Fiber Internet meets obstacle on park boulevards

As US Internet builds out its fiber infrastructure in Minneapolis, the company has redlined some homes that border the lakes and Minnehaha parkland.

The boulevards in front of some homes are Minneapolis park property, and in February a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board committee denied USI permission to install fiber optic cable on parkland.

US Internet is currently working with Park Board staff to find a solution for one block in Lynnhurst, a neighborhood where the fiber install is otherwise complete.

Resident Julie Stenberg, who lives between Dupont and Emerson on the north side of Minnehaha Parkway, signed up for fiber access. She learned that if the Park Board granted a special permit for access on her block, USI would be charged $27,000 to reach her home.

She said it’s frustrating — no one is picnicking on the boulevard in front of her house, and the six-foot strip of grass looks no different than her neighbors’ fiber-ready boulevards around the corner.

“It seems absurd,” she said. “Everybody on our block except three of us have access.”

She said lack of access could impact her property value. Fiber is designed to be hundreds of times faster than DSL, cable or wireless Internet systems.

“We pay a premium for where we are,” she said.

In a recent meeting in Lynnhurst, park officials said they take seriously their charge to protect parkland, even on the boulevards.

“We have to be careful of the precedent we set,” said Park Board Commissioner Brad Bourn. “The purposes of our procedures are first and foremost to protect parkland. … We have to look at that from a policy level.”

Michael Schroeder, assistant superintendent of planning for Minneapolis parks, said he is cracking down on instances of private property encroaching on parkland. He said he recently took action to order a resident to remove a retaining wall under construction on Lake Nokomis parkland.

“People are building their own backyards on parkland,” he said. “Our job is to protect parkland. … If we allow USI to do this, who’s next? It’s a private use on parkland.”

Although fiber optic cables are installed using directional boring, with minimal disturbance to the ground surface, Schroeder said he’s concerned that maintenance of the cable may require excavation over time.

“I’ve seen what’s under the streets in Minneapolis. It is the wild west,” he said.

US Internet Vice President Travis Carter agreed the issue could resurface with other Internet providers.

“Everyone’s probably going to be coming right behind us wanting to be doing the same thing,” Carter said.

In a letter to the Park Board last December, US Internet Operations Manager Rebecca Biehn explained why USI wants to bore through parkland. Alleys are not large enough to safely fit the boring equipment, she said. The alley’s hard surface doesn’t allow for winter maintenance, and she said it isn’t a financially viable option.

Carter said no more aerial networks are allowed in the city of Minneapolis, and said pole access is owned by Comcast, CenturyLink and Xcel.

Carter said he needs to build where he can see a return on investment, and he’s still working to build out the rest of Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.

“We’re kind of done fighting it, quite frankly,” Carter said. “We have tons of other cities and opportunities to work on here. … I’ve probably invested $35 million in building this network out.”

Park Board staff are brainstorming creative solutions, perhaps by seeking board approval to rent out boulevard conduits.

Bourn said boulevard land is currently treated the same as a baseball diamond.

“Maybe we need to spend some time thinking about that,” he said. …“I’m willing to look at that from a policy standpoint.”

He said there is a variance of opinion among park board members, and any change would take time.

Minneapolis’ fiber network is currently live in much of the area between the chain of lakes, I-35W, I-94, and 44th Street. Tangletown, Stevens Square, Fulton and part of Linden Hills are slated for installation in 2016. Windom, Kenny and Armatage are next in 2017.

CenturyLink and Comcast are also working to roll out fiber infrastructure in the metro. Comcast offers a 2-gig residential fiber-to-home product, which a spokesman said would be available to most homes in Minneapolis.

US Internet has not publicized a timeline for fiber in North and Northeast Minneapolis. Instead, the company is planning a 2016 “TDM” roll-out, which offers speeds of 25 megabits per second.