Feasibility study supports need for rural broadband in Kandiyohi County

Feasibility study supports need for rural broadband in Kandiyohi County

August 16, 2016

Feasibility study supports need for rural broadband in Kandiyohi County

WILLMAR—Expanding broadband to all the areas of Kandiyohi County that are unserved or underserved will cost an estimated $60 million to $68 million, a feasibility study has concluded.

The study also found significant demand for better broadband in rural Kandiyohi County and ripe opportunities for addressing what has long been seen as a critical infrastructure need.

“There is great support in the county for the project,” said Blake Griffin, an engineer with Communication Network Engineering, the consulting firm hired by Kandiyohi County earlier this year to undertake the broadband feasibility study.

Key findings from the study were reported Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

Completion of the study is an important step toward the county’s next goal: applying for a share of $35 million in grant money made available by the Minnesota Legislature through the state’s border-to-border broadband technology program.

The deadline for grant applications is Oct. 3, and Kandiyohi County plans to be in the running, said Larry Kleindl, county administrator.

With the research in hand and the need clearly demonstrated, “it would be irresponsible of us not to go forward,” he said Tuesday.

Among the highlights of the feasibility study:

  • Only about 20 percent of rural Kandiyohi County has broadband service that meets the Federal Communications Commission threshold for acceptable upload and download speeds.
  • The southern part of the county has the least access to adequate broadband. Expanding service in this area also would be the most costly because of the low population density.
  • In a randomized survey conducted this spring, about one in five of the respondents were completely unserved by any type of broadband. Of those who did have service, 80 percent were not subscribed to speeds that met the FCC minimum standard.

One of the major questions now before the County Board: how to finance its share of the broadband project the county hopes to undertake if it obtains a state grant.

The county has already chosen CTC of Baxter as a private-sector partner. CTC will submit the grant application to the state on behalf of Kandiyohi County and will be ready to launch a project as soon as next year.

Matching funds will be required from the county and must be spelled out within the grant application. That puts the county on a tight deadline for evaluating its funding options and making a selection, Kleindl said.

“”We will have to make the decision relatively quickly,” he said.

Options identified in the feasibility study include general obligation bonds, other grants and loans or loan guarantees.

The county also must decide the service area in which the project will take place.

The County Commissioners said Tuesday that they are ready to move forward.

“It’s long overdue,” said Harlan Madsen.

Improvement of rural broadband in Kandiyohi County isn’t just about improving people’s ability to play video games or watch online movies, Kleindl said.

Adequate high-speed services are necessary for farmers and rural small businesses to survive and thrive, for residents to gain access to telemedicine, for rural residents to be connected with the rest of the world and much more, Kleindl said.

“It’s about a way of life and how we do things. … This is a need,” he said.

That was echoed by Connie Schmoll, business development specialist with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

For Kandiyohi County to be competitive with the rest of the world, “we have to catch up to other areas in our broadband offerings,” she said.

Kleindl issued a plea Tuesday to the county’s rural residents: If they have a personal story about inadequate broadband, share it with the EDC for inclusion in the grant application.

The personal experiences will help support the county’s case for the necessity of better broadband, he said. “We want the public to be involved in telling the story.”

West Central Tribune by Anne Polta