Willmar planning director says city residents could soon experience ‘the best internet in the state’ – West Central Tribune

WILLMAR – If all goes according to plan, over the next three years the city of Willmar will have a $19.3 million open access fiber optic broadband network with citywide coverage and speeds from 1 gigabyte to 10 gigabytes per second – all at no cost to taxpayers.

“Just to put that in perspective, this is the best internet in the state,” said Justice Walker, Willmar’s director of planning and development, when presenting the proposal to the Willmar City Council at its Feb. 6 meeting. “(That’s) not an exaggeration – the best Internet in the country could be up and running in Willmar in less than two years, and partially come online every year.”

Justice Walker

The council at the meeting authorized city officials to proceed with drafting a contract with Hometown Fiber.

Hometown Fiber is a company based in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The proposal to provide broadband internet services to Willmar states that Hometown Fiber will provide the conceptual overview, network design and phased deployment of a fiber optic network.

“Ever since I started with the City of Willmar, getting high-speed symmetrical Internet has been a priority for me,” Walker said, noting that he had reached out to several independent ISPs to advise them on their plans to improve the city and of the city if they wanted to make Willmar a “gig city”.

“It really wasn’t that productive of talks. (I) just kind of found out that a lot of them had no intention of doing this.
In addition to installing the infrastructure at no cost to the city, Hometown Fiber will maintain the network for the foreseeable future and has agreed to a revenue share with the city of at least $250,000 per year, according to Walker.

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To pay for the construction of the grid, revenue bonds would be issued, paid for out of the revenue generated by the grid.

“The reason the City of Willmar is getting so much from Hometown Fiber is because they need a proof of concept,” Walker said. “(Open access fiber optic networks don’t exist) in the state of Minnesota, and right now we’re just in a really good situation — a lot of coincidences have really kind of just happened to us, what we have so much and that there’s an open access fiber network – opportunity is.”

Walker pointed out that open-access fiber optic networks are a solution to provide rural residents with high-quality and affordable broadband Internet in the long term. Hometown Fiber would build and maintain the infrastructure needed, and the city would own the infrastructure. Independent ISPs would pay fees to use the network to provide the service, Walker explained.

Larger providers don’t often participate in open-access fiber optic networks, which gives smaller, local ISPs an opportunity to compete for business, he noted.

“Rural connectivity is a barrier to investment for ISPs, and open-access fiber networks are the way to mitigate that,” Walked said, noting that the O&M costs are prohibitive for independent providers to roll out infrastructure in rural areas. “The open-access fiber network directly mitigates those concerns by taking maintenance out of their hands.”

During his presentation, Walker also stated that the broadband RFP selection committee found through research that open-access fiber networks are a 30 to 50 year solution to rural broadband problems.

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The Broadband Tenders Committee was formed a few months ago to review tenders from broadband internet service providers to improve access to broadband internet services in Willmar.

The city also received proposals from two other ISPs – Vibrant and Windstream.

The committee immediately discarded the Vibrant proposal as it only offered a partial build that was more focused on the industrial area and was very non-committal as to a full build timeline or cost to the city.

The other proposal came from Windstream, which is currently building a fiber optic network that Walker says will cover about 50% of Willmar at no cost to the city. His proposal to work with the city for a full build was still only a partial build, focused only on the main part of the city.

For full city coverage north of the railroad tracks, the industrial park and south of Willmar Avenue, Windstream wanted the city to commit $4.7 million. According to Walker, the city would have to issue general notes, meaning taxpayers would foot the bill.

He also noted that Windstream was unwilling to participate in revenue sharing with the city and had no timeline for completing a full build-out.

Contracting Hometown Fiber to build an open-access fiber optic network is the best decision going forward, Walker concluded, noting that it’s best for the residents’ quality of life and the city’s economic development, while “also boosting broadband talk is finished – that’s it”. What we won’t have to worry about in five, seven or 15 years is good for decades – as long as we stick to it.”

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Open access broadband networks prioritize residents and force ISPs to compete for residents in their subscription to the network, he added.