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Pope County to Conduct Feasibility Study

July 28, 2017 By Molly White in

Without access to high-speed broadband services and applications, businesses, jobs and residents leave. Housing values falter. Students lose access to educational opportunities. Healthcare suffers. Agriculture is hindered. For these reasons, Pope County, located in rural west central Minnesota, hired Finley Engineering along with CCG Consulting to conduct a thorough feasibility study which the two organizations along with the County used to further discussions with community members and local carriers who may bring the broadband projects to fruition in the future.

Below is an article from Pope Count Tribune on the project.

Pope County continues to work toward increasing broadband access and Internet speed for all residents and businesses in the county.

The county recently utilized grant money to fund a feasibility study on broadband to improve Internet access and speed in underserved or unserved areas of Pope County.

Pope County Commissioners, along with about 50 residents of the county, heard the results of that study last Tuesday and learned about the next steps needed to improve broadband throughout the county.  

The study area excluded most of the western part of the county, including Starbuck, because areas served by Federated Telephone Cooperative already have fiber, and the area served by Runestone Telephone Company are expected to get fiber in the near future.  The city of Starbuck is currently served by Mediacom and that area has speeds greater than 100 megabytes per second (MBps).  The goal is to bring all areas in the county to Internet speeds of at least 10-25 MBps, according to Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting, the firm that did the study along with Finley Engineering.  The study concentrated on Glenwood, Sedan, Villard and all other rural parts of the county, it was stated at the meeting.

Dawson, who’s company CCG Consulting, has worked on broadband issues in hundreds of municipalities across the country, told those gathered at the public meeting in the community room of the courthouse,  warned that parts of the county simply “are not going to grow if those areas don’t have broadband.”

He said the average student uses about 5 mbps per month, just to do school work and added that many have to drive to areas that are served by faster speeds just to do school work.  

“This matters because areas that are not served or without fiber just aren’t desirable areas for people to live,” Dawson explained.  That decreases property values and forces migration out of the area.

He said broadband is increasingly necessary for education, business, agriculture, medical facilities, working at home and simply taking part in modern society.  Dawson said broadband demand is expanding  each year, with home broadband usage doubling every three years.  

“We can’t build a system for today, because it will be obsolete by the time the fiber is in the ground,” he explained.  “We have to build it with an the future in mind.”

Network design

CCG Consulting and Finley Engineering found in the study that bringing all-fiber to the 4,626 households in the underserved area of the county is expensive.  That’s why they designed a senerio that includes a fiber ring around the county and utilizes wireless technology to serve portions of the county within that ring.  On that scenario, there would be about 1,358 households on fiber and 3,226 served through the wireless technology.  “This would be far and away better than what is out there now, but the goal is to bring fiber to each household,” Dawson explained.  He also said that the wireless technology has improved drastically over the past few years and is a viable system.

So, the plan would be to construct a 67.6-mile long fiber ring to cover the service area (the entire county).  That would mean there would be 765 miles of roads that would need fiber and the engineers stated that it would be more cost effective to bury that whole fiber network, so it would not be placed on rural poles.

Adding the wireless scenario would mean utilizing new and exiting towers throughout the county that would be served by fiber.  The wireless system being considered would delver speeds of at least 25 mbps.  “That’s the minimum and the goal would be to upgrade the white space spectrum to increase bandwidth,” he explained.

So what are the estimated costs?

Installing fiber everywhere in the county would cost about $29.3 million, according to the study.  If the combination of wireless and fiber were used, the cost would drop to about $9 million.  And in another scenario, the study excluded the city of Glenwood and used a wireless and fiber combination for the rest of the county and that was estimated to cost about $6.5 million.

For customers on the fiber network, that would provide fast Internet, cable TV and telephone.  For wireless customers, it would provide Internet and telephone service only.

It was stated at the meeting that there is “no reasonable scenerio to immediately finance fiber to the entire county.  That would take at least a 75 percent state or federal grant to make it possible.  Today, most of the state grants funded to broadband expansion are about 50 percent grant.

But, the study found, it is financial viable for a local telephone company to do the combination of wireless and fiber, especially with some state grant money.    According to the study, it would take a 43 percent penetration for the company that would provide the service to break even.  A 60 percent penetration would return about $12.1 million over 25 years, and a 70 percent penetration would return about $17.8 million over the same period.
“That’s why we need every farm and resident in the county to sign up for this,” Dawson said.

The county has already begun talking with telephone companies and sharing the information in the study.  
According to Donna Martin, Pope County Information Technology director, at least three are interested in working to expand broadband in Pope County.  She, along with Pope County Commissioners Paul Gerde and Larry Lindor have headed a committee that is working to improve speeds and access for the entire county.

The plan by that committee was to get the feasibility studies done and make sure expansion was financially viable.

“Now we’re hoping for the telephone companies to step up and come into our area and provide the kind of service our residents need,” Gerde told those gathered at the public meeting.  “The county isn’t going to do this project.  It’s the telephone companies that will be doing it.  Our role was to get this information for them; show it’s financially feasible and leave it up to them to come in with a plan and get you good service and they can make money too,” Gerde explained.  

Gerde and Lindor directed all county residents to continue to let the telephone companies about the need and to “pledge” to purchase the service once it becomes available.  The county will likely be seeking pledges in the near future, it was stated.