Feasibility study near Tower MN show some areas broadband ready – but will federal RDOF funding for LTD change the equation?

The Ely Timber Jay reports on a broadband feasibility study with a roadmap to better broadband in the area…

A roadmap to provide broadband level internet service to the Tower area was recently released by the Laurentian, Tower, and East Range (LTE) Broadband Group. The study’s conclusions show bringing broadband to the Tower area may be financially feasible for the priority areas of Pike Bay, Daisy Bay, and Eagles Nest, and expansion to a wider rural area encompassing the Tower School district boundaries could be possible, although additional financing and contributions from stakeholders might be required.
The study was funded with contributions by governmental units, local businesses, and a matching grant from the Blandin Foundation. The LTE Broadband Group, which has been working with funding and leadership from the Blandin Foundation and Iron Range Resources, and stakeholders from the East Range, Tower-Soudan, and Eveleth-Gilbert-Virginia areas commissioned the study last year. The group hired NEO Connect to conduct the study, which cost about $120,000.

Since the study was done, the federal funding may have changed the equation entirely…

John Bassing, who along with his wife JoAnn, has been an active participant in the broadband planning group, said that while the results of the study are promising, there is a possible complication. A company called LTD Broadband that has previously specialized in providing fixed wireless internet service, not fiber-optic-based services, received $312 million in funding from the Federal Communications Commission for projects in the state, the largest amount awarded in Minnesota.
“That Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant throws a wrench in the monkey-works,” said Bassing. “The company bid on providing service to census blocks, including those in our area.” LTD’s experience in Minnesota has been providing fixed wireless service in flat farmland areas, said Bassing. The company’s expertise to provide fiber optic service has been questioned, as well as whether it can provide the gigabyte level service that is the goal in Minnesota.

This leaves the area up in the air…

“Our next step is to attract a broadband provider,” said Bassing. “But DEED [Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development] is worried about the legal implications of giving out grants in the RDOF area.” DEED oversees the state’s Border to Border grant program, which is instrumental in funding rural broadband projects.
At this point, Bassing said, the project is on hold until some of these questions are resolved. …

Whether or not the state’s Border to Border program will be able to make grants to project in our area is uncertain at this time, Bassing said.

The article goes on to share important results from the study. Also they paint a picture of the predicament of many communities in Minnesota are living. Communities have been working on getting better broadband and are now holding their breath to see what happens with the RDOF funding for LTD Broadband. I’ve mentioned the issues with RDOF before – and the details above cover it as well. In short – federal funding did not take the local community into consideration.

Best case scenario, LTD will turn around and create an amazing FTTH network. That would be awesome. But even if they do, it’s a network that happens to a community not with and there’s a difference, especially to the communities that have been working on this. It’s awesome like when someone gives you a free dinner but less so if you don’t get to choose your meal.

Worst case scenario, the RDOF program resembles the CAF II federal funding programs where a few providers were given a lot of money to build better broadband (but only required to build to 25/3 and sometimes even lower than that) and several years to do it. Two of those providers in Minnesota have recently reported that they “may NOT have met” the most recent deadlines. That is where the concern comes in given LTD’s background in wireless but contact in FTTH. They are in line to be hired for something they aren’t known for doing. The concern is great enough that 151 Senators have asked the FCC to scrutinize the long form applications for RDOF funding. (LTD has “won” the sole ability to apply for funds in their areas but they have not yet been awarded the funds.)

The concerns here are multiple:

  • Concern that federal funds will be ill-spent
  • Concern that these areas will not qualify for other funding until RDOF payments are done (10 years)

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