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Broadband: Not so fast

A Winona-based communications company's hopes of securing federal stimulus dollars to build a fiber optic network in southeastern Minnesota took a big hit last week.

In recent months, Hiawatha Broadband Communications has stated publicly its intent to build a fiber optic network spanning from Lake City to Red Wing to Cannon Falls and the surrounding townships.

Red Wing city officials threw their weight behind HBC's proposal, as they'd been looking to build a citywide fiber-optic network of their own. City officials say high-speed Internet would help entice companies to move to Red Wing and would benefit the local hospital and schools.

HBC had hoped to secure $16 million from the $7.2 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for broadband projects.

The setback came last week when the federal agencies released their definition of broadband - as part of the rules for applying for stimulus dollars.

@Sub heads:Broadband vs. fiber optics

@Normal: While broadband generally refers high-speed Internet, it has been a rather subjective term.

The federal government's recent definition sets the bar very low, according to HBC President Gary Evans and city officials.

The U.S. Department of Commerce defines broadband as "Internet with advertised speeds of at least 768 kilobits per second (kbps) downstream and at least 200 kbps upstream."

"That would be slightly better than dial-up," Evans said, adding there's no comparison to what the government is calling broadband and what HBC wants to provide via a fiber optic network.

"That would be like comparing a turtle race to an Indy car race," he said.

@Sub heads: Definition decides who gets funding

@Normal: The reason HBC and city officials are hung up on the broadband definition is that companies must show that an area is underserved in order to receive stimulus dollars.

But because copper lines - the technology most commonly used for providing Internet - can provide Internet speeds capable of meeting the government's definition of broadband, much of the local area won't be deemed as underserved.

As such, HBC's hope of receiving $16 million for its projects has vanished.

"This has all kind of spun (HBC) around," said Laura Blair, Red Wing's information and technology director. A longtime advocate of installing a fiber-optic network in Red Wing, Blair has been in close contact with the company.

Evans said despite the setback, HBC isn't giving up on its application.

In an effort to garner as much stimulus funding as it can, the company will try to show there are pockets - in Red Wing and the other cities and in the surrounding townships - that are underserved areas according to the federal definition.

"If we could get as much as 50 percent (of the project's funding) into a stimulus application, we'd be reasonably confident we could get the job done," Evans said.

The company's application is due August 14. It expects to find out if it will receive funding by early October, Evans said.