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Sibley County Withdraws from RS Fiber GON in MN

November 7, 2012

Back in September we reported that Minnesota residents waiting for a community-owned broadband to take shape would have to wait a little longer as RS Fiber delayed construction for six months. Earlier this week Minnesota Public Radio that one of the two counties that was to participate in the network has decided to out.

According to MPR the Sibley County Board of Commissioners voted to withdraw from the project, citing “concerns with the RS Fiber business plan and the upcoming bond sale that would pay for the project.”

One commissioner noted the community would clearly benefit from increased broadband, but that the risks of this particular approach were too high. Commissioner Jim Nytes said, “I wish we could get this thing working. But in the end, (we) five have to stand up and be responsible. When I was campaigning I said, ‘I will not raise the taxes on grandma; she can’t afford any more.’” According to Nytes, the county already struggles to build and maintain its roads and has “plenty of budget problems.” Nytes feared RS Fiber would add to those troubles, ultimately leading to tax increases. Nytes continued, “This thing has blown completely out of control … We can spend more money on it, but it probably won’t work. We are a small county, losing population.”

These concerns are the same ones officials in several Florida communities voiced earlier this year when their communities withdrew from the North Florida Broadband Authority, another government-owned network that had faced delays and cost overruns.

Ironically, losing potential customers in Sibley County could make RS Fiber more sustainable. According to Winthrop city administrator Mark Erickson the cost of providing broadband to the farms in Sibley County was going to be very high. Erickson told MPR, “The (cost) of the project should decrease dramatically … It should be a much better plan without the high cost rural areas.”

This acknowledgement highlights one of the points Dr. Joseph P. Fuhr made in our paper on government-owned networks issued earlier this year: while many of these community-owned networks promise universal service, due to the enormous costs of providing it, they cannot without falling deeply into debt.

The other 11 Minnesota communities – 10 towns and an additional county – that are part of RS Fiber must now have to approve the revised RS Fiber plan that omits Sibley Country. City Administrator Erikson is not sure how those votes will come out, noting some “have been unnerved by publicly-owned fiber projects that haven’t done well, such as the one in Monticello.”

We urge Nytes’ approach: caution.