Editorial: Keep eyes on our fiber prizeIn its efforts to launch a unique broadband fiber project in the region, Lake County has hit an early snag in the connection between the group it is partnering with, National Public Broadband, and a public service in Vermont under fire for its inability to turn a profit and accounting that has put $17 million in public funds at risk.
In its efforts to launch a unique broadband fiber project in the region, Lake County has hit an early snag in the connection between the group it is partnering with, National Public Broadband, and a public service in Vermont under fire for its inability to turn a profit and accounting that has put $17 million in public funds at risk.
Tim Nulty, CEO of NPB, was the general manager of Burlington Telecom until 2007. How much responsibility he had in the troubles for the company is now being debated in Vermont.
He made his point last week to the Lake County Board of Commissioners, reiterating that the telecom was on course to profitability when he left and that poor management of the accounting books led to its $50 million debt today.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the particulars of what happened in Vermont and the investigations into the accounting by the city. For Lake County, it’s more important to focus on where the public fiber project is going here and how Nulty’s connection could affect it.
NPB made a mistake, and Chief Financial Officer Gary Fields admitted it last week. It should have been more forthcoming about Nulty’s connection to the Vermont debacle, no matter how tenuous or germain it deemed the connection.
Like the debate over whether the meetings being held to draw up the rollout plans for the county should be public or private, NPB needs to better apply the rules of working within the expectations of open government. We demand transparency and a full accounting of tax dollars.
It’s fair to wonder, as some board members did last week, just what NPB would withhold from the board if things don’t go swimmingly with the Lake County plan. All adjustments, all bumps along the road, need to be publicly and fully discussed.
The county can use NPB’s disclosure mistake to its advantage, by holding NPB’s feet to the fire on all elements of the fiber rollout plan. If NPB can convince the board that this early communication snafu is the last, members would be right to keep moving forward with the project by permanently partnering with NPB.
Until this month, the county has worked with NPB on a month-to-month basis. Should the board decide to not go with NPB, it could find itself in a scramble to keep the federal loan and grant that make the project possible.
Another option, of course, would be to ask Nulty to walk away from NPB, which he has said he would do if asked. That might fly for those only worried about constant hounding about Nulty’s connections in Vermont but seems a mere Band-Aid to the larger task of making sure NPB is an institution that is a viable partner.
Is Lake County over a barrel? Are they stuck with NPB, having gone so far with them the past two years? Perhaps. But if it can pound away at its partner about lessons learned and get quantitative assurances about full disclosure, there is no reason the project shouldn’t go on as planned.
It’s obvious, here and around the country, that private cable and Internet providers are skeptical, and sometimes downright hostile, to public broadband plans. That’s understandable in a competitive market, especially in the more populated areas of the country.
And when one of those public plans begins to fail, like Burlington Telecom, it becomes a feeding frenzy. We saw plenty of people pouncing on the connection to National Public Broadband but little analysis of what is actually happening in Vermont and Nulty’s connection.
It’s fair to raise a red flag. It’s not fair to then blindly besmirch the intentions or integrity of Lake County’s plan.
The driver for the county plan is to get service to rural areas where there are little to no choices for service. It’s no different than plans in the past to get phone and electrical service to farms in the country. The federal government spurred the action, and eventually those places got the service they had a right to expect.
The bluster of complaints from the private companies already providing Internet, phone, and television service in the region is all but expected. And we take stock in their sincerity about making sure the public isn’t getting fleeced and the project will eventually be a boon for the coverage area by providing jobs and inducing high-tech businesses to call Lake and St. Louis counties home.
You can’t begrudge the services already in place. But we can do better and Lake County is taking a lead on getting up-to-date, enviable technology to the region. Those who depend on higher-speed, dependable Internet have been looking for someone to step up.
Last year’s line break that put cell phone, landline phone, and Internet service out for much of the North Shore was just one of the inadequacies put in the spotlight. The question to ask is this: How long are we supposed to wait for private companies to bring proper service to the area and what do those hoping to boost the economic footprint of the area tell companies who are demanding better service?
Private companies certainly have a friend in the current political climate. Comments on stories in Minnesota and Vermont newspaper Web sites show a wary populace when it comes to government running anything efficiently or entities using stimulus money for broadband projects. Let the market rule, they say, and eventually we will all be wired.
It’s not happening, and the government is right to once again spark the flame of reasonable access for all.
Some bemoan the cost of the project but should remember that this isn’t free money. There is about $10 million in a grant from the Rural Utilities Service but the bulk of the $70 million project comes from a federal loan ($56 million) and bonding ($4 million). Yes, those are big numbers, and it’s a tall order for the county to make the project viable with an ability to pay back those funds through a sound service that customers want.
It’s also a dangerous game to simply look at the existing population when gauging how many customers would take the new service. A large part of the push for better service in the region is the ability to attract emerging companies that depend on quality Internet and other connectivity to thrive.
Michael Stiff runs a document imaging and data storage business in Duluth, Hybridge Imaging, but would love to take his business to Two Harbors, where he lives. He can only do that if the infrastructure is there for high-speed fiber connections.
“Without it, we’re handcuffed,” he said. “We have wanted to move our business to Two Harbors for a number of years but have been reluctant due to poor Internet service speed and bandwidth.”
Stiff said he would like to see the fiber project installed “sooner than later.”
“I strongly believe that this new digital environment will empower businesses and stimulate educational growth to students, families, and seniors.”
It’s a noble goal and one everyone should support the county in trying to achieve. Let’s focus on the issues on the ground here and make sure we get the quality services that is being bandied before us.
There are many hills to climb in the coming years and we’ll be keeping the project on task through triumph and travail. It’s a daunting task for those putting this public project together and we expect no less effort on the part of residents to make sure they do it right.