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Nobles County, Westbrook receive broadband grants

ST. PAUL --The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced Wednesday that internet providers in Nobles County and the city of Westbrook in Cottonwood County would be receiving grants for projects that will bring hundreds of...

ST. PAUL -The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) announced Wednesday that internet providers in Nobles County and the city of Westbrook in Cottonwood County would be receiving grants for projects that will bring hundreds of unserved homes and businesses broadband internet.

Lismore Cooperative Telephone Co. 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. The co-op matched the $2.94 million grant one-to-one, creating a total project cost of $5,889,156.

The project entails square 500 miles in new wireless coverage, distributed through five towers. The co-op will also install over 82 miles of fiber optic cable. Wilmont and Leota will be built out completely with fiber as well as businesses and homes along the fiber transport route.

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DEED estimates the project will serve 469 households, 1,060 businesses and six community anchor institutions - such as schools, libraries, medical providers and public safety entities - across Nobles County that currently do not have broadband access.

Work will begin in the summer, as the service provider will have contractors bid to plow fiber. Bill Loonan, Lismore Cooperative Telephone’s general manager, said the company would lay down a fiber backbone by next year, but couldn’t say when the entirety of Nobles County would have access to high-speed internet.

Wireless coverage will initially reach speeds of 25 Mbps, while homes or businesses close enough to the fiber trail will have the option to use speeds up to 1 gigabit.

Loonan said once the company made money from its expanded service, it would work on building a larger fiber network.

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“Eventually, when we start making a profit, our goal is to provide fiber to every home in Nobles County,” Loonan said.

Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson worked to get the project off the ground. When he helped found the Nobles Economic Opportunity Network, the group’s number one priority was broadband. Johnson applied to make Nobles County a Blandin Broadband Community, which helped fund a feasibility study to create the plans being put initiated today.

“This is a true success,” Johnson said. “I’m probably happier than almost anybody about this.”

Johnson said many areas in the county have 1 to 3 Mbps connections, limiting their ability to best utilize the internet.

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“It’s going to benefit the whole county greatly,” Johnson said. “Now anyone who can have the faster, very reliable service is gonna be able to do things as home they can’t do today. Kids are going to be able to log in and get their homework.”

In another southwest Minnesota grant, Woodstock Telephone Co. received $412,391 in grant funding and matched it with $504,033 of its own money. The project will serve 368 unserved households, 29 unserved businesses and seven unserved community anchor institutions in the city of Westbrook.

Terry Nelson, Woodstock Telephone general manager, said the company would start construction before June to start getting people on the network by October.

Connection speeds within the city will increase to up to 1 gigabit, a dramatic boost in internet speed. The fastest internet speed currently available to Westbrook residents hovers between 10 and 15 Mbps. To download a two-hour long HD movie a movie at that speed, it would take approximately one hour. With a 1 gigabit connection, it takes just 25 seconds. Of course, as the faster connection is more expensive, Woodstock Telephone will offer a variety of lower speeds to choose from.

The grants are part of $34 million distributed through the 2016 Border to Border Broadband Development Program.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said the program works to encourage internet providers to expand their service to a larger audience.

“We are working closely with the support we get from the federal government with the [Connect America Fund Phase II program], leveraging federal dollars along with state grants and local and private money to expand access,” Smith said. “It shows how this grant program really fills a very necessary gap to make these projects work for the private sector and the folks that are actually getting that connection.”

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