The most viable way to provide broadband internet service to under-served parts of Pipestone County is with a wireless system, and even that is not feasible without a grant.
Those were the findings of a broadband internet study Pipestone County commissioned earlier this year to find out what it would take to provide broadband access to the under-served parts of the county. Doug Dawson, President of CCG Consulting, and Mark Mrla, business unit manager with Finley Engineering, presented the results of the study Sept. 12 to the Pipestone County Board.
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The study examined three scenarios to bring broadband to 1,747 homes where it is not currently available: Build a complete fiber system; build a hybrid fiber and wireless system; or an all wireless system. An all-fiber system requiring 458 miles of fiber was estimated to cost $12,359,445, a hybrid system $5,327,253, and an all wireless system $1,002,809.
“The costs in this county to go with fiber are higher than we’ve seen anywhere else,” Mrla said.
He said that’s due to a relatively low number of homes without broadband access, low population density in the under-served areas, and the fact that many farms in the county are far from the road, which adds to the cost of installing fiber to the home.
The wireless system the study concluded would be the most viable option would provide download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) to 707 homes from three towers. This meets the federal government definition of broadband as a speed of 25 Mbps downloading and 3 Mbps uploading. That’s the state of Minnesota’s goal by 2022.
Meanwhile, Woodstock Communications expects to find out before the end of the year if it will receive a $363,000 Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grant to build a hybrid fiber/wireless system estimated to cost $967,000.
The company’s plan differs from the $5,327,253 hybrid plan in the feasibility study because Woodstock would use existing infrastructure and less fiber, relying more heavily on wireless service.
Terry Nelson, vice president of Woodstock Communications, told the Pipestone County Board, Aug. 22, that the company’s plans include installing 15 to 20 miles of fiber optic cable, building two towers near Ihlen and in the northern part of the county, and leasing space on two existing towers near Trosky and north of Pipestone to provide access to the western part of the county. The company already has a wireless internet tower in Edgerton and one in Hatfield that will be operational soon.
“Because they are building the fiber off of these towers, that’s getting the fiber deeper into the county than it’s ever been before,” Dawson said. “That’s getting them closer to a whole lot more farms. I would call this a half-step to get to that ultimate fiber everywhere solution. In the meanwhile, folks will have fairly decent broadband and that’s going to feel really good to them.”
Nelson said Woodstock Communication’s plan will not provide broadband to the entire county, but the added infrastructure will show where “dead areas are,” so the company can look at the feasibility of running fiber to more towers in the future.
He said Woodstock Communications wasn’t sure when the county’s feasibility study would be complete and wanted to make sure it had the information it needed to submit its grant application before the deadline, so it conducted its own study. He said the county’s study was still important.
“I think the study was necessary for the county regardless, to understand how expensive the different types of technology are and what is feasible for a company such as Woodstock,” Nelson said.
Mrla said the feasibility study could provide the county with useful information if it choses to expand fiber service in the future.
“That might be as simple as continuing to work with Woodstock to find some type of solution between the county and their company to figure out what could be done in the long-term, maybe put together a long-term plan together,” he said. “The costs are all there.”
Dawson said the cost of fiber construction has remained steady over the last decade, so the costs in the report will probably be reliable for quite a while.
Sharon Hanson, Pipestone County administrator, said the county plans to wait and see if Woodstock Communications receives the grant it has applied for and will share the broadband study with other internet providers if requested.
Pipestone County undertook the study in collaboration with five other counties. Its share of the $252,500 total cost of the study was $39,798, half of which was paid by a grant.