The House Committee on Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance met today. I have video of the entire meeting – but broadband (HF3002) was the last topic I caught. (So you might want to skip forward.) On a very high level – they were there to discussion changes Chairman Garofalo suggested to the bill – specifically he wanted to remove “unserved” and “wired” from the details of the grant.
That would open the grants to a wider audience. To be fair, it wouldn’t open it up so much as remove “unserved” with access to speeds less than 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up (25/3) as a benefit to applicants. The removal of the terms “wired” isn’t as straight forward. Currently grant funding can (and has) gone to wireless projects but to pay for middle mile infrastructure.
Spoiler alert – the bill is laid over – but the conversation was interesting. Lots of voices in the committee chiming in with their experience.
Here’s the video (starts about min 37)
And my notes – which I take as quickly as I can. When in doubt, you might want to double check with video…
Border to border broadband grant program eligibility modified.
Chair Garofalo starting with his change on page 3 3.15-3.16 – want to get rid of the term “underserved” because there are no areas without access to 25/3 access.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher from the MN Broadband Task Force: We disagree with this small change. The TF represents a broadband range of interests. The legislature decided that the State could play a role in getting unserved people served – through the OBD and the broadband grants.
There is a demand for the use of broadband. Technologies have evolved. The state grant projects is a great example of public-private partnership reaching the most rural areas. $85 million in state funding has brought $110 million in match and brought service to 35,000 households. 73.5 percent of rural MN have access to 25/3 but that means there are houses unserved.
Removing unserved from the statute adds a barrier to those communities without wired access to 25/3. We recognize that technologies have changed but it doesn’t seem like they are all there yet. Removing “unserved” opens the door to anyone applying for grants. Right now communities and providers support the grants.
Baker: Satellite coverage is an option – but I’ve heard very little support for the technology in my area. There are data-caps, there are issues of access and legitimacy. I’ve worked with the Office of Broadband Development (OBD) and the Task Forces. This is an operation that’s working well. Why do we want to gut this program? We need to get the service to the unserved areas. I’ve been pushing wireless BUT satellite hasn’t been an answer – in part due to snow.
This is a program we need to keep for a while. This program is not ready to retire. I can’t support the change.
Neu: Is there a definition of area? (Counties, service areas?)
MAK: unserved means not having access to 25/3. A few years ago we adopted the FCC definition of broadband.
The definition can go as small as town or census block. MN has the premier way to measure broadband accessibility. The feds measure if one person in a county has access, the county gets marked as served; Minnesota looks at a more local level.
Neu: If this does include census blocks – my census block – is still unserved. I’ve tried access to what’s available
Garofalo – you could try HughesNet or Viasat. We provide grants to middle mile for wireless providers.
Neu: Depending on the time of day they work to varying degrees.
Mahoney: Thanks to Garofalo for this bill – I went to review my comments to the Chair last year. This is the same push you made last year. My complaints are the same – It’s slower. It’s not reliable (storms, trees..). There are data caps, which can cost $100-450 per month for overages. It’s not secure – many Fortune 400 companies will not allow remote workers to use satellite. This is a bill before its time. We will see an explosion in technology to meet our needs – that may be 5 years from now. There are many people in rural Minnesota that would be hurt by this. There are 200,000 households who need better access – why can’t we work on this. We need to lose this bill – before it goes to the House.
Garofalo: You’ve talked about excess costs – but that’s not as true this year for fixed wireless. You mentioned security – when people connect to their offices via VPN security doesn’t matter. It seems like you are leaning to FTTH access – that’s expensive. We are continuing to put tax payer money into a program that will look foolish in the future.
Howe: When we talk about census tracts – it leaves out people in very rural areas. IN my area I’m served with wireless – but it’s precarious. In practice I’m often getting 2 Mbps.
MAK: We look to the township area. My mother can’t get good access to her farm and satellite doesn’t make sense for her. The problem is that removing unserved will hurt the program. Satellite isn’t the issue – the issue is getting to unserved households. In theory they could subscribe to satellite – but we’ve heard that wireline is important for certain tasks and the wire is important for fixed wireless.
Fabian: Since the program started – you said 35,000 homes were served by $85 million in the state and $110 in private. That means $5600 per household.
MAK: IN our report we estimate cost to serve a household is $5,500. BUT the amount we’ve served have reached businesses and more too.
Fabian: SO it will be about $1.4 billion to serve these households. Technology is getting better. When I talk to ranchers in Kittson County – their phones are more important to them than the computers in their homes. What does the bill do for wireless?
MAK: We include federal funding from CAF & A-CAM in our tally to get the rest of Minnesota served. Wireless is very important BUT to have it be reliable – you need the wired backhaul. For the ranchers to get no dropped calls, you need wires serving wireless areas.
Fabian: I was talking to Mr Sjoberg this morning.
Layman: Thanks for bringing this up. I’m authoring a bill to fund this program. How many members are there in the MN Rural Broadband Coalition?
MAK: 70 members. I can speak for industry and community members who doesn’t support this move.
Layman: Are you also trying to delete “wired” from the bill? What would that mean?
Garofalo: I don’t know that it would have much effect – since we fund middle mile for wireless. I don’t think it makes much change but I could be wrong.
Layman: It does make a big change.
Garofalo: Right now we are funding middle mile infrastructure for wireless programs.
Anderson: Unserved is 25/3. What is the definition of underserved?
MAK: I think that’s 100/20. BUT because the priority in the grants is unserved – most of the grants go to unserved populations. If we had everyone covered at 25/3 then all of the other areas would be more competitive.
Anderson: Are there some areas in the state where it just doesn’t make sense to go to FTTH?
MAK: This is one reason wireless is eligible for grants. Fixed wireless can meet state speed goals. Probably not everyone will get a wired connection. By removing unserved you dilute the intention of the grants.
Garofalo: We live in a world of finite resources. Last year we gave $20 million to broadband – what if we gave people vouchers for 2 years and they would be served. For hospitals, schools and industrial parks is a different situation.
Bill is laid over.