Good Morning! Thank you for allowing me the time today to share this report with you. My name is Bill Coleman and I have been owner of Community Technology Advisors Corp for 18 years. Prior to forming my company, I worked at Onvoy, a regional telecom company, and with the state’s economic development department, beginning under the leadership of, at that time, Commissioner Mark Dayton. My corporate mission is to help communities make the connection between broadband and economic development. All in, I have been roaming greater Minnesota working with community leaders on critical economic development strategies since 1984.
In my work, there is no longer a need for me to talk about the “coming importance of broadband’. County commissioners and town board members tell me that broadband has replaced potholes in the grocery line and café table discussion. Residents of all ages and circumstances tell me about the significant negative effects of insufficient broadband. It was that kind of discussion with regional economic development leaders in East Central Minnesota that launched this study.
I know that the task force is familiar with GPS 45:93, the east central region’s economic development partnership. They have testified before you about their ongoing, but relatively unsuccessful efforts to improve broadband throughout the region. They have identified this lack of broadband as a regional economic development crisis. You know, economic developers don’t like to be in the red zone on the state broadband maps. They know red means a stop to economic growth. It makes success in a difficult situation all the more challenging.
Most of the area within CenturyLink and Frontier’s east central MN exchanges is CAF II eligible meaning that it is now unserved and not a very high cost area to serve. In accepting CAF II funds, providers have to offer at least 10 Mb/1 Mb service to meet their contractual obligation to the FCC.
GPS members wanted to know – “As a result of CAF II, Is our broadband problem solved?” Even after talking with their providers, many were unclear on the actual expected technology deployment, timelines, coverage and speeds. When they learn, that prospective improvements might be years out, or may not happen at all, they see red.
Yet when they talk with prospective competitive providers, they hear a hesitancy to pursue public-private partnerships due to the real or imagined increased competition enabled by CAF II networks.
When communities asked me “Bill, what about CAF II?” Will this turn our counties green on the state broadband maps?” Will we show up as served?
I tell them that I have heard a variety of reports of what CAF II will deliver – from providers indicating 40 to 80 Mb service to skeptics dismissing these networks as 10 Mb /1 Mb, the minimum CAF II standard. I wanted to find out exactly what is being built and what types of services are being offered.
Ultimately, the purpose of this study is to increase understanding of what is being built by incumbent providers with CAF II dollars so as to better help communities to understand, “Is our broadband problem solved?”
I examined two exchanges in the region – Lindstrom which is served by Frontier and Braham which is served by CenturyLink. The Lindstrom exchange is entirely within Chisago County, essentially known as the Chisago Lakes Area with several small towns, recreational lakes, exurban development and hobby farms. A majority of Chisago County residents commute into the Twin Cities each day for work. Based on my travels, the Lindstrom exchange has got to be one of the best rural exchanges that Frontier operates.
Braham is farther north and sprawls across parts of Isanti, Kanabec, Pine and Chisago County. It is definitely more rural and less vibrant than the Lindstrom exchange.
In essence, our strategy was to follow the fiber and to find and map the DSLAMs. DSLAMs are the fiber-fed electronics that use the last mile copper to reach the customer. We then drew 3,000 and 9,000 foot radius circles around the DSLAMs based on industry DSL-distance charts.
We sent our preliminary draft to CenturyLink and Frontier with an offer to make corrections, include content provided directly by them as appendices or to use alternative exchanges where deployment was more robust. They did not take us up on this offer.
On the other hand, the primary objections by technologists reviewing the report and hearing about our study concerned both copper quality and the my use of straight-line radius measure for loop length. They believe that our study significantly overstates the broadband coverage provided through these CAF II-funded investments.
I want to point out an error in the initial publication of our report, since corrected, that does not change our findings, but did understate the amount of funding per household that CenturyLink and Frontier is receiving via CAF II. Our report stated that CenturyLink and Frontier were receiving approximately $500 - $600 per household served. It is actually five times that amount over the six year program life.
This chart is critical to our findings as CenturyLink and Frontier are each deploying DSL services via Fiber to the Node. The chart illustrates the degradation of speed over distance in a laboratory environment.
Speeds can be increased within 1 kilometer or 3,000 feet using a newer technology called vectoring. The use of multiple pairs bonded together can also increase the deliverable speeds.
On the other hand, I have already talked about two critical factors affecting deliverable capacity. Line quality is critical. The speeds above are using new copper in a lab environment. When rural people talk to me about slow DSL, I ask them if their phone line crackles when it rains. Many times their answer is yes.
