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Bridging digital divide will be costly in Yellow Medicine County

GRANITE FALLS — Bridging the rural - urban digital divide will be expensive in Yellow Medicine County, where one very long bridge will be needed.

A newly completed study looking at bringing broadband service to rural areas of the county calculates that it will cost $20 million to $22 million to lay the fiber optic network needed.

It's a matter of the county's geography and dispersed population, according to Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, and Chris Konechne, project engineer with Finley Engineering. They presented the study to the County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday in Granite Falls.

Their study found that the county would need to lay fiber optic cable along 955 miles of roadway to serve 1,862 homes and businesses in the rural areas that are currently not served by broadband.

"That is a lot of fiber,'' Dawson said.

The county runs 52 miles from west to east, and is only 12 miles in width north to south on the west end and 21 miles in width on the east end. The configuration makes it more costly to extend fiber to rural areas, according to the consultants.

The study provided another option for the county. The consultants said the county could consider a combined wireless and fiber-optic "hybrid'' system for a $5 million investment. A 52-mile network of fiber-optic cable could connect towers and reach the rural areas with a wireless system delivering 25 megabytes of service per customer, the minimum speed for broadband. Dawson described it as a less costly, first step toward eventually developing a more comprehensive broadband network.

And, he noted at the onset of his presentation, that while a 25-megabyte capacity would meet today's needs, it will certainly become outdated. Since 1980, internet speed has doubled every year, he said.

The study looked at extending high-speed services to rural areas, and excluded Granite Falls and the Upper Sioux Community, where it is currently available. The $20 million to $22 million range in costs also considers the likelihood that broadband service could soon be available in the Canby area.

The study does not take into account the possibility of a rural project recently proposed by Farmers Mutual Telephone. It has expressed interest in developing a fiber network serving rural customers in the northeast corner of the county. Its interest is contingent on obtaining a Minnesota Border-to-Border grant to cover one-half of the cost, and Yellow Medicine County's willingness to issue bonds for $4 million toward the project.

The Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners recently indicated the county's interest in issuing the bonds if a grant is awarded. At this point, the project is one of many seeking Border-to-Border grant funds, according to Peg Heglund, county administrator.

MVTV Wireless is interested in working with the county and especially the proposal to pursue the hybrid proposal. The company currently provides wireless internet service throughout rural Yellow Medicine County. It would possibly lose some of its customer base if a grant-supported fiber network is developed.

Ron Vlaminck, vice president of MVTV, asked who would be responsible for the bond debt service if the proposed Farmers Mutual project or any other supported by the county did not generate sufficient revenues.

The commissioners said the county would ultimately be responsible. Chairman Gary Johnson likened the situation to the county's willingness to finance rural water projects.

"Yes, it's a risk, there's no doubt about it,'' Johnson said, "but I don't know how else we're going to come up with $20 million to put broadband in the county.''

The county is placing the broadband study on its website: " target="_blank">www.co.ym.mn.gov/

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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