Broadband Communities

AUG-SEP 2016

BROADBAND COMMUNITIES is the leading source of information on digital and broadband technologies for buildings and communities. Our editorial aims to accelerate the deployment of Fiber-To-The-Home and Fiber-To-The-Premises.

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34 | BROADBAND COMMUNITIES | | AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2016 COMMUNITY BROADBAND RS Fiber: A New Rural Internet Cooperative RS Fiber in Minnesota, originally conceived as a two-county municipal fiber network, became a cooperative instead. Local governments provided seed financing. By Scott Carlson and Christopher Mitchell / Institute for Local Self-Reliance I n south-central Minnesota, residents of 17 townships and 10 cities are forging a new path as they bring high-speed internet access to their communities by forming a telecommunications cooperative. RS Fiber, named after Renville and Sibley counties, is building an estimated $45 million network to serve more than 6,000 households, farms and other businesses in an area of more than 700 square miles. Winona-based telecommunications company Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC) provides telephone, television, and internet access over the network. "It is unique that a cooperative was created out of the thin air to own the network," says Mark Erickson, the former Winthrop city manager who played a pivotal role in helping launch RS Fiber. "It's not every day that a new cooperative, much less a telecommunications cooperative, is formed." e RS Fiber project was seven years in the making, built from the vision of local leaders and scores of resident volunteers who spearheaded an intense grassroots marketing campaign that included more than 100 informational meetings. Its story included overcoming the opposition of private, for-profit telecom companies, which saw the project as a threat, and evolving the project from its original conception as a publicly owned municipal network into a community-based co-op. "One of the things I'm most proud of is the fact that 10 city councils from very small rural communities saw the importance of the project right off the bat and stuck with it for seven years," says Erickson, now director of Winthrop's Economic Development Authority. "e other aspect that people find interesting is the fact that 17 very rural, conservative, skeptical and cautious township boards also 'got it' and voted to put their constituents' tax dollars on the line to make it happen." e co-op's funding model is also noteworthy. Because few investors were willing to fund a newly created fiber co-op, the local governments bonded for seed funding that became subordinate to debt from other private investors, including local banks. As long as the network hits its financial targets, no taxpayer dollars will be used. e co-op will repay its loans to the local governments with revenues from the network, but local taxes will make up the difference if it falls short. RS Fiber is a promising model for the vast majority of rural communities stuck with slow and unreliable internet access. Without that access, they have fewer prospects for economic development, educational advancement and health care. DIRE NEED FOR SPEED RS Fiber Cooperative's territory encompasses much of Sibley County and parts of Renville, McLeod and Nicollet counties. e lack of high-speed internet access created the demand

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