Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Windom builds telecommunications system
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The story of Windom's entrance into the telecommunications field will play out in this building, headquarters for the city's newest department. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
A few years ago the city of Windom reached a virtual crossroads. Residents felt they were missing out on the Internet revolution. Rather than complain about their local provider, the city decided to build its own telecommunications system. After five years of work, it's ready to go.

Windom, Minn. — The city's $10 million gamble will deliver Internet, cable television and telephone service to homes, businesses and schools. Windom officials say they're the first Minnesota city to offer all three services in a new state-of-the-art system.

The launch date is mid-April, but testing has been underway for weeks. One of the test customers is Gordy's grocery. Manager Dan Ortmann says the new system has already paid off. He says the new connection gives him exactly the Internet speed he needs.

"We pull our ads from an ad agency out of Phoenix, Arizona," says Ortmann. "For me to download my ad off the Internet would take up to 45 minutes. Now, with this system I can have it within two, three minutes."

Ortmann says the system also helps the store's new computerized cash registers. He says the fast Internet connection pulls in pricing information from suppliers.

The grocery store is linked by thin strands of fiber optic cable to city headquarters a few blocks away. Inside the squat building, Windom's telecommunications manager Dan Olsen leads the way through a room filled with rows of racks, holding computers and miles of cable.

"This is our network operations center," says Olsen. "This houses all the Internet equipment, the telephone equipment and all the fiber to the home equipment is in here."

All housed in a building with reinforced concrete walls two feet thick, strong enough to survive a tornado. A backup generator waits in a nearby room. Olsen says it's all a matter of reliability. Telecommunications are so important, the city can't ever let the system fail.

"We want 99.9999 percent run time on it," says Olsen. "And that gives us about three minutes a year we can be out."

Not everyone supports the city's entry into the telecommunications field.

After Windom residents voted to approve the plan five years ago, opponents went to work. They gathered 900 signatures asking for another vote on the question, but the request was denied. Corky Byam is one of the leaders of the opposition. He says the system is too expensive.

"Somebody's going to get stuck with that $9 million," says Byam. "And we got schools that need money, everybody needs money. And we're going to put it on this telecommunications, and try and pay it back through telephone, Internet and cable TV. You just can't do it."

In his home, Byam watches television shows delivered by satellite. Qwest provides his telephone and Internet hookups.

Unhappiness with Qwest and its predecessor, US West, was a big reason the city decided to build in the first place. In the late 1990s, some Windom businesses and residents began complaining the company's Internet service wasn't fast enough.

In 2003, a month after the city decided to build its telecommunications system, Qwest announced it, too, would provide Windom with high-speed Internet. Qwest representative Cyndi Barrington says the company welcomes competition, as long as things are equal.

"Qwest is concerned with municipalities getting into the telcom business because they control rights of way, franchise agreements and permits to construct facilities, giving them an unfair competitive advantage in the marketplace," says Barrington.

It's uncertain whether Windom is trailblazer or oddity. It's the only Minnesota city building this sort of telecommunications system. That puts a lot of pressure on city officials to make it work. Others are watching, and if Windom succeeds, more cities may follow its path.

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