Not everyone’s crazy about Lake County broadband

I reported the other day on some big changes with Lake County's fiber-to-the-premises broadband project.

You may recall Lake County has received a $10 million grant and a $56.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service to expand fiber optic service in the region. The money is coming through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Lake County is required to come up with another $3.5 million, making the total project a $70 million dollar venture.

We learned that Lake County is looking for a project manager, after county commissioners voted to end management negotiations with National Public Broadband; a St. Paul-based consultant that helped get the project planned and funded to this point.

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The project is supposed to bring high speed internet, television, telephone and other services to everyone in Lake County who wants it, and to include parts of nearby eastern St. Louis County. It is designed to create redundant connections which would keep the network working even were there an unfortunate line cut somewhere.

But it's not something the people at the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota like to see. They contacted me after my last report, offering a letter they're sending to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Freedom Foundation of Minnesota Vice President Jonathan Blake writes Walden of his concerns that, as Lake County has multiple private companies already providing similar services, the project represents government competing with the private sector.

Blake says taxpayers are at risk, as demonstrated by the USDA's Rural Utilities Service insistence that Lake County come up with their match. (Lake County commissioners did approve money for the project at in this week's meeting.)

Freedom Foundation officials think the project lacks oversight and accountability, as demonstrated by dismissal of both National Public Broadband and a construction contractor.

They also say the project fails to deliver on promises of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act because that it creates a total of 42 permanent jobs, while a "vast majority of residents and businesses in the project's service area already have broadband services available to them."

The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota is interested in limited government, and sees this project as an unnecessary expansion of government that hurts local business.

I've heard similar concerns from one of the area providers, Two Harbors-based Cooperative Light and Power, which provides high speed internet through its LakeNet Communications division.

But the fact is no one was bringing high-speed Internet to every resident of this rather large and sparsely populated county.

Instead, providers focused on the population centers, including the cities of Two Harbors and Silver Bay. If you lived in the woods some distance off Highway 1, you'd have little chance of ever getting a high-speed connection.

Now, I can't say whether a $70 million project is good government spending or not. And it remains to be seen how many people living in the woods are even interested in paying for a high-speed connection. Payback on that big government loan is supposed to come from user fees.

But we do rely on government for infrastructure like roads, and it's a government surtax, the Universal Connectivity Fee, that for years has paid for remote telephone infrastructure.

As much as a slam-dunk as this project may appear, it's fair to note that there's a camp that's philosophically opposed to this kind of spending; and you can count the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota among them.