, and it isn’t so people can watch Netflix without interruptions.

“It's really for school kids and it's for the economy,” said Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, a broadband advisory firm utilized often in southwest Minnesota.

“It’s for having those farms be able to compete across the country with those that are getting broadband and letting those farmers work at home to supplement their income. It’s for having medical devices in your house that allow you to stay in the house 15 years longer instead of going into a nursing home. That’s why you put broadband in.”

The widespread utility of broadband has led several southwest Minnesota counties to invest their time and money into researching the topic, and make serious progress in the process.

In 2016, Nobles County conducted a broadband feasibility study with CCG and Slayton-based Finley Engineering. Shortly after, the state’s Border-to-Border grant program awarded Lismore Cooperative Telephone nearly $3 million to create a hybrid fiber and wireless network that will provide baseline broadband speeds to most of the county and ultra-fast fiber to hundreds of homes. The project is expected to be completed by mid-2018.

Last year, Murray County and Pipestone County partnered with four other southwest Minnesota counties and the Blandin Foundation to conduct feasibility studies — also done by Finley and CCG — in hopes of getting a similar outcome.

Pipestone County’s study was completed in February 2017, and later that year, Ruthton-based Woodstock Telephone received a $363,851 grant from the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband to provide fixed wireless broadband to rural Pipestone County.

The state’s 2017 report found that most of the geographic area of rural Pipestone County is underserved (internet speeds less than 100Mbps download/20Mbps upload) and large sections of the western and northwestern part of the county are unserved, or without any form of broadband internet (less than 25/3).

Some of that will change later this summer, when Woodstock finishes installing fiber to four towers in western Pipestone — capable of delivering wireless internet speeds of up to 75Mbps.

Murray County’s study was completed this past February. The goal of the study was similar to that of other area counties, said Amy Rucker, the county’s Economic Development Director.

“The county does not plan to build a broadband network but is open to talking with providers who are interested in extending service to our citizens and may need financial assistance to do so,” Rucker said. “Murray County had the feasibility study completed so that any provider who wants to extend broadband service to our unserved and underserved areas could use the study as background to apply for state or federal grants to do so.”

The county has seen significant broadband investment from Woodstock since 2015, when it installed two wireless broadband towers around Lake Shetek. It continued over the last two years, installing eight internet coverage sites in the area, including towers in Lake Wilson, Slayton and Edgerton. The company plans to add another tower south of Chandler this year.

The towers, which are fed with fiber, provide 50Mbps download speeds at a range of six miles, according to Terry Nelson, Woodstock general manager. The speeds and service can vary, however, as wireless internet can be disrupted by geographical features such as hills, trees and windmills.

“We’ve done wireless in a lot of these areas, but there’s still little pockets that we can’t hit with some of our wireless,” Nelson said. “I would definitely never say the county is 100 percent covered, because it’s not.”

An October 2017 report from the state found 99.8 percent of Murray County households have access to 25/3 broadband — up from 50.47 percent in July 2016 — and more than 52.9 percent can access 100/20 — up from 41.56 percent. The numbers in Pipestone County are 97.87 and 79.73 percent — up from 79.36 and 44.54 percent, respectively — but Dawson said the numbers shouldn’t be relied on.

“These maps go by the advertised speeds of the various providers, which are almost always ridiculously higher than they actually are,” Dawson said. “Providers will generally hit their advertised speeds in some households, but most customers won’t see those speeds.”

In trying to reach areas that still do not have 25/3 speeds, Woodstock has entered to be part of the Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction in late July, in which the Federal Communications Commission will award nearly $2 billion to providers to expand broadband to unserved areas. The Federal Communications Commission has identified dozens of sections in Murray and Pipestone County — in which service providers have not upgraded their speeds — that are eligible.

“We’re definitely going to be a player on that,” Nelson said.

Woodstock also wants to be part of this year’s Border-to-Border Broadband grant program. The legislature has not yet appropriated money for the grant cycle. The GOP-held legislature wants around $15 million, while Gov. Mark Dayton has asked for $30 million.

Minnesota wants 25/3 speeds mandated statewide by 2022. By 2026, the required numbers will be raised to 100/20. Reaching those speeds consistently is nearly impossible with wireless internet, Dawson said.

“The wireless that we’re talking about is capable of that within a mile or so, but you would have to put a cell site at every farm — that's not going to happen,” he said.

Instead, broadband experts agree the ultimate solution is delivering fiber-to-the-home, reliably delivering 1-gigabit (1000Mbps) speeds.

Lismore Telephone is installing fiber to every household in Leota and Wilmont and hundreds of homes along its 135-mile fiber ring, but it is expensive. In addition to $6 million between the state and Nobles County, the county had to throw in an addition $1 million in cash and $2.57 million in taxable general obligation tax abatement bonds to make it work.

That’s with fiber costing around $20,000 per mile, and the price won’t be coming down any time soon, Dawson said.

“You are already in a state where fiber is as cheap as it will possibly be,” Dawson said. “With 50-foot deep soil, they can get it in real easy. Minnesota can bury fiber for $20,000 a mile, where in a lot of parts of the country, that’s $50,000 a mile.”

For Woodstock, a successful fiber formula has been delivering directly to large businesses, where the return on investment makes it doable.

“We've kind of gone after some of the larger users — the hospitals, the banks, the schools,” Nelson said. “Rural hospitals like Sanford and Avera need a direct connection back to the headquarters in Sioux Falls.”

As both the studies for Murray and Pipestone counties suggest, providing fiber to all rural households is impossible without significant state and federal funding. The Pipestone County study estimated the cost at more than $12 million to deliver to the 1,747 homes where it is not available.

Congress has identified a need for fiber broadband. Sen. Amy Klobuchar visited Slayton recently to talk about it, mentioning that Congress has dedicated $600 million for broadband funding. She has also passed bills that encourage wireless carriers to work with small providers and allow states to align highway construction projects with broadband infrastructure projects