Over the last three years, Le Sueur County, Minnesota has assembled a task force of citizens, local officials, and business leaders which have succeeded in dramatically improving broadband for thousands of residents who previously had poor or no connectivity. In doing so, they’ve also forged relationships, inventoried local resources, and created a model which is likely to see the landscape go from one where nearly all residents in the county were under- or unserved by basic broadband at the beginning of 2018 to one where the vast majority of the community will have access at 100/20 Mbps in the next couple years. And if efforts continue to succeed, it’s possible we might see full fiber coverage in Le Sueur by the end of the decade, making it one of the most connected counties in the state.
Le Sueur is located ninety miles southwest of Saint Paul, and had just under 29,000 residents and 11,000 households in 2019. There are 11 whole or partial cities in the county, of which Le Center and Montgomery are the largest at around 2,500 people each. The remaining communities sit between 200 and 1,000 residents. More than a thousand farms dot the landscape, and agriculture, along with some tourism and resort development centered on the lake communities, comprise the bulk of the county’s economic picture.
Broadband infrastructure outside of the population centers in Le Sueur is generally poor, which was a problem for residents, for businesses, and for farmers looking to remain competitive and modernize operations: “the lack of this service means students have trouble completing schoolwork and seeking future opportunity, small businesses have trouble connecting with customers and vendors, farmers have less efficient operations, home sales and development lags, and options for telemedicine are closed.”
Until the middle of the last decade, residents were largely on their own to find solutions. Starting about five years ago, however, things began to change. One Le Sueur resident who had paid individually to bring better Internet access to her home so she could run her small business took the initiative to bring up issue to the county board. Shortly thereafter, a diverse and energetic group came together to form the local broadband task force, including community residents, the IT director for a collection of the town school districts, IT Manager for Le Sueur County Jeff Niesen, local business leaders, the county board, and the county administrator. All agreed that there was a case for better broadband for homes as to drive economic development.
The result of their work over the last three years has been four complementary projects resulting in much greater connectivity options for all. Among these are a fiber buildout that they hope will serve as the basis for a model from here out to bring wireline broadband to everyone in the county. It also includes three projects supported by almost a third of Le Sueur County’s CARES Act funds undertaken in 2020. Among them are additional fiber infrastructure via a partnership with MetroNet, a large fixed wireless network, and temporary public Wi-Fi canopies and student hotspot initiatives to further provide options to residents, travelers, and students during the tenure of the pandemic.
Work to improve local connectivity began in 2017, when the county helped secure a $50,000 from the Blandin Foundation to do a feasibility study and look for solutions. At the same time, in 2018 the county put out a broadband survey to get a handle on where service was and wasn’t (for reasons we’ll reiterate until we’re blue in the face or it’s fixed), illustrated in the map to the left where red areas of the county are unserved, purple areas underserved with connections between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps, and green areas served by wireline broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps. By 2019 these preliminary endeavors were done, but the county — realizing that tackling the entirety of the $14 million project consisting of 800 miles of fiber in one attempt was unrealistic — approached expanding broadband in a targeted and incremental fashion instead.
The first move was to use the feasibility study as the basis for issuing an RFP to partner with local ISPs to apply for a Border to Border Broadband grant operated under the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) program, which in 2019 led to a successful partnership with a local telephone company for a project covering 225-250 homes using 100 miles of fiber in Derrynane (pop. 525) and Lanesburg (pop. 2,100) Townships on the northern end of the county, along with a handful of homes in nearby Montgomery and Lexington townships. This represented an area of particularly high densities of unserved homes and businesses and is slated to be complete in the fall of 2021 (though in-home work has been slowed by public health regulations). Now, residents have access to broadband far in excess of what they did before: 1000/500 Mbps connections for $110/month, and 300/150 Mbps, 90/45 Mbps, and 50/25 Mbps cost $70, $60, and $50/month respectively.
Per DEED grant requirements, half of the funds come from the state and the rest must be matched locally. In this case, the remaining half of funds are being borne equally by BevComm and Le Sueur. In order to spread the cost equitably, the county then spread 50% of its cost across the entire tax base in Derrynane and Lanesburg (12.5% of the total) and 50% on the local residents getting fiber installed to their homes (the remaining 12.5%), with homeowners paying over a ten-year period.
