A rural Fiber-to-the-Farm project that started in Sibley County has added three new towns to its potential territory due to the extremely high interest in fast, affordable, and reliable connections to the Internet. The current providers aren’t getting the job done and few expect that to change given the cost of improving services.
An article last year reported on present difficulties for many in Sibley:
Soeffker, who farms with her husband in rural Sibley County, said the dish receiver they must use works fine in good weather but balks during heavy rain and snowstorms.
Meantime, her husband struggles with a lagging Internet speed of .6 megabits a second that falls short of meeting his business needs when he’s selling commodities.
The committee organizing the network set a goal for demonstrating the interest of something like 50% of the population in the target area. There has been some confusion as to exactly how many they should have before committing to the project but with just two mass mailings, they have received nearly 3,000 positive responses (of the over 8000 households that could be served). This is a very strong response.
To keep the public informed, they have had numerous public meetings in each of the communities that will be involved. To be as open as possible, they would often have three meetings in a town per day — a morning, afternoon, and evening meeting to accomodate everyone’s schedule. As this project moves forward, no one can claim the group has been anything but open with the plan.
On January 19, they had a major meeting with over 100 people attending, including many elected officials from the towns. For over two and a half hours, they had five presentations and numerous questions. MPR’s Jennifer Vogel was there and wrote about the project shortly afterward.
Participating communities–which include Renville County, Sibley County, Fairfax, Gibbon, Winthrop, Gaylord, Arlington, New Auburn, Green Isle, Buffalo Lake, Steward, Brownton and Lafayette–have been asked to decide by early March whether to continue with the project and release additional funds for marketing and administration.
Previously, the project included 7 potential towns. But some nearby towns in Nicollet County have expressed interest in joining and their density would make the project more viable. Most in Sibley have been dedicated to serving every household – town and farm alike. While the principle of equity is noble, it ultimately makes the project harder to finance due to the higher fixed costs required to serve the least dense areas. Bringing in a few more towns benefits everyone.
Unfortunately, the people around the those towns are frustrated that they are not slated for connections in the current plan — see some of the discussions on their vibrant facebook page. They will have to draw the line somewhere but will undoubtedly be interested in expanding the network once they have built out in initial territory.
Minnesota law has a barrier to municipal networks and as a matter of law, it is not clear that it applies to a county-owned project. Under law, if a municipality wishes to own or operate a telephone exchance, it must have a successful 65% referendum — an incredibly high bar given the imbalance of spending power in such contests. Incumbent providers can spend a lot to oppose a referendum whereas local governments cannot take a position and grassroots groups are limited in their financial resources.
However, as this network plans to neither own nor operate a telephone exchange, it should not have to pass a referendum. It seems as though the project is leaning toward a partnership with Hiawatha Broadband Communications, a well liked private firm from southeastern Minnesota. HBC already operates the muni-owned Monticello FTTH network.
While no financial plans are yet finalized, the most likely option appears to be non-recourse revenue bonds for nearly $70 million. These are bonds that are issued to private investors and will be repaid with revenues from the subscribers. If the network were to fail to produce enough revenue to make the debt payments, the towns and county would have the option of making up the difference from tax revenues but would be under no obligation to do so.
From Jennifer Vogel:
There would be some public obligation to the project, in the form of what McGinley called a “debt service reserve fund.” In order to make the project appealing to investors, he said, the participating communities would be required to establish and replenish if necessary a $4.5 million rainy day fund that would cover any shortfalls. They also would have to cover the contributions of any communities that ducked out of the project down the road or couldn’t pay into the fund.
If one town, Winthrop for example, decided not to ante up for the debt service reserve fund, other communities could cover the difference. As the network generates net income (perhaps 5-6 years down the road), the money comes back proportionally to those towns that created the reserve fund.
It bears noting that these people are not asking for any handouts. Whereas Frontier and other providers in the towns are incredibly unlikely to expand their networks absent taxpayer subsidies, the Sibley County Fiber Project will be locally self-reliant.