Lincoln Co. Board OKs next step in expanding broadband

IVANHOE — In a unanimous vote at its Tuesday meeting, the Lincoln County Board approved the next step in providing broadband service to the remaining parts of Lincoln County that are not yet covered by high speed Internet service.

The next step includes talking to current service providers in partnering for the upgrade, as reported in a feasibility study delivered at Tuesday’s county board meeting.

Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting of Asheville, North Carolina, joined the county board meeting by teleconference while his cohort Mark Mrla of Finley Engineering of Slayton and Vince Robinson, president of Development Services, Inc. of Ivanhoe, appeared in person.

The two engineers gave a feasibility study presentation to show the board what could be done if they were allowed to contact the local telephone and cable providers in Lincoln County and propose broadband services that could provide much needed service to the rural areas.

They said buried broadband would provide longer service life and some savings over hanging it on poles above ground and if the county approved looking into partnering with a provider and to apply for a border to-border grant.

“It would be expensive to finance it yourselves without grants; it would require a commercial loan,” Dawson said. “A commercial loan for $8.1 million with 20 percent equity (projects) losses of $12.3 million over 25 years.”

With a Border-to-Border grant for $4.4 million, (projects) lose $6.2 million over 25 years, he said.

The break-even required is $8.1 million in grants for $8.7 million in assets.

They also reported that the county could opt for a hybrid.

“The break-even penetration rate needed is only 50 percent, even without grant funding,” Dawson said. “At 70 percent penetration, there would be $2.48 million without a grant and $3.7 million with a grant. The cost to finance with a commercial loan is $1.9 million with 20 percent equity.”

Additionally, he said, they would still qualify for a $1,020,000 Border-to-Border grant. But they had to get on it before the grant funds were no longer available.

Designs and business plans considered included building fiber to entire study area and hybrid models that build fiber to serve wireless towers to Arco. This also brings fiber to any homes or businesses close to fiber. The plan builds wireless service to serve the remaining rural area, they said.

Board Chair Mic VanDeVere asked if just one tower would be sufficient for increased users over the years. The answer was yes, the tower could service up to 800 users without slowing down, Dawson said.

At present there were 901 potential broadband customers in the study area, roughly the east half of the county, excluding Tyler, Hendricks and Lake Benton which are considered served by Minnesota State Standards.

With a hybrid scenario, 101 would be on fiber while 800 would be on wireless service.

“You put the tower up and even cell phone companies will get on there,” Dawson said.

Renting poles forever and having to replace them over time is costly, the engineers said. That’s why burying the broadband fiber was more economical.

“It’s cost effective to bury the whole network,” Mrla sad. “The soil is pretty conducive to bury. The best budget study is to completely bury it — lower maintenance.”

“You’ll want to push fiber everywhere, but tailor it to your partner,” Mrla said.

Fixed fiber, not mobile, was recommended. Anyone along that area would be fed with this fiber, the engineers said.

The network design shows constructing an 18-mile long fiber backbone to reach fiber hubs and/or wireless towers.

There are 401 miles of roads that would need fiber, including the 18-mile backbone fiber, to cover the portions of the county studied.

Dawson recommended the county start talking to prospective partners before they get up and running on their own.

“Get out there and educate the public,” he said. “Be prepared to assist partners with 2018 grant filings. Be persistent — it’s unlikely the whole problem will be solved by one partner or one grant filing.

“Your feasibility study looks affordable (because of 900 prospective customers) to just do fiber right off the bat,” Dawson said. “First, get something everywhere.”

The board should also consider contributing county grant or loan funds toward financing the project, he said.