The partnership with BevComm remains strong, and the both the county and the company will look to pursue expansions with state funds should they become available down the road, starting with townships to the west and the south (towards Kasota and Saint Peter) and, local officials are hopeful, the entire county over the next eight to ten years so that ultimately every house has fiber connectivity available. Whether it happens through BevComm or another provider remains to be seen, but the county has a commitment to finding an entity to work with. However, one of the differences will be, though the financing structures will be the same, the cost-per-project will change depending on geography — trenching in the Minnesota River Valley is much different than trenching in farmland.
Confronting the Pandemic
Le Sueur had no more warning than did any other community in forecasting the current pandemic, but when it hit the local broadband task force kicked into high gear. Three projects were realized to bring better connectivity to the region.
The first of these is a partnership with ISP MetroNet using CARES Act funds for a fiber network expansion which has connected about 420 homes (including 59 completely unserved) using 49 miles of fiber in Waterville, Kilkenny, Montgomery, Cordova, Sharon, Lexington, and Kasota. This project is ongoing and will be online by the end of 2021, and accounted for roughly half the funds expended. In addition, this installed infrastructure will supplement existing networks between schools and for local law enforcement sites.
The second project is a partnership with NetWave Broadband to add wireless hardware to seven towers throughout the county in Cleveland, Cordova Township, Kasota Township, Le Center, Montgomery, Tyrone Township, and Waterbill with a rough range of seven to ten miles each to bring service up to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds out to the remaining 80% of the unconnected. Among these seven locations include two water towers and a sheriff’s communications tower.
The CARES money will pay for fiber for towers that need it, for additional capacity where necessary, to connect two towers together, or bring in new fiber backhaul altogether. That money will also be used to lower the initial cost for user to connect to NetWave service in unserved locations, which currently sits at $199. NetWave plans for county residents cost is $49 (or $59 with a router) for speeds of 30-140 Megabits per second (Mbps). Reports are on average download of 70 Megabits per second (Mbps) for residents. The county would still love to do fiber to each door, but in the interim this will help.
Third and finally, the county has installed free public Wi-Fi access to seven areas around the county, including boat landings, community parks, and campgrounds. These Wi-Fi canopies were pre-paid by the county using CARES Act funds with service contracts of one to two years, which thereafter will assess if it remains advantageous to keep the project going by folding it into the budget. School district leadership also facilitated using CARES Act funds to deploy hotspots for students to learn online over the last year.
In total, these projects accounted for $1 million of the $3.4 million Le Sueur received, representing a substantial commitment to broadband as a long-term solution to the digital divide, economic development, and distance learning the county can do in the midst of the pandemic.
Much Done, Much Left to Do
You can see the gains made in te last two years in the map to the left, where red areas (unserved) turned purple and purple areas (underserved at <100/20 Mbps) turned green. Le Sueur is a Blandin Broadband Community for 2020-2021, and the county attributes its success over the last three years to the energy brought by local residents and county officials. It seems from the outside that part of their success, also, has been in finding and forging relationships with local and regional ISPs to the benefit of both residents and those companies.
Altogether, because of the foundational work they did, Le Sueur was well-positioned to move the needle when the Covid 19 pandemic hit last spring. Making sure citizens know their options remains the next hurdle, as does providing them with the resources to band together with neighbors and reach out to ISPs to expedite connections to their area. The county is also looking ahead, with new DEED applications submitted in September 2020 for parts of Montgomery, Lexington, Kilkenny Cordova, Ottawa, Sharon, Kasota Townships in partnership with two providers. Word about these awards in February 2021.
It should be noted that in many instances, using federal and state funds to deploy wireless as a short- and medium-term solution can make it more difficult to find funding to build the fastest, future-proof networks down the road in two ways. First, by building a network capable of bringing baseline speeds above 25/3 Mbps but using a technology incapable of hitting the same throughput and reliability as fiber. And second, by using federal and state funds to build it, which in some states disqualifies those regions for future subsidy projects. This can force those communities to stay stuck on slower networks until federal baseline broadband definitions change or the community can self-fund wireline builds. However, in Minnesota, the DEED broadband grant program is more forward-thinking. It allows applications from projects in areas served by speeds up to 100/20 Mbps, and is also agnostic in determining where the matching local funds come from — whether from federal reverse auctions like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) or programs like the USDA’s ReConnect.
Windmill image from Wikimedia user inkknife_2000 via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0