Senator Franken team talks infrastructure in Southern MN: Owatonna, Stewartville and Winona

franken mtgTuesday I had the unique pleasure or trekking from Owatonna to Stewartville to Winona with Senator Franken’s staff as they held listening sessions on infrastructure with local communities. I learned a lot. I have notes and videos from each of the sessions that I’ll include below. But I wanted to started with some of the broad, shared or new ideas I heard today.

The towns we visited are pretty well served with broadband. People mentioned being happy with Jaguar and Hiawatha. Several people had fiber to the home (FTTH). One  mentioned that his old house was easier to sell with FTTH and he made sure the new one had it before he moved.

The areas outside the towns were not as well served and folks noted lack of competition and lack of government funding. There never seems to be enough. Broadband and cell coverage are intertwined as far as most people are concerned. And lots of rural Minnesota still lacks adequate cell coverage.

Broadband was not the first infrastructure issue mentioned in any session. People mentioned clay sewers, outdated wastewater systems, poor roads, deadly highways, housing, housing, housing. All of these problems cost money. Millions of dollars – like broadband. As someone pointed out a big difference is that with more infrastructure, government funding goes to a government entity. Broadband is the still primarily the bailiwick of the private sector.

Everyone recognized the need for broadband. It’s not a luxury anymore is support economic development, education and quality of life. BUT as I said earlier, it’s not the first thing on anyone’s wish list (or must have list).

I don’t follow other infrastructure issues like I do for broadband so I left in my notes. I found it interesting to hear the similarities and differences and tried to find ways that solutions with other modes of infrastructure might fit into broadband. One solution fit – income-adjusted housing.

Often when people talk about affordability and broadband they focus on subsidies or other strategies for low income households. That’s important but I think it’s also important to find ways to make broadband more affordable to lower middle income households. (Lisa Peterson de la Cueva wrote a great letter on that topic.) Perhaps there’s a way to incorporate income-adjusted pricing – at least from providers that receive government subsidies.

Read on for more complete notes. (To be fair, the notes are not complete. I focused on broadband and just noted other topics that struck me.)

Intro from Franken’s office

Three things drive US prosperity

  • Education
  • Research & development
  • Infrastructure

We have been ignoring infrastructure – which will leave the next generation to remedy this. We need 21st century infrastructure to compete in the global economy. Communities in rural Minnesota have unique challenges; we need to create unique solutions.

The listening sessions help Franken understand the scale of need. We are hearing helpful anecdotes. That helps make the case.

Notes from Owatonna…

Infrastructure Concerns:

Flood mitigation – how to slow down water before it hits the city. Still recovering from flooding in 2007.

Highway 14 – need funding to complete the job. That’s been in process since the late 1960s. We need the state to release property because we need to be shovel-ready for federal funding.

Lot of requests for road reconstruction – we need it but people are hesitant to pay the assessment.

How to get local investment?

Maybe we need a carrot/stick process to encourage investment via grants that could be matched with community tax base.

Unfortunately the funding level is not there and when the competition is stiff, the smaller communities suffer. It would be nice to have policy to change that but that’s likely now. Maybe a regional focus would help.

The state has a higher interest in serving these communities. Maybe if funds could stay in the state rather than get filtered through the federal government that would benefit the smaller communities. We lose priorities when funding goes from state to federal to state.

Some of the state rules are costing us millions of dollars. The standards and regulations are often more here (for wastewater treatment) than in other states. Without grants or low interest loans, it’s difficult for communities to meet PCA standards.

There’s a difficulty in Owatonna with Highway 10. It divides the area.

Require wastewater upgrades estimates is $20 million.

Base price to build an entry-level house does not match early stage incomes. And houses that would get flipped to younger folks are requiring a lot of work, making them pretty cost prohibitive as well. We are at historical low inventory.

Broadband Notes from Owatonna

Broadband – Jaguar is providing fiber throughout the community over a 4-5 year period. They are about halfway done. We have fiber out to the industrial Park.

As you get beyond the city limits broadband is a deterrent. A couple of years ago, we had one provider leave and that left no competition. It is a deterrent for farm areas.

It’s hard to quantify the value of broadband in economic development. It’s never been an issue. Before Jaguar came in it was a difficulty on the residential side but now it’s not. We definitely include FTTH on our marketing materials. The industrial park is well served. We are lucky that the state had infrastructure

We do need to look at outside the city limits.

