Every year I spend a week writing up county broadband profiles for each county. I take a look at the maps and data provided by the Office of Broadband Development. I track who has received MN Border to Border broadband grants and other funding for broadband and I go through broadband stories from the past year. This post is a warning of sorts that you may be seeing a lot of Tweets or getting a lot of email from me in the next 12 hours as the counties get posted. I tried to time them for off hours – but by tomorrow morning they should all be there. (The links on that page won’t work until the posts have gone live.)
We are on the precipice of some big changes because there is a tremendous opportunity for broadband funding. Each county will receive American Rescue Plan funds and broadband is one eligible investment for that money. A few counties have already committed to spending it on broadband; many have remained quiet and may still be deciding. It turns out that less than 60 percent of townships eligible for ARP funding have applied. It will be interesting to see what happens. There have been other funds that emerged as reaction to the pandemic – CARES and the DEED’s Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG-CV).
There was another opportunity for funding through RDOF money from the FCC. They manage considerable funds and the project funding is set for 10 years. That funding is in a limbo of sorts; there was one provider who was offered the opportunity to apply for funding in MN but many people question whether they can provide the FTTH service as proposed. That grant has left some communities waiting to hear whether the RDOF money will come to them or whether then should make alterative plans.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the demand and use of broadband as people have spent much of 2020 and 2021 working, learning, entertaining and taking care of healthcare online.
Each county has its own challenges and strengths but going through the counties I see some themes repeated:
- An engaged provider can make all of the difference. An engaged provider does not necessarily need an engaged community but an engaged community does need a engaged provider. So having a provider that wants to provide good service is a trump card.
- Lack of competition means some counties are finding their needs are not met. Often those counties have one national provider who may find it difficult to invest money is areas where the return on investment is low and/or slow. Some of these counties have been working for years but the barrier is a high one.
- A feasibility study seems to help a community move forward with a plan. It helps focus a community and makes applications for grants easier and it seems to open the door to working with new partners.
- Unless a county is above 97 percent access to broadband, a lack of improvement means a county will drop in ranking – and often drop far.
There are some counties that deserve recognition for their progress. Lincoln County went from 40 percent access to 99 in a year. (They started with a feasibility study in 2018.) Clearwater County went from 89 percent to 99.59 percent; thanks to a $20 million loan for Garden Valley Telephone. Sherburne County went from 81 percent to 93; they still need to work but that’s a good move forward. There are a number of counties that dropped from Yellow to Red ranking often because their coverage hasn’t changed and there’s been limited signs of engagement. Counties that are code red might benefit from intervention, such as the Blandin Accelerate program, a process to spur community acquisition and deployment of federal and state broadband funds, to find an alternative solution.