East Central Minnesota may get new broadband options from East Central Energy

Every year, I take a look at how each county in Minnesota is doing with broadband. I’ve learned that counties with an engaged provider are the luckiest counties. They may partner with the community or not, but the provider can make the difference. I’ve also seen some counties remain at the bottom of the ranking for years. Here’s the bottom ranking at last measure (Oct 2021) (below). There’s almost no ranking change from the previous year, despite the fact that several of these counties have been working for years to get better service. They have been stuck for various reasons often because competition was not encouraged but new federal funding can change that.

County percent Ranking last year ranking
Murray 54.37 78 77
Aitkin 52.77 79 78
Carlton 52.04 80 79
Traverse 50.97 81 80
Isanti 50.43 82 81
Todd 48.38 83 82
Yellow Medicine 48.07 84 83
Redwood 45.21 85 85
Pine 39.72 86 86
Kanabec 25.81 87 87

I heard some potential good news for at least half of the counties on this list. There’s a new provider looking at entering the market in East Central Minnesota –  East Central Energy (ECE). I got a chance to speak with Justin Jahnz and Ty Houglum at ECE about their plans.

ECE is an electric cooperative covering 11 counties in East Central MN (and 3 in WI). In 2019, they did a feasibility study looking at what it might take to offer broadband to their members. It didn’t seem prudent at the time but 2019 was a different world. There is more money available to deploy broadband now and their members need it more than ever. On November 19, 2021, the ECE Board of Directors voted to move forward with developing a plan for a full fiber to the home project and so they are diving in, starting with a $50 million ReConnect application, which would help get them started. (They are not alone in their industry, recently the MN Rural Electric Association made broadband a top legislative priority.)

They estimate that the cost to bring fiber to their members is between $250-320 million; they have 123,000 residents (in MN and WI). They are expecting a 10-12 year return on investment with 35-40 percent financing. That patient investment is what helps a cooperative invest in something like this as long as it’s also an investment in the community.

Along with patient financing, ECE has a few other advantages:

  • The broadband network will help deploy an even smarter smart grid – so the network has multiple purposes
  • They have network specialists on staff already
  • They have an established customer-base and good relationship with them and that will make them more accountable
  • They serve some of the poorest counties in the state, which may help when writing grants

We also talked about some of the roadblocks:

  • They are looking at State Border to Border grants, but the $5 million cap on awards will mean multiple applications, which takes longer to write and manage
  • LTD Broadband may receive federal funding (RDOF) for some parts of their coverage areas, which may make it difficult to receive other funding. (We have talked about the situation with RDOF money in other posts.)

It’s exciting news for folks in the area. For policymakers, it’s an opportunity to see what it might take to encourage public-private partnership in broadband expansion. For other communities, a potential model to follow.

You can learn more from this new video from ECE…

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