The second issue is that phone lines follow roadways and it may take multiple right angle turns to get to the home, thus increasing the actual distance between DSLAM and home. Many rural people have 1,000 foot driveways.
Based on my experience around the state, I believe that the Lindstrom exchange is one of Frontier’s better rural exchanges with active commercial development and relatively high rural densities around lakes, rural subdivisions and small hobby farms.
These maps show that Frontier has covered the entire exchange with overlapping 9,000 foot radius circles indicating that most if not all people within the exchange may be able receive 10 Mb/1 Mb or better depending on line quality and line route. That is the good news.
The map on the right shows only the 3,000 foot radius circles where 25 Mb/3 Mb or better would be available. Geometrically, nine red circles can fit into one blue circle. Getting every customer into a red circle would require significant investment in electronics purchase, installation, power and maintenance.
The Braham exchange is more rural than the exurban Lindstrom exchange. While population is clustered along the east and south, there is significant population across the exchange as illustrated by the unserved/population density map available via the Office of Broadband Development maps.
You can see the concentration of equipment on the east and south with the northwest and central areas of the exchange seeing no improvements. It is possible that CAF-II funded improvements may be coming in future years. Clearly, the higher cost areas with lower population densities make for a tougher business case. Where red circles are overlapping, we may have been counting older DSL equipment that remains in the ROW, but may be inactive. Several of the older DSLAMs appeared to be served via copper lines as no fiber markers were evident.
CAF II was a program offered to CenturyLink, Frontier and other companies with specific rules and requirements. CenturyLink and Frontier have reported that they are on schedule to meet the CAF II program deadlines imposed by the FCC.
Better communication between providers and community broadband leaders is required to facilitate better broadband planning and deployment. Communities complain to me that they receive incomplete and confusing information from providers.
Recently, I received an illustrative email from an always optimistic tech-savvy broadband advocate in St. Louis County. In the email, she talks hopefully about pending improvements in her area in which Frontier staff are promoting broadband availability in the 40 Mb range. Later in the same email, she relays the story of her friend in the Lindstrom exchange whose service has been upgraded up to 16 Mb/1 Mb via CAF II improvements. When this customer asked the tech why they can’t deliver the promised 25 Mb/3 Mb, the tech said – Sorry, no can do. You are more than ½ mile from the DSLAM. As in many industries, sales and operations offer very different perspectives.
On the other hand, In at least three OBD Border to Border grants, CenturyLink and Frontier are using CAF II funds in combination with state funds to deploy enhanced services. In two townships in Chisago County, CenturyLink required township funds to supplement DEED funds to deploy a Fiber to the Home network, easily capable of meeting the 2026 state goal.
Ultimately, the answer to the GPS 45:93 leaders is – No, your problem is not solved. Your maps may turn some red areas to purple, but not to green. There is more work to do.”
This study provides a place for community leaders to start understanding what will be deployed in their area. If they want better than the standard offering, they will need to work with their incumbent providers – or prospective providers to get the infrastructure that will turn their map green.
Caf II Study Presentation by Bill Coleman
Impact of CAF II – funded
Lessons From Two Rural Minnesota
Exchanges Left Underserved
Why Do This
• GPS 45:93 request
• CAF II Uncertainty
• Approach and draft report peer reviewed by
equipment vendors, telecom engineers and
• CenturyLink and Frontier declined opportunity
to correct or substantially comment
• Study design likely to overstate services since
zones are measured “as crow flies”
• Any unidentified utility boxes in ROW were
counted as DSLAMs
DSL Speed over Distance
• DSL speeds decline rapidly
over a relatively short
• Up to 80 Mb at the fiber-
• Approximately 25 Mb/3
Mb at 1 km or 3,280 feet
• Approximately 10 Mb/1
Mb at 3 km or 10,000 feet
• Increasing capacity
• Vectoring within 3,000
• Pair bonding
• Decreasing capacity
• Copper quality
• Non-direct line routes
• Both CenturyLink and Frontier are using CAF II dollars to deploy
Fiber to the Node technology in support of distance-sensitive DSL
• Even after CAF II investment, the vast majority of the property
within these two exchanges are more than 3,000 feet from a fiber-
fed DSL node, generally limiting the bandwidth available to
customers to something less than the 2022 state broadband goal of
25 Mb/3 Mb
• It is unlikely that any customers in the rural portions of these
exchanges will be able to receive broadband services that meet the
2026 Minnesota broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb without
additional provider investment
• Community broadband advocates lack clear understanding of
extent and timing of provider plans
Study available at:
Community Technology Advisors