County hires new fiber teamThe Lake County Board of Commissioners wasted no time in hiring a new management team for its fiber-to-home telecommunications network
The Lake County Board of Commissioners wasted no time in hiring a new management team for its fiber-to-home telecommunications network. On Tuesday the board hired Jeff Roiland as the project manager. He is from Willmar and ran that city’s En-Tel Communications network for 12 years. He will be assisted by Gene South, the longtime CEO of Lakedale Communications in Annandale, which covered a wide swath of communities in west central Minnesota south of St. Cloud.
“These two rose to the top right away,” said county coordinator Matt Huddleston. He said there were at least 40 people knocking on the county’s door to offer the service.
Roiland and South were recommended by the board’s committee for the project that will make available high-speed internet, television and phone service to all residents in Lake County and part of St. Louis County currently on the electrical grid.
The hires come two weeks after the board cut ties with National Public Broadband, its consultant for two years on the project and the team that crafted the federal application for funds. The board could not agree on a long-term contract with NPB and also dropped the company it had hired to install the network.
Huddleston, in a press release providing background on the two men, said “Roiland and South were the county’s first choice to keep the project moving forward because of their proven record of brining voice, video, and internet to rural communities of Minnesota.”
Lake County is the only government body in the country bringing such high-speed service to its entire constituency. It is backed by a $56 million loan and $10 million grant from the Department of Agriculture and its Rural Utilities Services branch. It’s part of a federal push to bring more up-to-date telecommunications to rural parts of the county.
The county decided earlier this month to put in its own money on the project, up to $3.5 million. It had tried to bond for the money but high interest rates and urging from the RUS changed the plan.
The county did not go “all in” with the hires because the structure of the development team may change after Roiland and South scrutinize the project.
Roiland’s contract is for three months, through May 15, at $16,000 a month plus expenses. His role is defined as “efficiently managing the construction of the network” by “procuring and supervising engineering, accounting, construction” and other services. He is also the connection with the RUS and will steer the marketing and long-term operation of the network.
South’s consulting term is for one year at $3,000 a month plus expenses. He called the project “exciting” because there is so little high-speed service in the area. “It’s a fantastic project.”
Roiland and South once worked together at Lakedale in Annandale. When Willmar wanted to start a cable internet project 10 years ago, Roiland got the job. It eventually became a fiber optic network offering video, phone, and internet service. Lakedale was a majority owner of En-Tel and South served as the upstarts president.
Both men lost their positions when Lakedale and then En-Tel were swallowed up by larger corporation, first Iowa Telecom and then Windstream.
Roiland said he was “out looking for work” when the changes meant he had no job in December. The Lake County project will take all of his time. “I’m not affiliated with any other company,” he said Wednesday.
Both contract costs are part of the overall $70 million budget for the project.
The RUS was not thrilled with the county continuing its relationship with NPB and Ledcor. Board members were taken aback by media reports in December outlining the troubles at Burlington Telecom in Vermont, a company once managed by NPB CEO Tim Nulty.
A tense relationship between county board members and NPB ensued and finally came to a halt when terms could not be agreed on with a long-term management contract.
Roiland and South have extensive experience with the RUS, especially South, Huddleston said. He has long been a proponent of locally-owned telecommunications companies and has served in national and regional associations.
Roiland said he will take an estimate of where the project is right now and decide how to proceed. He and South are talking with engineers about the design of the network and developing a marketing plan similar to other projects in the state.
Roiland called it a “discovery phase.” He said the design of the fiber optic system will likely be started from scratch. He said it will also be key to work closely with potential customers and the other government bodies in the project area.
“There’s a lot of stuff on the plate,” Roiland said. He said he also understands the plight of private telecoms operating in the region. He was one of them, he said, and it’s slightly odd to be working with government on a project. He said working with Lake County officials so far has been a “blessing” and they “actually listen” when the project is discussed.
Construction for the system is expected to begin this spring.
Roiland knows the historic nature of the project. He said it would be similar to what he saw in Willmar. “It changes the community and its outlook,” he said. “It’s the consumers who will win.”
If you go
Lake County board members are planning a series of public meetings to explain the basics of the fiber-to-home project that will bring internet, phone, and television service to most homes in the county and parts of St. Louis County. The county will also talk about where the project is today and its recent decisions.
6:30 p.m. Two Harbors, Law Enforcement Center
6:30 p.m. Silver Bay, part of committee of the whole meeting at city hall
An Ely-Fall Lake area meeting has yet to be scheduled.