What’s affordability like? Now that we have competition I expect the rates to go down. It’s $120 for internet and cable. Right now there are two businesses in the industrial park that are upgrading their service.

PUBLIC POLICY DISCUSSIONS

State grants are much easier to work with than federal. They tend to better address our needs and are therefore more useful. We use state dollars to address more needs than federal grants.

Business Infrastructure grants – grants needed for business growth have been useful to address storm-water issues. They are non-specific enough to meet our needs.

Notes from Stewartville…

Why do we send millions of dollars overseas for infrastructure? Many of those people do not seem to appreciate it. Folks here would. We need more local economic development.

We appreciate the environment. But with each mandate we need economic support to deploy/adhere to those mandates.

Storm water is a problem – we need retention ponds. And to do that we need expanded waste water treatment.

We try to find ways to get communities to work together. But it’s hard when everyone has immediate needs.

Is there a way to do everything at once – working with water, street and power together. Most of the engineering firms can design a total street. Maybe Washington can pay attention to the Dig Once policy.

Journey to Growth is a regional effort to help each other – it’s an efficiency program we are working on ourselves.

Sometimes the red tape hurts us. Sometimes the details and requirements make no sense – like when they ask us to double our charges. But our citizens are already paying taxes – not need to charge them more twice.

Projects are scored for immediate need – which means you are penalized for thinking ahead. Doesn’t lend to easy planning.

In transportation we’re grateful that the transportation passed. Projects are expensive. There isn’t enough to go around. We need expansion and preservation funds.

Stewartville Broadband

They have fiber in every building in town. Rural areas are tougher – there are spotty areas.

Journey to Growth (economic development) effort in area. We need some help.

It’s good to be able to move good and people to different places.

We are great for moving people via buses to the TC and around the area.

Our problem is the person in the small town who wants to get online to work with international partners.

They have broadband on the buses. Availability of consistent wireless strength is a big issue on the buses. It makes it difficult to provide the service, when we know we will hit dead zones.

Broadband is just as important as water, sewer and roads.

Understanding the Formula (USF et al) is difficult for providers.

Some areas think they have a lot to offer but if you don’t have broadband that makes it difficult to be a draw to new residents. People want to work from home. It’s education. It’s agriculture.

Broadband is not a luxury anymore.

HBC is moving to our area. They are in Red Wing. Hopefully they will be able to compete with Charter.

Are taxes on phones going to communication?
Yes I think so.
I think they aren’t. The telephone tax that was used to pay for the Spanish American war was only recently changed.
Use tax is OK but funds need to stay in the area and in the field.

Do you know Minnesota Connects? Maybe Senator Schmit

Housing is a big issue.

Flexible use of federal funds could be useful.

If I want my economic base to grow I need entry-level housing. But I need a place for the seniors to go before the entry level housing can go up. Maybe federal funds can help with that.

On the topics of mandates – we need funding to meet the needs of the mandates.

POLICY

Top concern – finish highway 14

Notes from Winona…

Lewiston wants to add a new residential area but we need infrastructure. That costs money. More taxing is not palatable. Also our existing infrastructure is aging.

It’s frustrating to see urban areas get frivolous projects while we need basics.

How much to upgrade sewer system from clay pipes to goo operating standards? $8.5 million. TO do that could quadrupled household costs.

We’ve had estimates in Dakota for sewer from $65 per house to $25,000. (Town of 150 houses.) How can you add a $25,000 sewer system on a retiree’s home? NO grade school. How does that attract new residents? But we were offered a $2 million grant for a sound wall for the interstate. We turned it down.

Need income-adjusted housing $15-20/hour.

Small towns need income-adjusted housing foe workers making $15-20/hour. Maybe they need income-adjusted broadband too!

There’s no roadmap to refill trade positions. We no longer teach it in the school. And we have a generation of college-goers.

Winona Broadband

It’s never enough.

Last mile is the issue. There are areas of the county that aren’t covered. Better cell coverage is required too. In this topography we need better cell coverage.

One big hold up is the incumbents that have little incentive to upgrade equipment. We need more competition to get companies to do the right thing.

The federal government isn’t coming in to deploy that infrastructure so it’s a tough position.

Some communities have no providers. Some have one that pay more for bad service.

There is federal funding and the Office of Broadband Development has grants too and new maps have recently been released.

This entry was posted in Conferences, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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