Willmar seeks to expand fiber broadband resources, gives staff clearance to explore potential project – West Central Tribune

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WILLMAR — If there’s been a buzzword in Kandiyohi County over the past few months, it could be broadband.

The County Council and Economic Development Commission for Kandiyohi County and the Town of Willmar have worked hard to bring high-speed broadband projects to areas of the county that are either underserved or unserved. Most of these projects will be fiber to the home, the best internet technology available.

As Kandiyohi County tries to close its broadband gaps, some Willmar residents fear they will be left behind. While city residents and businesses can get a version of high-speed internet, it could end up being lower quality than rural areas may soon have.

“The plan being worked out by the county was going to leave Willmar in a deficit. Willmar was going to have worse internet than construction in the rest of the county,” Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said at the council meeting. from Monday, adding that residential internet in Willmar is woefully below what it should and needs to be.

Although Calvin and the rest of the council have supported the county’s internet plans, he also doesn’t want the city to be left behind. Neither did Judge Walker, the city’s director of planning and development.

“I see this as something that will be fundamental in improving and maintaining the quality of life for residents of Willmar,” Walker said.

Judge Walker

Over the past few months, he’s spoken to internet providers in Willmar, asking if they’re considering building a fiber optic network to the town’s home network and what their timeline might be. The responses he got were not encouraging.

“Some people said it just wasn’t doable and they had no intention of doing it,” Walker said. “Or they had an existing footprint but it wasn’t for residents and only open for business.”

This response led Walker to VIBRANT Broadband, part of the Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association, on a project that would bring a fiber internet line the 19 miles from Atwater to Willmar Industrial Park. The city could then use this fiber line as the backbone of an urban fiber network to extend fiber-to-the-home opportunities to residents, perhaps as early as next year. Walker said there are currently no plans for Kandiyohi County that would bring fiber broadband to Willmar.

A draft letter of intent and contract with the company provides that Willmar will pay approximately 80% of the estimated $1.25 million project, or no more than $1 million. Walker said the money could come from the city’s Industrial Park Fund, though discussions could also be held about using money from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act.

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Willmar/Kandiyohi County Economic Development Executive Aaron Backman

“It’s a significant commitment from the city to use the million dollars,” said EDC executive director Aaron Backman. “It’s a smart move to consider, to bring broadband to the city, so we can (have) options in terms of providers.”

Backman also asked council to consider expanding the project to include Willmar Municipal Airport, which currently does not have fiber broadband access. It would be a boon for pilots and businesses that use the airport, Backman said. That would add about two miles to the project.

“I think it would take the airport to the next level,” Backman said.

The board gave Walker its approval to continue working with VIBRANT on a project for Willmar. No contracts or projects were approved Monday night, just the OK to continue ironing out a potential deal with the internet service provider.

“If a community wants to be at the forefront or at the forefront of a growing commercial or industrial community, this would be a practical step in that direction,” Councilor Andrew Plowman said.

The council discussed who would own the fiber line and whether others would be able to connect to the Willmar-funded fiber line. Walker said fine details would be ironed out between the city and VIBRANT before a formal agreement is brought to the council table for possible approval.

Calvin said he was really excited about what this project could bring to Willmar. Walker was commended for his initiative to start addressing this issue, as was VIBRANT for his willingness to work with the town of Willmar.

“It’s a huge step forward for Willmar. It levels the playing field,” Calvin said.

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