Consultant completes wireless internet study

Data from community-wide surveys show frustration with online speeds in rural areas

Milaca – David Coudron of Advantenon addressed the Mille Lacs County Board at its Feb. 7 meeting to report results from a community-outreach effort regarding wireless internet access and to recap the results of a technical feasibility study.
Coudron left the ball firmly in the county’s court as he outlined the possibility of building a wireless network to serve rural residents.
“This company is very much interested in exploring Mille Lacs County,” he said.
The county hired Advantenon after it received grant funds from the Blandin Foundation for two projects: a technical analysis to determine the feasibility of a wireless network and community outreach sessions to gather information, educate people and survey users about what kind of service they might order.
Coudron had attended a previous board meeting to say the technical portion of the study showed good potential for an effective network. It works to the county’s advantage that it is geographically long and narrow, has the Highway 169 corridor and is home to a few towers taller than 200 feet.
He said the outreach study revealed quite a bit of frustration among rural users, who mostly seem to forgo internet service and just use their phones to access it or they travel to a spot with free Wi-Fi. Many rural residents use a satellite service and complain about the data limits involved with them; they either run out of access or pay an exorbitant price for a bigger limit.
Besides an online survey available to anyone, Advantenon held community-outreach sessions in Princeton, Milaca, Onamia and Wahkon plus sent 11,000 postcards to households on rural mail routes. Coudron said the company received about 738 responses from the mailing. During the in-person sessions, the company also offered education on such things as basic troubleshooting and how to measure internet speed.
He said that approximately 75 percent of the residents surveyed have an internet speed of around 2 megabits per second (Mbps), which falls well below the state standard, which by 2022 is slated to be 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. People complained a lot about the extra time spent waiting on video and streaming TV to buffer – for example, it takes three hours to watch a 90-minute movie.
Survey data show how people use the internet in Mille Lacs County: 98 percent for social networking, surfing the web and emailing; 91 percent for online shopping; 86 percent for online banking; 73 percent to get online entertainment; 46 percent for student access; 41 percent for gaming; 31 percent for telecommuting to work; 19 percent for operating a business; 16 percent for “telehealth” services; and less than 1 percent of those surveyed said they don’t use the internet at all.
Coudron said the outreach effort included a question about what people would order if service were available now. The somewhat hypothetical choices were 4 Mbps for $46 per month, 10 mbps for $69 and 25 Mbps for $99.
He commented, “$60 is the sweet spot for internet cost,” and speculated that the majority of people would order the 10 Mbps service.
He said some people have a digital subscriber line but experience limitations as they move away from the plug. Coudron said people seem especially frustrated by satellite internet, and nearly all customers felt that they don’t get the speeds they pay for. For example, people pay for a speed of 13 Mbps with tests showing speeds of only about 6.5 Mbps.
“That is a significant frustration for folks,” he said.
The commissioners asked why that is and how it happens. Coudron said the reasons why someone does not get the speed they expect are usually listed within the service provider’s terms and conditions and may include everything from tree cover to tower locations. In addition, and especially in rural areas, there isn’t much competition to stimulate the market and lower pricing.
The commissioners had asked Coudron a few weeks ago about potential costs of a system after he’d presented the technical feasibility study report. Advantenon roughly estimated costs of a system to serve the entire county at about $2.5 million.
At the conclusion of Coudron’s presentation, County Administrator Pat Oman said, “This will be an ongoing work session item as we continue discussions.”