Broadband speakers draw crowd for YMC Board meeting

GRANITE FALLS — Several employees and officers of the Minnesota Valley Television (MVTV) of Granite Falls attended the Yellow Medicine County Board meeting Tuesday to hear speakers from two broadband related companies.

Speakers Doug Dawson of CCG Consultants, Inc. and Chris Konechne of Finley Engineering talked about getting fiber optic service for the farmers across the middle of Yellow Medicine County and connecting with current providers on each end.

“We looked at three areas that really need help,” Dawson said. “It was the rural area that needs it the most. Broadband use has doubled in use since 1980. Farmers use it for operating self-driving tractors. Medical fields are using it more.”

More people are working from home, now, families can access social media and “modern society” such as Netflix, he said.

“With the expanding demand in the home, broadband usage is doubling every three years,” Dawson said.

Two methods were being looked at, Konechne said. First, to build fiber into the entire area or building a hybrid model with fiber to towns and branch off of that.

In the rural area, YMC is looking at a potential of 1,862 customers.

“That includes a large pile of homes and a handful of businesses without internet service,” Dawson said. He and Konechne went into the details of the 52-mile width of land to cover, he called it the backbone. It adds up to about 955 miles of rods, weaving down township roads because there seems to be a household down each one, he said.

“Your farmers built their houses on almost every square,” Dawson said. “You don’t have any without (potential customers).”

They are looking at delivering the service on poles, like telephone wires.

The next steps for the county to consider were half done, the consultants said, because the first step was to find a partner for the project. Which, depending on getting a grant, the board had made that agreement at the last meeting.

The YMC Board approved a $4 million broadband agreement with Farmers Mutual Telephone Cooperative (FMTC) in August pending the cooperative receiving a grant to cover half of the costs for the project.

Dawson was speaking rather optimistically regarding the grant results, YMC Administrator Peg Heglund said.

“There are over 100 applications out there,” Heglund said.

Dawson told her that there weren’t that many in this area of the state, so he figured that YMC had a pretty good chance at receiving a grant.

Commissioner Ron Antony was also looking beyond the preliminaries.

“Fiber to towers will enhance MVTV service,” Antony said.

“The 52-mile backbone does hit a lot of their spots,” Konechne said. A successful combination is high elevation (towers) and solid backbone (fiber).

The second step is to find the other half of the financing for the unserved area. Another partner to help with that would be ideal.

Repaying a loan was weighing on Greg Isaackson’s mind. Isaackson, from Cottonwood, is the treasurer for MVTV. He wanted to know what happens if the annual payment on the bonded amount doesn’t get paid.

“The fiber is collateral,” Heglund said. “We’d have to find another partner.”

She went on to explain that there would be precautions up front. The county has to get at least a 63 percent take rate (subscribers). Farmers Mutual Cooperative would have to show it financials, that it can make these payments, before the deal went through.

Board chair Gary Johnson reiterated the question.

“What happens if somebody doesn’t make their payment?” Johnson said. “We bond it. Like Rural Water, it’s a risk, but we have collateral. There’s no other way to get broadband to rural areas.”

The grant would only cover about 49 percent of the project FMTC had asked the county to loan it the other 51 percent if the grant came through. The county could bond the funds at a minimum of $4 million with the repayments coming from FMTC.

Isaackson then brought up a coverage glitch. The project is to service the central and northeast portion of the county, not the southeast where he lives.

“How are we covered?” he asked.

Heglund said that the county was looking at Arvig to cover that area since it is already in parts of the southeast end of the county.

“They have five to 10 years to complete the project,” she said.

Isaackson had another question.

“Did your feasibility report factor in the access points to MVTV?” he asked.

Konechne responded by explaining the different sizes of systems and how the right one for the job would be selected.

“We did a more detailed study than some,” Konechne said.

Mark Mrla, one of the consultants who couldn’t make the meeting yesterday, had told Heglund that “if you do a study, they will come.”

“Just the other day, another broadband company called me,” Heglund said. “Maybe we need to develop a broadband task force to deal with future questions.”