US Internet’s gradual expansion of its fiber optic network across south Minneapolis has run into a roadblock: the Minneapolis Park Board.
The firm expects to offer its cheap, fast alternative to Comcast and CenturyLink to neighborhoods north of Lake Hiawatha later this year, and now expects to reach the Mississippi River some time in 2017. However, Park Board commissioners won’t let the small Internet service firm dig under parkland, preventing the firm from moving south of Minnehaha Creek, going southwest of Lake Harriet or connecting homes that face the parkway.
The problem has surfaced in recent weeks as residents along the parkway discovered it would cost the Internet company $27,000 in permit fees to bury a line to connect their home, even though neighbors just up side streets already have US Internet service.
The dispute stems from a permit request last year by the Minnetonka-based company, which parks officials derided as woefully incomplete.
Commissioners denied the permit, arguing the firm essentially hadn’t done its homework — not providing detailed plans for how and where it will dig, not proving there was no choice but to dig on park land, not providing accurate drawings for where trees stand and how the company will avoid damaging them, and not responding in a timely manner to Park Board staff questions.
Discussion of the issue dominated the last hour of the Feb. 3 Park Board meeting, though some commissioners were sympathetic to the company’s mission.
“I think it’s probably smart to deny this, but I think it’s also probably smart to continue to work with them,” said Commissioner Brad Bourn. “I don’t think we want to be viewed as obstructive to people accessing technology.”
US Internet can’t use the utility poles that Comcast and Centurylink use, so the company must bury its fiber optic. By offering high-speed Internet for cheap — 100 Mbps for $40 per month — the firm generates buzz in neighborhood forums as its crews move eastward.
Travis Carter, vice president of US Internet, said there will be zero environmental or operational impact if the firm is allowed to dig under parkland.
“We’d directional drill, and we’d be 12 to 14 feet under the creek bed,” Carter said. “You will not see anything when we’re done. It’s just a pipe deep underground that nobody will see.”
Parks staff say he and his staff hasn’t proven that.
US Internet hasn’t submitted a new permit request since the last one was rejected in February, but will meet with parks staff this Friday to figure out how to craft its permits so they’ll be successful in the future.
“We use the exact same process with 12 other entities around the metro, and have zero problems,” Carter said.
Residents with homes that face the parkway may be out of luck. Assistant Park Superintendent Michael Schroeder said the company needs to prove it can’t bury fiber in alleys to get to those homes, and hasn’t done so.
“It’s really important for USI to demonstrate that there’s no alternative,” he said.
USI says digging in the alleys is too costly and difficult, and would prevent the firm from fixing a broken connection in the winter.
But the few dozen homes along the parkway who can’t yet get US Internet service are a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of addresses south of the creek that are not yet connected. Those will be US Internet’s main focus going forward, Carter said.
“We have to get under the creek in probably three to four spots around the city,” Carter said. “That’s the big, big, big issue.”