Northshore phone outage may spur improvementsby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth, Minn. — Officials on the North Shore are hoping a communications collapse last week might improve their chances of securing stimulus money to prevent similar problems in the future.
Cook and Lake counties each plan broadband projects that promoters say could have stayed online despite a line break in Duluth last week. But there's only so much federal money, and a lot of projects trying to get it.
Consultant Gary Fields has been helping Lake County shape a plan to extend the reach of broadband in the Arrowhead county. If it had been in place last week, he says, the phones, Internet and 911 service would have survived when a fiber optic line was severed in Duluth.
But it wasn't. And they didn't.
"It really shut down a large portion of the Arrowhead region," said Fields.
The break deprived communities along a 120-mile stretch of the North Shore of the ability to use credit cards, cell phones and ATM machines, and forced emergency personnel to scramble to adjust for lost 911 service.
Lake and Cook county officials knew this could happen, and they've been working to secure additional broadband to prevent a massive outage.
Now, there's a pool of federal stimulus money for just such projects, totalling $7.2 billion. The program puts high priority on projects in rural under-served areas, and those local projects with money to match the federal cash.
It's a match on both those criteria for Lake and Cook counties. Cook County Commissioner Bob Fenwick says his county applied for a $42 million grant, with the county matching 25 percent from a tax approved last November.
But Fenwick says the county is still waiting to hear back from the feds, and getting frustrated -- especially in light of the outage that hit the North Shore last week.
Consultant Gary Fields says his client, Lake County, is after the same stimulus money Cook County's applied for.
"We have a current application in for Lake County for approximately $36 million to build a fiber optic network to every home and business in Lake County," he said.
Both Lake and Cook counties are considered under-served. Both are putting local dollars towards their project. And both are still waiting for the phone to ring.
Both counties seek improved phone and Internet service. But more important, they want a system that won't fail if a line goes down. That takes redundancy, something Fields says is normally built into a broadband network.
"You build multiple paths in, so if there is a cut somewhere it doesn't bring down the whole network. And this was brought to everybody's attention last week with the cut that happened in Duluth," said Fields.
Lake County Commissioner Paul Bergman says he's written letters to U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represents the area in Congress, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, pleading for their assistance in prodding the process.
But there's little they can do, according to Oberstar aide John Schadl, since lawmakers aren't supposed to interfere in a competitive awards process. Still, Schadl says, both projects appear worthy.
"Redundancy actually is one of the criteria that will be used in evaluating these grants, so if anything, the incident that we saw with the loss of this service points out the real need," said Schadl.
But Schadl says the $7 billion in the fund isn't enough to cover every project that's been requested -- some 2,200 nationwide.
Cook County Commissioner Bob Fenwick has been meeting with Lake County officials to consider how the two governments should react to last week's outage and how to proceed.
"I think we need to use this as a catalyst, to keep this in the forefront of our legislators here at the state and at the federal level," Fenwick said. "We know that the potential for this type of event is there again. What should we do help prevent it to the best of our abilities?"
While it appears the projects have missed a first round of federal awards, the broadband program is now inviting applications for a second round. With no luck yet, both counties are planning new applications.
- All Things Considered, 02/05/2010, 5:50 p.m.