Stimulus funds go to lucky few Internet upgrade projectsby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Jackson, Minn. — The backers of a plan to upgrade broadband Internet service in southwest Minnesota are happy their plan will receive nearly $13 million in stimulus money to build the project.
Turns out it's one of only two Minnesota broadband projects receiving federal construction money. For the dozens of others that were denied, there's no clear answer why.
More than 50 Minnesota communities went after stimulus money for Internet infrastructure projects. The scale of the proposals spanned a wide spectrum.
Lake County in northeast Minnesota had one of the most ambitious plans. The county wanted to provide high-speed service to nearly every residence. One of the smallest proposed wiring the central Minnesota community of Swanville, population 338.
But most of those towns are still waiting, hoping their project gets picked before the stimulus money runs out later this year. That's not the case for the southwest Minnesota group, which was choosen to receive some of the prized funds.
"This is going to be a great thing for Jackson, Jackson County, for a long, long time to come," said Mitch Jasper, the mayor of Jackson, a city of about 3,500 in southwest Minnesota.
Jasper said while the town currently has high-speed Internet service, many residents and businesses are not happy with it. Among the complaints is that it slows down during busy times of the day.
Mayor Jasper says with the stimulus money, every house, business and institution in town will get fiber optic cable, the fastest landline on the planet.
"We are going to have the best Internet in the world right here in Jackson, Minnesota," said Jasper.
He hopes the new system will help attract businesses and jobs to the community. And it's not just Jackson.
The stimulus money will pay for a 125-mile fiber optic loop through nine southwest Minnesota communities. The smallest town in the project is Wilder, population 60.
Staring at his computer screen, Wilder resident Tom Myrvold smiles because today he has Internet service. That's not always the case.
"The biggest thing is reliability," said Myrvold. "Last night when I came home, it didn't work at all."
Myrovold receives his Internet service from a communications dish on a grain elevator five miles away. He has to make sure he trims back tree limbs every year which could block the signal. Weather conditions like fog or rain can also hamper reception.
The planned fiber optics line should eliminate those problems, and provide Internet speeds that are as fast as anywhere.
Those are the sorts of advantages all of the Minnesota communities applying for stimulus money were after. But besides the southwest Minnesota project, only one other Minnesota project won federal funding. The Halstad Telephone Company is getting $6.5 million for broadband construction in Norman and Polk counties in the northwest part of the state.
That's left a lot of people wondering why their own projects were left out.
"It's a little bit of a mystery right now," said Gary Fields, who helped design the fiber optics system Lake County wants to install.
Fields says the feds haven't provided any explanation for the project's denial, beyond a rejection letter.
"There wasn't a lot of information about how proposals were scored and where the cutoff lines were," said Fields.
Fields says the need for the Lake County project was demonstrated just a few weeks ago, when the only fiber optic cable serving the area was cut. The area lost telephone, Internet and emergency 911 service.
Fields says if it's built, the Lake County project would offer a backup link to keep those services alive during a cable break.
Federal officials aren't offering a lot of details on why Lake Countly lost out while others got money. Rural Utilities Service administrator Jonathan Adelstein says in general, the government is looking to help the most rural parts of the nation.
"We emphasized projects that would be able to bring high band width, very high quality service to unserved or underserved rural areas that had a possibility of being there for many years to come," said Adelstein.
Adelstein says one reason the southwest Minnesota project was picked was because it will build on an established business. The city of Windom, which is included in the project, has operated its own fiber optics system for about five years.
"It was a solid management group and a proven track record. That was all critical in our evaluation of whether this project would be there for the long run," said Adelstein.
But federal officials haven't offered any more specifics, and did have not responded to a reques for additional information.
Meanwhile, some of the rejected Minnesota proposals are hoping they get a green light when they're considered in a second round of funding.
- All Things Considered, 03/08/2010, 4:50 p.m.