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Willmar seeks to expand fiber broadband resources, gives staff the OK to explore potential project

The Willmar City Council gave its Planning and Development staff the OK to continue working with VIBRANT Broadband on a project would bring fiber broadband into the city's Industrial Park. The city could then build off that backbone to offer fiber to homes across the city.

Huge roll of cable for underground cable installation.
Rolls of high-speed fiber are shown in an installation setting in this stock photo. The city of Willmar is interested in bringing high-speed fiber broadband into the Willmar Industrial Park, which can then be used to build out a fiber network to homes across the city.
Micha Klootwijk/michaklootwijk - stock.adobe.com
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WILLMAR — If there has been a buzzword going around Kandiyohi County the last several months, it might be broadband.

The County Board and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission have been working hard to bring high-speed broadband projects to areas in the county that are either underserved or unserved. Most of these projects will be fiber-to-home, the best internet technology available.

While Kandiyohi County is attempting to fill its broadband holes, some in Willmar are worried about being left behind. While residents and businesses in the city can get some version of high-speed internet, it might end up being of a lower quality than what rural areas might soon have.

"The plan being developed by the county was going to leave Willmar in a deficit. Willmar was going to have worse internet than the build-out in the rest of the county," said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin at Monday's council meeting, adding that residential internet in Willmar is woefully under what it should and needs to be.

While Calvin, and the rest of the council, have been supportive of the county's internet plans, he also doesn't want the city to be left behind. And neither does Justice Walker, the city's Planning and Development director.

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"I see this as something that will be foundational to improving and maintaining the quality of life for residents throughout Willmar," Walker said.

Justice  Walker Willmar Planning Development
Justice Walker

Over the last few months, he has been talking with internet providers in Willmar, asking if they ever plan to build out fiber to the home network in town and what their timeline might be. The answers he got were not encouraging.

"Some people said it just wasn't feasible at all, and they had no intention of doing it," Walker said. "Or they had an existing footprint but it wasn't for residents and only open to businesses."

That response led Walker to VIBRANT Broadband, part of the Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association, on a project that would bring a fiber internet line the 19 miles from Atwater to the Willmar Industrial Park. The city could then use that fiber line as the backbone for a city fiber network to expand fiber-to-home opportunities to residents, perhaps as early as next year. Walker said there were no projects currently being planned for Kandiyohi County that would bring fiber broadband to Willmar.

A draft letter of intent and contract with the company has Willmar paying approximately 80% of the estimated $1.25 million project, or no more than $1 million. Walker said that money could come from the city's Industrial Park Fund, though discussions could be had about using the city's American Rescue Plan Act money as well.

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Aaron Backman, executive director of the Willmar/Kandiyohi County Economic Development

"That is a significant commitment on the part of the city to utilize the million dollars," said Aaron Backman, executive director of the EDC. "This is a smart move to consider, getting broadband to the city, so we can (have) options in terms of providers."

Backman also requested the council consider expanding the project to include the Willmar Municipal Airport, which currently does not have access to fiber broadband. It would be an asset for pilots and businesses that use the airport, Backman said. It would add about two miles to the project.

"I think this would bring the airport to the next level," Backman said.

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The council gave its approval for Walker to continue working with VIBRANT on a project for Willmar. No contracts or projects were approved Monday night, just the OK to continue ironing out a potential agreement with the internet service provider.

"If a community wants to be on the front end or forefront of a growing commercial or industrial community, this would be a practical step in that direction," said Councilor Andrew Plowman.

The council did have questions about who would have ownership of the fiber line and whether others would be able to hook up to the fiber line funded by Willmar. Walker said the nitty-gritty details would be figured out between the city and VIBRANT prior to a formal agreement coming to the council table for potential approval.

Calvin said he was really excited about what this project could bring to Willmar. Walker was commended for his initiative to start looking into this issue, as was VIBRANT for being willing to work with the city of Willmar.

"This is a huge step forward for Willmar. This is leveling the playing field," Calvin said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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