Willmar planning director says city's residents could soon experience 'the best internet in the state'

Willmar City Council authorized staff to move forward with drafting a contract with Hometown Fiber to build out a $19.3 million open-access fiber network with a speed of up to 10 gigabytes per second.

Modern devices connected to each other in businessman hand 3D rendering.
If all goes as planned, the city of Willmar will have a $19.3 million open-access fiber broadband network with coverage throughout the city and speeds from one to 10 gigabytes per second in the next three years — all at no cost to taxpayers.
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WILLMAR — If all goes as planned, the city of Willmar will have a $19.3 million open-access fiber broadband network with coverage throughout the city and speeds from one to 10 gigabytes per second in the next three years — all at no cost to taxpayers.

“Just to put that in perspective: That’s the best internet in the state,” said Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker when presenting the proposal to Willmar City Council at its meeting Feb. 6. “(That’s) not an exaggeration — the best internet in the state could be up and running in Willmar in less than two years and partially coming online every single year.”

Justice  Walker Willmar Planning Development
Justice Walker

The council at the meeting authorized city staff to move forward with drafting a contract with Hometown Fiber .

Hometown Fiber is a company based in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The proposal to provide broadband internet services to Willmar states that Hometown Fiber will provide the conceptual overview, network design and phased build-out of a fiber optic network.

“Ever since I came on with the city of Willmar, getting symmetrical high-speed internet was a priority for me,” Walker stated, noting he reached out to multiple independent internet service providers to ask them about their capital improvement plans in the city and if they intended to make Willmar a “gig city.”


“It really wasn’t that fruitful of conversations. (I) just kind of found out that a lot of them didn’t have intentions to do that.”
Along with installing the infrastructure at no cost to the city, Hometown Fiber will maintain the network for the foreseeable future and has agreed to revenue sharing with the city of at least $250,000 per year, according to Walker.

Revenue bonds would be issued to pay for the construction of the network, which would be paid by the revenue generated by the network.

“As far as why the city of Willmar is getting such a good deal from Hometown Fiber is they need proof of concept,” Walker said. “(Open-access fiber networks do) not exist in the state of Minnesota and, right now, we’re just in a really good situation — a lot of coincidences have really just kind of come together to work out for us that we have such a great deal and that it’s an open access fiber network opportunity.”

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Walker noted that open-access fiber networks are a solution for providing rural residents with long-term, quality, affordable broadband internet. Hometown Fiber would build the infrastructure needed and provide the maintenance, and the city would own the infrastructure. Independent internet service providers would pay fees to use the network to provide the service, Walker explained.

Larger providers do not often participate on open-access fiber networks, providing an opportunity for smaller, local internet service providers to compete for business, he noted.

“Rural connectivity is a barrier to investment for ISPs and open-access fiber networks are the way to mitigate that,” Walked said, noting the operating and maintenance costs are prohibitive for independent providers to build out the infrastructure in rural areas. “The open-access fiber network directly mitigates that concern by taking the maintenance out of their hands.”

During his presentation, Walker also explained that, through research, the broadband RFP selection committee found that open-access fiber networks are a 30- to 50-year solution to rural broadband problems.

The broadband RFP selection committee was formed several months ago to review the requests for proposals from broadband internet service providers to increase access to broadband internet service in Willmar.


The city also received proposals from two other internet providers — Vibrant and Windstream.

The committee immediately set aside the Vibrant proposal due to only offering a partial build-out more focused on the industrial park and being very noncommittal on a timeline for a complete build-out or how much it would cost the city.

The other proposal was from Windstream, which is currently building out a fiber network that will provide coverage for about 50% of Willmar at no cost to the city, according to Walker. Its proposal to partner with the city for a complete build-out was still only a partial build-out, focusing only on the main part of the city.

For complete coverage of the city north of the railroad tracks, into the industrial park, and south of Willmar Avenue, Windstream wanted the city to provide $4.7 million. The city would have to issue general obligation bonds, meaning taxpayers would foot the bill, according to Walker.

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He also noted that Windstream was not willing to participate in revenue sharing with the city and did not provide a timeline for the completion of a complete build-out.

Contracting with Hometown Fiber in constructing an open-access fiber network is the best decision for the future, Walker concluded, noting its best for residents’ quality of life and the city’s economic development while “also putting to bed the broadband conversation — this isn’t something that we have to worry about in five years, seven years, or 15 years, this is — as long as we maintain it — we’re good for decades.”

Open access broadband networks prioritize residents and force internet service providers to compete for residents in their subscription to the network, he added.

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: or phone at 320-214-4339.
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