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City of Annandale receives broadband grant

Courtesy of the Annandale Advocate

By Paul DownerManaging Editor

Because broadband Internet service in Annandale has been a concern for a number of years, and particularly over the past several months, news that the city has received a grant that will help outline a process toward improved service was particularly welcome last week.

The $21,250 grant from the Blandin Foundation will cover approximately half the cost of a feasibility study that will determine the steps necessary to bring broadband in Annandale up to the expectations of businesses and residents.

“The study is going to do some analysis of the market. It will look at things from an infrastructure standpoint, what we need to have here. And it’s going to look at who our partners can be, what existing service providers or surrounding area service providers we can partner with,” explained City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp.

The city council approved the feasibility study, contingent on the receipt of the Blandin Foundation grant, in September. After the grant was approved on Friday, Oct. 11, the city and its consulting firm, U-reka Broadband Ventures, wasted little time getting to work.

Hinnenkamp had already met with consultants last week, and the city council’s technology committee will be involved with consultants this week.

“I’m really excited that we’re starting this process, because it’s really difficult when people call us and are frustrated and we understand their frustration, but we don’t have any good answers right now,” said Hinnenkamp. “Hopefully this study is going to give us what we need to know.”

According to the grant application, the total cost of the study is expected to be $43,250. Between the grant and about $16,000 the city recently received in franchise fees from Windstream, the city’s sole broadband provider with a wire network, the majority of the project cost is covered.

Recent issues

More trouble with Windstream Internet service was reported to city hall recently, with sporadic service to businesses and residents occuring Friday, Oct. 11, through the weekend and beyond.

“We were in contact with Windstream. They said they had a bad card and they did the work Tuesday night and by Wednesday morning everybody should jave been up. But even since then it’s been spotty, from what I’ve heard,” said Hinnenkamp on Friday, Oct. 18.

Approval of the city’s grant the same day the most recent problems were reported to have cropped up was particularly satisfying.

“I mentioned to (the Blandin representative) that this is coming at a really great time because there have been a lot of issues in the past week and there is a lot of support for us to move forward. It’s perfect timing,” said Hinnenkamp.

City officials have maintained that it is possible the solution to Annandale’s issues could come from Windstream itself, but they want to explore other options as well.

“The whole purpose of the study is to figure out what it’s going to take to improve service, whether it’s working with Windstream or getting another provider in,” said Hinnenkamp. “What is it physically going to take to get more reliable broadband service?”

Study outcome

The feasibility study process has already begun, and Hinnenkamp said the goal is to wrap up most of the work by the end of the year and present final conclusions in January.

At that point, the city council will need to decide whether the potential solutions outlined in the study are realistic options to pursue.

What is the liklihood that the study will lead to concrete action?

“Right now I think the council is very motivated because we’ve heard from businesses and we’ve heard from a lot of residents that this is a big issue. So this is a priority for us,” said Hinnenkamp.

She cautioned, however, that without knowing the study’s conclusions it was impossible to say what action might follow.

There is a positive track record, though. One of the council’s reasons for selecting U-reka Broadband Ventures as a study partner was the fact that similar studies they had conducted in other communities were being actively used in improvement efforts.

One factor that will carry a lot of weight in the decision-making process, Hinnenkamp said, will be the continued input from businesses and residents in the community.

“People need to give us feedback on what’s important to them, how it affects them, what their needs are,” said Hinnenkamp. “I think the consultants will gather a lot of that through the process as part of the market analysis. We’ll survey residents and businesses. But then even after we have that final draft we’d like to get feedback on support about taking the next step.”

There is still some distance to go before the study is complete, options are outlined and action can be taken, but Hinnenkamp was pleased that the process was underway.

“We are so happy to get this grant. It is huge in helping us take this next step, so we’re very appreciative of that,” she said. “We’re excited to be moving forward with it and hopefully we’ll have some answers for people shortly.”

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