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Experts: High speed internet comes to those who ask

Tired of losing money on stock trades because of a slow internet connection, Dick Quitmeyer got his Lake Andrew neighbors to petition for faster service. They hope for it to be installed in 2020. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

Dick Quitmeyer's hope for a better-connected future lies at the crossroads of two Douglas County roads, within view of a couple of grain silos, a pond and Lake Mary Township Hall.

It's where a fiber optic line ends, just a few miles short of his Lake Andrew home, where he says slow internet speeds bog down his online stock trades enough to cost him up to 30 percent in potential revenue.

"It's terrible," he said. "I just hate the fact that we have lousy internet here."

Last year, Quitmeyer pitched in on a neighborhood effort to bring Runestone Telecom Association's high-speed fiber optic to the shores of Lake Andrew. As vice president of the Lake Andrew Lake Association, he convinced more than 30 of his neighbors to sign a petition asking the cooperative to bring fiber to their doors.

Competition for prime internet service in Douglas County is at the street level these days, as neighborhoods around Douglas County are organizing to bring high-speed service to their homes and home-based businesses. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's a tactic encouraged by the local telecommunications cooperatives as well as state officials.

During the past two years, residents of Lake Louise and Country Estates in Arrowwood organized, enabling Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association to land two state grants to install fiber optic to their doors, said CEO Dave Wolf. A neighborhood spokesperson worked with Gardonville engineers to apply for the state's Border to Border Broadband Development Grant.

"It's probably one of the better success stories around the area as far as broadband goes," Wolf said. "If people are frustrated with their current situation, I would encourage them to call our office and get on a list so we can start cultivating their neighborhood."

Rural telecoms expanding

In response to demand from neighborhoods, the rural telecommunications groups are pushing beyond their traditional boundaries to extend premium internet access to nearby communities, especially when internet giants like CenturyLink turn down local requests.

When a handful of organizers knocked on doors near Holmes City, they gathered about 200 households that wanted service, and Runestone agreed to deliver. It won a Border to Border grant and now provides high-speed internet there as well as to Blackwell Lake, both within CenturyLink's service area.

"That was just a grassroots effort from those customers," said Kent Hedstrom, Runestone manager. "They approached us about premium service. It's very expensive to deploy this fiber so it takes a group to make it pay."

Customers on Lake Andrew, also in CenturyLink's territory, also began clamoring for service from Runestone. They were hoping to land a Border to Border grant last year and have fiber optic installed this year, but then-Gov. Mark Dayton ended up vetoing the spending package it was part of, stalling Lake Andrew's effort.

Now Gov. Tim Walz is asking the Minnesota Legislature for $70 million over two years to provide high-speed access in unserved and underserved areas throughout Minnesota. And legislators have indicated their willingness to go along with the project, albeit at differing dollar amounts. The Minnesota House has agreed to the full amount; the Minnesota Senate is willing to spend $30 million over two years.

"If there's Border to Border funding again, we're going to apply," Hedstrom said.

If they do and they get a grant, Lake Andrew residents might get fiber optic in 2020.

One Blackwell Lake resident, Tim Philbrick, said he and several neighbors approached Runestone about better service several years ago and Hedstrom told them about the Border to Border grants.

"This was late July, early August; the deadline for applications was like mid-September," Philbrick recalled. "He told us we would be very happy to put an application in but said, 'We're going to need you guys to do some legwork to help us.'"

What Runestone needed, Philbrick said, was for the neighbors to canvass local homeowners to determine how many people would sign up for service, so the company could decide if it made business sense.

A couple ladies took on the task, Philbrick said.

"They did some serious legwork running around. They went door to door," he said. "They got ultimately 70 percent of the homes in this coverage area signed up and are taking the service."

Now Philbrick, who grew up in Pakistan to missionary parents, is able to look up Pakistani food and relive some of the sights and sounds of his formative years.

"Any kind of video, I'm not waiting for this buffering business anymore," he said. "When I click on a website, it's instantaneous."

It's not always 'Yes'

At least one neighborhood in Douglas County, the Bluffs Road NW loop near Lake Carlos, has met with defeat time and again after trying to convince CenturyLink to upgrade their internet service, two neighbors said.

Kevin Rankl, an applications engineer who works from home, said every few months, neighbors along their loop call the Louisiana-based company to ask for better service.

Rochelle Telander, who lives down the road from Rankl, said that when her son streams Netflix, nobody can do anything else online. Plus, when their internet access goes down, their TVs don't work either, she said. She last called CenturyLink about four months ago, she said.

"They tell us this is the best we can get," Telander said. "Nobody has really gotten anywhere. We'd all like better access because it's really stinky out here."

CenturyLink confirmed to the Echo Press that while it has brought more than 60,000 Minnesota households online since 2016, including some locally, it has no immediate plans to expand in Douglas County.

"Deploying broadband in rural areas is costly and we must consider our ability to recover those costs in our deployment decisions," Andrew Schriner, director of public policy at CenturyLink in Minnesota, said in a statement released by the company. "We will continue to evaluate additional locations for future broadband expansion. However, at this time there are no plans for additional deployments within Douglas County."

He indicated that the company needs additional government help to expand.

"CenturyLink will continue to work with other providers and our local, state and federal leaders on policies and funding that would support the expansion of broadband in costly rural markets," he said.

Neighborhoods whose internet providers say no to future upgrades need to change tactics, said Danna MacKenzie, executive director of Minnesota's Office of Broadband Development. They might have better success contacting her office instead. In the past, the state has connected nearby providers with neighborhoods, she said.

MacKenzie said the state's Border to Border program is designed to be responsive to those who ask for service.

In Douglas County, service maps indicate those speaking up have mostly been lakeshore owners and nearby communities. In other counties, the farmers spoke up, MacKenzie said. In Big Stone County, everyone got service.

While groups such as the Farm Bureau and the Minnesota Farmers Union have sought more funding for farmers as a whole, it's not clear whether anyone is paying attention to the rate at which farms are actually being reached. More spread apart than lakeshore owners, it might prove more difficult for farmers to organize at the neighborhood level.

Bruce Miller, membership and outreach director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said his organization has had staff turnover and that he is trying to get up to speed on all the issues.

"We want to leave no farmer behind when it comes to high speed internet," he said.

MacKenzie said everyone who wants high-quality internet access must speak up.

"This program is designed to listen to the community," she said. "We're seeing the communities who get organized and help people understand the need and speak up, they are the ones making the most progress. That is very clear."

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