Local Government Funding for Fiber

There is an interesting new trend where local government acts as the banker for rural broadband projects. It’s an interesting new twist on public / private partnerships and is a model that more communities should consider.

Consider these rural broadband projects in Minnesota.

  • First is RS Fiber. This is a new broadband cooperative that serves most of Sibley County and some of Renville County in Minnesota. Bonds were approved to fund 25% of a broadband project and those bonds are backed by the counties, some small cities and also by townships that are getting the fiber. The expectation is that the project will make the bond payments.
  • Next is in Swift County Minnesota. Federated Telephone Cooperative, an existing telephone company, was awarded $4.95 million to build fiber to rural homes in the county. The county approved general obligation bonds of $7.8 million to complete the project, or 60% of the funding.

Both projects are classic examples of a public private partnership. In these particular cases the company that will own and operate the network is a cooperative, but these same agreements could have been made with a for-profit telco or some other telecom provider as well.

These kinds of projects make sense for a number of reasons:

  • The process of approving bond financing is far faster than securing traditional funding for these kinds of projects.
  • Bonds for fiber can be financed over a long period of time – 20 to 30 years, while loan terms for commercial loans are usually shorter. Just like with a home mortgage, borrowing for a longer time period means lower annual debt payments, which is essential to make these projects financially feasible.

In both cases the Counties and other local government entities have taken on the role of banker. The local governments will have no operational role in running the fiber business (a role they did not want). The Counties expect for the bond payments to be covered by the fiber project. And since these networks are being built in rural areas with few other broadband alternatives the new fiber ventures should get high customer penetration rates. But if the ventures fail then the local governments are on the hook to cover any shortfalls in the bond payments.

These are both cases of local governments deciding that the need for rural broadband was great enough to risk taxpayer money to get this done. They also decided that the risk of not getting paid is low. The business cases show that even in the worst case the revenues from the projects should cover almost all costs, meaning that the downside risk to the Counties is minimal. In the case of RS Fiber, as a start-up new cooperative, they would not have been able to get any traditional funding without the seed money from the local governments.

This is a model that the rest of rural America should consider. Small ISPs like these cooperatives stand ready to serve a lot of rural America, but they often don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so. In these cases, a public private partnership with local government as the banker seemed to be the only way to make this happen.

Everywhere I travel in rural America homeowners and farmers want good broadband. They understand that it’s costly to build fiber to farms and small rural towns. But they also seem willing to help pay to make this work. I think if more rural counties would listen to their constituents they would take a harder look at this model.

Of course, a county needs to do their homework up front and make sure they know it’s a sound project and that the estimated cost of building the broadband network is accurate. But assuming there is a solid business plan, perhaps the most valuable role a county can tackle is that of being the banker to help new broadband builds get off the ground