Superior, Duluth is looking for a route to faster, cheaper internet service

“Currently, Spectrum is the only broadband service provider in Duluth. They know it and your bills show it. Spectrum even raised prices in the event of a pandemic – and this community, held hostage, had no choice but to pay or forgo access, ”she said in her speech on the state of the city earlier this month.

“It’s unacceptable. Personally, I think it’s immoral,” Larson said.

Spectrum spokesperson Kimberly Noetzel responded to Larson’s criticism with a statement defending the company’s service.

“The point is, Spectrum Internet is available in the overwhelming majority of the city, at startup speeds of 100 megabits per second with nationally consistent prices and no data caps, modem fees or contracts,” she wrote.

Regarding accessibility, Noetzel noted, “We have been providing low-cost broadband service to eligible families and seniors for just $ 17.99 / month – and it has been available in Duluth for four years. And we responded to the pandemic by connecting 450,000 students, teachers and their families – who did not have broadband service – for 60 days, free of charge; protect 700,000 customers from disconnection due to economic hardships related to COVID-19; and forgive $ 85 million in outstanding customer balances.

But Larson is unimpressed and has offered the city to spend $ 1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds “to entice new service providers to enter the market” and compete with Spectrum.

Connect Superior

Meanwhile, across the river in Superior, aggressive efforts to spur competition from Spectrum in the twin ports take even clearer form. In a listening session Thursday night, representatives from EntryPoint Networks outlined plans to potentially build an open access fiber optic network at Superior at an estimated cost of around $ 31 million.

The Salt Lake City, Utah-based company has been working with the City of Superior for a few years now, and EnterPoint President Jeff Christensen explained how the proposed fiber-optic system, called Connect Superior, would work.

He compared an open access network to a shared road system “where you have a freeway and then you allow all traffic to cross that freeway”.

“It’s a robust digital route, and it’s open, in this case, to any ISP (Internet service provider) that will follow the rules,” Christensen said.

For its part, the city would require users of this fiber optic network to pay a toll or a fee that would be used to help pay for the costs of building and maintaining the system.

The fiber optic cable is shown on a spool in a storage area.  Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

The fiber optic cable is shown on a spool in a storage area. Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

Christensen said the fiber network would provide customers with speeds of 1 gigabit per second for downloads and downloads, likely at a monthly cost of around $ 50, to the nearest 10%. He said the network would need a minimum of around 3,000 subscribers to be sustainable and would likely easily exceed that threshold.

Superior’s neighbor to the west is watching closely, though Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s executive director, conceded, “We’re not that far along.

“We’re still looking at all of the options available,” including the idea of ​​a city-owned fiber-optic infrastructure, said Schuchman.

Need an intervention?

Annette Meeks, founder and CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, however, advises officials at Duluth and Superior to proceed with caution.

For starters, it challenges the claim that Twin Ports lack adequate broadband competition.

“Duluth is not held hostage by a single supplier. You have several suppliers. You have, from what I’ve been told, excellent satellite service. I haven’t been to Duluth since the pandemic, but I haven’t had any issues in Duluth, ”she said.

But Jodi Slick, founder and CEO of Ecolibrium3, said there are places in Lincoln Park that still don’t have access to decent service, due to topographical challenges and inadequate coverage. She said the Federal Communication Commission maps showing coverage in Duluth are misleading because they are broken down by U.S. census tracts and show service in an area, even though it is not available for all properties.

Schuchman concurred with this view: “I think one of the challenges we have is that there are areas of the city that don’t have broadband, and therefore, while the city generally does. , and that we are considered “served” at this point, we also have shortcomings. It is therefore very important for the city and the community to fill these gaps and to ensure that we have an equitable distribution of this access and that it is consistent and of high quality.

Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, said the situation in the twin ports is “unfortunately a shared story among towns and cities across the United States.”

“Often, one provider will own the telephone lines, while another will own the wired lines. This creates a de facto duopoly which is one of the main obstacles to the expansion of broadband across the country, ”he said.

As to the proposition in Superior, Cooper said; “Municipal broadband as a concept is one of the most effective methods of combating this stagnation, because in places where there is a public option the prices tend to be lower and the speeds tend to be lower. higher. When a city installs a public fiber network, for example, there is a strong incentive for the private sector to upgrade existing connections such as DSL (digital subscriber lines), which no longer serve residents adequately in 2021. “

While there may be several small service providers, Chris Mitchell, director of a community broadband networking initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, said, “There is no significant competition on the market. market, and this is very clear, based on experience of trying to take service from different vendors.

“When people move, they often ask Nextdoor what service to get. And you can just watch those conversations to see what’s really available. It’s usually just the cable and phone company, and then there are also carriers that often use the infrastructure of the phone company, or they use some sort of wireless approach. But it’s generally not competitive with the high speeds families need and want, ”Mitchell said.

Role of government?

Meeks suggested that city funds could be better used to cover essential functions, such as city streets and public safety. She noted that Duluth recently increased his sales tax to help pay for street improvements.

“When you have to raise taxes to take on any of these essential functions, the last thing you should do is think about spending millions of dollars on something that is not an essential function that private industry already provides, ”she said. .

But Schuchman said that while the growing importance of internet service has been evident for some time, “The past year has really highlighted how important it is to have good, reliable access for everyone in Duluth. . “

Meeks suggested that the twin ports would be wise to learn from previous unsuccessful efforts to launch a government-owned broadband service, such as the fiber-optic network built in Lake County, then sold in 2018 for a loss of. over $ 40 million.

Contractors laid over 1,200 miles of fiber optic cables in the construction of Lake Connections, the Lake County municipal broadband project.  (News-Chronicle file)

Contractors laid over 1,200 miles of fiber optic cables in the construction of Lake Connections, the Lake County municipal broadband project. (News-Chronicle file)

“It’s like Whack-A-Mole. These bad ideas keep popping up, ”she said.

“It’s really more like ‘The Music Man’,” Meeks said. “These consultants appear in town, making overly optimistic projections not only of the need or desire, if you will, for municipal broadband, but they also dramatically exaggerate the number of subscribers you’re likely to get if you build that, ”Meeks said.


But Mitchell said the failure of the Lake County network is far from iconic. “There is a different dynamic for a low-key city like Superior and a whole very rural county. “

“The important thing is that the city takes it seriously, does its due diligence and comes up with a plan that it is comfortable with,” he said.

Mitchell pointed to the very successful system EntryPoint launched in Ammon, Idaho, and said, “It’s a model that’s so different from what Lake County has done that it’s hard to even talk about the similarities.”

Schuchman said Duluth intends to proceed thoughtfully and will not commit to some sort of timeline just yet.

“I would rather we were right than fast,” he said.

Nonetheless, Schuchman considers the efforts now underway at the Superior instructive and useful.

“It can only be helpful to see a neighboring community go through similar explorations. And it’s definitely a useful case study that we’re really watching closely and will have access to, ”he said.

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