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County to continue funding broadband drops

The deadline to get on a list for a county paid broadband drop expired Oct. 31, but the County Board approved an extension. (News-Chronicle file photo)

The Lake County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an extension of the county's policy to foot the bill for hooking county residents up to the county's broadband network, Lake Connections.

The policy to add eligible residents to the network at no cost technically expired Oct. 31, but the county is still at work on a new policy that will expand the scope beyond the original project after the end of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utility Service over the summer.

"Although I think the practice is status quo until there is a new policy, we might want to consider making it more official," county administrator Matt Huddleston said.

The county pledged $15 million of its own money to pay for "drops" or hooking homes directly up to the network, which includes a $3.5 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission. Huddleston said they are trying to answer questions about people with homes that exist outside the original scope of the project. For example, if people are off the grid, how does the county hook them up? Some people literally live across the street from homes that were included, but they were not, what does the county do about those homes? Most importantly, with both questions, will there be a cost?

The county is wrestling with all these issues and more, but it wants to continue to encourage residents to continue signing up in the interim. The broadband project was completed with $56 million in federal loans and a $10 million grant. Construction of the fiber network was done within parameters set forth by RUS and was established according to the area's census blocks, according to Lake Connections general manager Jeff Roiland.

Roiland said the "need to take rate" or the percentage of eligible residents the county needs to sign up for the service is between 50 and 52 percent. The rate has been fluid over time, with officials originally saying there would need to be a 65 percent rate and, as late as this summer, officials said that rate was around 44 percent. Over the course of three years, more than 1,200 miles of a fiber network was built, making Lake County's project the fourth largest in the nation and the largest in Minnesota.

With more than 13,700 homes currently eligible for service, including portions of Eastern St. Louis County communities like Embarrass, Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Lake Connections needs more than 7,500 subscribers over the next five years. Currently, Lake Connections has more than 2,700 subscribers and still has 75 new applications a week. Roiland also said they are on schedule to reach their five-year subscriber goal before 2020.

"2016 will be a huge year for drops, we'll probably have 2,000-plus next year," Roiland said. "We're providing the services now and people are loving it, they are ecstatic about the speeds and capabilities of what they can do."

For now, the county just wants to make sure eligible residents know they can still sign up for free drops by calling in. They also want residents to know that they are working on a plan to expand the scope of the project and bring high speed Internet service to as many Lake County homes as they can.

"I've heard these rumors out there that now it's going to cost me $3,000 to hook up," commissioner Rich Sve said. "Well that's not true, we never came up with a number for this aid to construct, if you will. I think to put those concerns to bed at this juncture, it would be wise to at least extend the policy until at least we come up with the next go round and vett that publicly."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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