MinnPost asks questions about federal broadband grants impact on MN grants

MinnPost has been following the potential impact of RDOF results on rural broadband in Minnesota. Here’s their latest

When the Federal Communications Commission announced $312 million in grants for one relatively small company to build broadband in Minnesota earlier this month, it stirred controversy among those who worry the internet provider can’t deliver what it promised.

Now that squabble over the company, LTD Broadband, has spilled over into Minnesota’s own grant program for development of high-speed internet.

The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition — made up of internet developers, local governments and other groups like Mayo Clinic — sent a letter Wednesday to state officials asking them to award grant money to build broadband in areas expected to be served through the federal program, in part because they have so little confidence in LTD Broadband. Some internet companies said the state asked them to submit bids for cash outside of the federal program zones.

Minnesota officials haven’t made a decision on how to proceed, but the state must navigate the fight over broadband money and territory while balancing the best way to get internet to rural residents — and to spend taxpayer dollars.

They get into the background of the RDOF program and get comment from LTD…

LTD Broadband won $1.32 billion nationally and $312 million in Minnesota — the most of any one company in the country and the state. The money is doled out over 10 years but projects are supposed to be built in six years. LTD’s CEO Corey Hauer said they will deliver gigabit service through fiber-optic internet.

Competitors in the business balked at the auction results because LTD Broadband is a relatively small company with expertise in fixed-wireless internet, where homes get service from a signal placed high on a structure, such as a silo. It can be cheaper to build than fiber, which requires a physical connection to houses, though state officials who run the Minnesota grant program have avoided fixed wireless, arguing it is slower and less reliable than fiber.

Hauer says LTD Broadband has some experience in fiber and is ready to quickly expand and meet the challenge of providing gigabit service to a huge and disparate geographic area.

And they talk about the impact of grant applications awaiting results with the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD)…

Minnesota’s border-to-border broadband program, run by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, has $20 million in state money to dole out. Barbara Droher Kline, a broadband development consultant working with Le Sueur County, said DEED asked people to submit bids that don’t overlap with areas to be served under the FCC initiative. That’s meant to ensure a wider swath of the state can be covered.

But with deep skepticism from developers over LTD’s ability to actually deliver services, many are asking DEED to reconsider.

Organizations such as the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition are asking the OBD to move ahead with awards. OBD is undecided…

Angie Dickison, executive director of DEED’s Office of Broadband Development, said she was limited in what she could say because the state is in an open grant round and because there are federal limits right now on discussing development plans for the FCC program. An FAQ posted by DEED says: “In deciding which projects should be awarded state grant funding, information on any federal funding announced prior to the state announcement will be considered.”

Dickison said the state is still evaluating applications and hasn’t decided how to proceed with the state grants in light of the federal auction results.  Final decisions on grants are planned for January. LTD Broadband’s “long-form application” is due to the FCC in mid-February and review could take months, Robinson said in his letter.

“We are aware of the concerns that folks have and are taking that all into consideration,” Dickison said. “We’re in a wait and see mode until we learn more about the final outcome of the auction and the end of the ‘quiet period.’”

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