A look at how RDOF impacts the State Grant-funded project in Cook MN

The Ely Timberjay pulled the thread of conflict in Cook Minnesota where a MN broadband grant was impacted by federal RDOF funding plans. It’s a story we’ve seen in Le Sueur (and other areas) as well. I hope the details below help tell the story again. The high level issues have been discussed. In short – communities and providers worked together to submit proposals for MN State grants. Then federal RDOF funding was announced (providers were selected to submit long form applications for their projects) and areas within the federal selected areas were disqualified for state funding. (Some were able to change their applications; some couldn’t do that.)

Here’s how it played out in Cook, MN.

Good news for Paul Bunyan and Cook…

Bemidji-based Paul Bunyan Communications is set to receive $311,254 from the state Border-to-Border Broadband Development grant program to help fund the project, which is estimated to cost almost $700,000. Paul Bunyan would foot the bill for most of the difference, along with an $8,000 partnership contribution approved by the Cook City Council last August.

But the news could have been better. The original grant application for the City of Cook was for $790,575 for 345 passings (86 Unserved 259, Underserved).  It was reduced to $691,675 for 311 passings (57 Unserved, 254 Underserved) because of a conflict with possible federal funding …

However, [Steve] Howard told the Timberjay on Tuesday that there’s one more hurdle to clear before green-lighting the project, a hurdle created by a conflict between state and federal broadband funding programs that threatens to compromise other area broadband projects as well.
Howard said that Paul Bunyan had to scale back the size of its original proposal because the area overlapped in places with census tracts covered by the federally-supported Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In December, the Federal Communications Commission awarded Nevada-based LTD Broadband nearly $312 million to develop broadband systems for tracts throughout Minnesota, including those bordering Cook.
Minnesota officials won’t allow Border-to-Border funds to be used for locations in RDOF tracts in order to avoid duplication of funding and to develop services in other areas. Since LTD Broadband has RDOF funding for those tracts locked in, Paul Bunyan would have to foot the full bill for locations they originally anticipated would be covered by Border-to-Border funds. Therefore, Howard said, they had to drop some of the proposed service locations outside Cook city limits from the project.

The decision in federal funding, means changes on the ground…

Howard said he notified city officials of the changes on Tuesday and is awaiting a response indicating if the city still wants to move forward with a smaller project at the same $8,000 commitment.
The system would provide first-time broadband capability to 57 customers and significantly upgraded broadband to 254 more locations, both residential and commercial. The vast majority of those locations are in Cook proper but some locations outside city limits are still included in the proposal because Paul Bunyan determined keeping them while assuming all the costs for their development was economically viable.
Operating at ultra-high speeds of 1Gbps, the system will be almost nine times as fast as the highest currently advertised speed of 115 Mbps by troubled Frontier Communication, a wire-based DSL service with extremely limited access in Cook. Broadbandnow.com estimates that 70 percent of residential locations in Cook do not currently have access to high-speed broadband service.

Without funding local providers are not able to invest…

Howard told the Cook council last August that the reason Cook and surrounding rural areas didn’t have widely available broadband was that companies couldn’t afford to build those systems without government support. The Border-to-Border award makes the Cook project possible for Paul Bunyan; without it, there would be no project.
Greenwood Township has been working with CTC Internet on broadband possibilities, although getting residents to respond to a needs assessment survey has been challenging. Now that LTD Broadband has secured access to federal RDOF funds and no state money is available, the likelihood of CTC Internet making an enormous investment of its own cash in a broadband system for the township has evaporated.

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