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North Dakota IT council sets out to map, improve state’s broadband infrastructure

FARGO — As high-speed Internet service grows in importance for people and businesses, a North Dakota organization has set its sights on expanding access and affordability.

The Information Technology Council of North Dakota, an 88-member group representing Internet service providers and large users, is moving ahead with an initiative aimed at identifying and potentially alleviating broadband issues throughout the state.

Known as the Dakota Fiber Initiative, the concept stems from a challenge issued this year by Doug Burgum, Arthur Ventures co-founder and former Great Plains Software/

Microsoft executive, during a technology conference in Fargo.

Burgum’s “Vision 2015” called for North Dakota to capitalize on its economic success by using public-private partnerships to make the state’s Internet speed and bandwidth infrastructure the best in the world by 2015 — creating an environment that would attract new businesses and ease expansion of existing ones.

At its October meeting, the ITCND’s board of directors agreed to champion a modified version of Burgum’s challenge, noting that it fits with the group’s goal of encouraging access to affordable, state-of-the-art IT services for all North Dakotans.

The group set a course to achieve “world class” speed and infrastructure throughout the state via a phased plan. It would begin with an assessment of the state’s current broadband infrastructure, user demands and economic impact, potentially followed by a pilot project in downtown Fargo.

Completing those items is expected to cost about $75,000, and the group plans to move ahead with the project only after it obtains full funding through pledges from ITCND members and other parties.

Contributors will receive a seat on the initiative’s advisory board, providing them the opportunity to help direct future phases of the project, which could include additional pilot sites and implementing a statewide fiber network.

Why Fargo?

ITCND President Gary Inman, who is spearheading the initiative, has taken on the role of educating stakeholders and raising money for the project.

Inman said initial reactions from economic developers and stakeholders throughout the state have been positive, albeit with skepticism over the choice of Fargo as a pilot site. However, he said that after people see the statistics for Internet in Fargo compared to elsewhere in the state, it becomes clear why North Dakota’s largest city was selected as a starting point.

Data available from Ookla, a globally recognized broadband testing network, shows a distinct difference in Internet speed and cost for Fargo compared to other North Dakota cities, including neighboring West Fargo.

On Nov. 10, for example, Ookla showed Fargo’s download speed at about 16 megabits per second, compared to 24 Mpbs in West Fargo. Meanwhile, users were enjoying nearly 27 Mpbs in Grand Forks and about 29 Mpbs in Bismarck.

For today’s average user, a minimum of 10 Mpbs would adequately support most activities. However, 50 Mpbs is considered fairly standard high-speed bandwidth. By comparison, 1 gigabit per second, the equivalent of 1,024 Mpbs, is the intiative’s initial bandwidth target for a fully deployed fiber network, in anticipation of rapidly increasing bandwidth demands.

Fargo users also are paying significantly more for Internet access, according to the Ookla index. The Nov. 10 data showed Fargo paying about $5 per Mbps, compared to about $1.50 in Grand Forks.

Aside from speed and cost issues, ITCND selected Fargo for its pilot site based on the fact that while rural telecommunications providers have access to federal funds to support fiber network installations, urban providers are not offered the same level of financial aid. Therefore, while notable headway has been made in expanding fiber networks to rural areas — including 100 percent high-speed coverage areas in some parts of the state — there is no such example in North Dakota cities.

“There’s actually a significant amount of fiber already in the ground all across the state and a couple of pockets that are already in this 100 percent mode, where we’d like the entire state to get to,” Inman said. “We already know what a rural piece of this would look like. We don’t know fully what the urban part would be.”

Affordability test

Service providers say they are willing to support the initiative, but argue that Fargo’s connectivity issue is not from a lack of infrastructure. They believe users are simply either unaware of the services available or choose not to pay for high-speed connections.

“You could invest hundreds of millions of dollars to give every place in Fargo accessibility to 1 gigabit Internet, but not every building will be occupied by people who are willing to pay for it,” said Brian Crommett, sales and service manager for 702 Communications. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think Fargo will explode into this technology haven just because there’s fast Internet there.”

Crommett also said Ookla data may be somewhat misleading because it reports the median speed of actual use rather than availability. Therefore, while 50 Mbps is widely available throughout the city, if the majority of users purchase plans with less bandwidth, the overall speed test ratings would reflect that lower speed.

“If our (Ookla) results are coming back under 20 Mpbs, it means people aren’t buying 50,” he said. “It’s not that they can’t get it. It’s that they aren’t paying for it.”

Installing fiber networks involves a substantial upfront investment by service providers in any environment. In urban areas, however, the complexities of installing around existing infrastructure, combined with a sometimes lengthy permitting processes, can make installation particularly difficult and costly.

Crommett said it costs providers about $15 per foot to install fiber in Fargo, so providing fiber service to a multi-block area downtown could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. Providers are willing to front the cost if they are guaranteed a market, but if it is unknown whether users in a building will sign up for service or if several providers are trenching in fiber to the same building, the potential to recoup those costs is greatly reduced. For that reason, Crommett said providers support the initiative’s goal of mapping “lit” buildings in downtown Fargo and highlighting areas that may need service, although he believes those areas will be few.

“We think it’s to every service provider’s benefit that the business community at large knows where the fiber is in town now and perhaps help us to identify areas that are underserved,” he said. “I know there are areas on the outskirts of town that don’t have access to high-speed, but I think everybody will be surprised to see how many buildings could have 1 gigabit Internet if they were interested in paying for it.”

Burgum suggested in his Vision 2015 that cash-rich North Dakota could financially support fiber network installation, either by paying to install it or subsidizing the cost for providers, in order to expand accessibility and reduce consumers’ cost.

The Information Technology Council of North Dakota says it is exploring all options for private and/or public funding.

Gearing up for 1G

Inman, the council president, emphasizes that the initiative’s overall goal is not just to improve access now, but to anticipate future needs and ensure that user demands are met at an affordable price.

It remains to be determined what qualifies as “world-class speed” now or five years from now, or at what cost users would deem high-speed service affordable, but Inman hopes to identify those specifics during an initial analysis.

He said the analysis will include discussions with the state’s agriculture, energy and health care industries and will also take into consideration future reliability of overall transmission infrastructure. He anticipates setting goals for high-speed availability expansions and cost-reduction measures after the analysis is complete, perhaps as early as mid- to late January.

Travis Durick, broadband technology manager for North Dakota’s IT department, said the current state of broadband availability in the state is not bad, but it could be improved. For the past two years, Durick has served as program manager for the state’s federally funded broadband mapping project, which provides a general look at broadband availability throughout the state. He’s witnessed significant broadband expansion projects come to fruition in that time and believes high-speed access is improving overall, but he supports the Dakota Fiber Initiative and its mission to map broadband access on a more granular scale.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “There are lots of community-oriented programs in the country looking at similar problems. It’s fun to see the business community get involved and start voicing their opinions as far as what they want to see in the future.”

Durick also said he appreciates that equal emphasis is being given to upload and download speeds.

“Download speed has been the focus for a long time, but upload speed is becoming more and more important,” he said. “Internet connections are becoming less about content consumption and more about interaction — sending your video and content out has become just as important as seeing other content. I think that’s even more true in a business scenario — Internet collaborations, Internet conferencing — being able to leverage those connections is even more important for business.”

Crommett said that as bandwidth demands increase, so too will protocols to reduce the amount of bandwidth necessary for high-speed activities. Service providers are nonetheless intent on installing infrastructure to provide the highest-speed access possible to those who want it, he said.

“The future is fiber and the future is gigabit, and that’s what we are all working towards right now.”