Article examines success of city-run broadband project

The Greater Minnesota Partnership is working toward a variety of broadband reforms that would benefit businesses and economic development in Greater Minnesota. A few communities have already sought to improve their broadband service by providing it themselves, despite a lack of state support. Below is an article describing one such effort in the city of Windom.

This article was published in the March 2014 edition of The MMUA Resource, the official publication of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association.

A closer look at Windomnet project reveals rapidly growing success

The City of Windom’s fiber-to-the-premise project—known as Windomnet—was criticized as a failed project by a private telephone company employee at a March 4 public meeting on the RS Fiber project, but in fact Windom made money last year and is poised to be a great success.

WindomNet built its system in 2004 and started hooking up customers in 2005. Demand was so high that it led to increased costs early on.

“Our original plan was for 1,400 service drops,” said WindomNet General Manager Dan Olsen. “We put in 2,200. When you’re successful, the problem is you have to buy a lot more capital equipment.”

In fact, demand has far outstripped initial projections, with approximately 95 percent of city residents taking at least one of the three services: phone, cable TV or internet. Windomnet has provided numerous benefits to residents, schools, health care, business and industry in the city and surrounding region. And the enterprise finished last year with $22,000 more in revenues than expenses.

Windomnet now provides services to numerous large telecommunications carriers, partnering to provide various services. Windom is becoming a ‘meet point’ for many carriers, who operate in widespread markets and service large customers. It also operates as a ‘carrier hotel,’ providing interconnection service to multiple tenants.   It also partners with several private carriers to offer direct access to large clients in the WindomNet service territory and other areas.  The City of Windom is also oo-Located in the 511 Building in Minneapolis.

“For someone who is doing badly, we sure are connected,” Olsen said.

A proposed data and co-location addition to the Windom Network Operations Center (NOC) is being presented at the next Telecom Commission meeting, as Windom is outgrowing its current NOC.

Economic development successes

But WindomNet was created for local service.

The latest economic development success involves the purchase, by Fast, of three lots in a new city industrial park. The manufacturer of agricultural applicators and sprayers is building a 144,000 square foot production facility. The company, which will employ 90 people, needed a sizable broadband connection.

Another notable economic development story involves Fortune Trucking, which has a Windom corporate office and a New Mexico maintenance terminal. Brokers for the company have to track trucks in real time and determine the closest truck to a customer seeking a quote, within minutes, to accurately price services.

The company is located a mile and half outside of Windom. Fortune installed a new, $30,000 phone system in 2010 and despite earlier assurances, a large multi-state phone provider then said it couldn’t deliver services needed for the new system to provide full benefit.

Unhappy at this point, company owner Don Olson, then president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, told city officials that if Fortune didn’t get the telecom services it needed it would move to Roswell. Six weeks later the City of Windom had fiber optic cable run to the company and was providing the necessary services.

Toro has a large manufacturing plant in Windom. It initially requested 100 MB service. Last year it asked for 1,000 MB. Windomnet upgraded the service, removing the old equipment and using it elsewhere on the system. The Windom Toro plant has faster internet service than company locations in the Twin Cities. Last year, in a shaky economy, 75 new jobs were added at the Windom plant.

TORO is a great anchor company for the Windom economy, Olsen said, and WindomNet maintains a great relationship with the company. When TORO needs an upgraded circuit, they make one phone call and the upgraded service is provided, even the same day.

Windom has offered internet speed up to one gigabit for the last seven years. Plans are underway and engineering complete to offer 10 gig service in the Windom market to business.

“A gigbit circuit is not available from others,” Olsen said. “(Customers) just call us and we turn them up the same day.”

WindomNet has also been a boon to the Windom Area Hospital. The hospital dates from 1905 but was taken over by the city and re-built in 1975. In 1989 the hospital entered into a management relationship with Sanford Health of Sioux Falls. A previous contractual obligation kept the city-owned hospital tied to another carrier for a couple years. But with the new municipal service, reading X-rays, heart monitors, and MRIs is often done remotely, due to reliable, high-speed internet connections. Doctors, in some cases, video-conference with patients. The facility has 315 phone numbers and those costs were reduced with Windomnet service, which also eliminated the need for long-distance phone lines.

WindomNet was created following a Nov. 7, 2000 referendum that garnered a 70 percent ‘yes’ vote. The utility connected its first customers in 2005.

WindomNet has built out the fiber system to 11 other communities in its area. Service in those communities is being provided by Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services (SMBS), headquartered in Lakefield. Like WindomNet, SMBS offers a superior product and customer service, and also provides local programming.

The City of Windom has provided Cable TV for 30 years and this year’s budget includes $230,000 for capital improvements to the cable TV system alone.