Doug Dawson’s tips for BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment) applicants

Doug Dawson (CCG) is one of the smartest broadband guys I know. Doug is going to be working on a series of blog posts on BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment) funding the applications. If you are thinking about BEAD funding, or you want to keep an eye on things, I recommend following his blog. I might not post about each edition in her series but today he starts with an outline of the issues he may be diving into soon… (my quote below is abridged)

  • The Grants Draw a Firm Technology Line.
    This includes only fiber-optics, cable company hybrid-fiber coaxial technology, DSL, and fixed wireless service supported by licensed spectrum. Every other technology does not count as broadband in terms of defining areas eligible for the grants. The NOFO means that grants can be used to overbuild areas served by satellite broadband or by WISPs using unlicensed spectrum – regardless of the speeds being provided.
  • The Grants Are Complicated.
    These are going to be the most complicated broadband grants ever – more complicated even than ReConnect grants.
  • The Grants Add a Lot of Cost to Projects.
    Some of the big ones include environmental and historical preservation studies; prevailing wages for grants over $5 million; bank letters of credit and a legal opinion on the lines of credit; construction contractors must certify commitments to workforce development, including participation in apprenticeship programs; buy America requirements that will drive up the cost of materials; heavy-duty reporting requirements that layer on work after taking the grant.
  • The Grants Are Clearly Stacked Against New ISPs.
    This is ironic because the rules as written by Congress and alluded to throughout the NOFO talk about favoring what the NOFO calls non-traditional broadband providers like non-profits, electric cooperatives, local governments, public utility districts, and Tribes.
  • The Grants Want to See Skin in the Game.
    While grants can be as high as 75%, the NTIA expects States to award grants to applicants that ask for the lowest amount of grant funding.
  • There are Some Gotchas In the Financial Requirements.
    [To start] an applicant must get a bank letter of credit just to apply for the grant – something that’s expensive and not easy for many entities to get.
  • This is Going to Overwhelm State Broadband Offices.
    The complexity of the grant rules will overwhelm most state grant offices, which are often newly staffed.
  • Penalties for Non-performance.
    Penalties against non-performing grant recipients can include the imposition of additional award conditions, payment suspension, award suspension, grant termination, de-obligation/clawback of funds, and debarment of organizations and/or personnel from using future federal funds.

Duluth resident skeptical of provider follow through with public funds

The Duluth News Tribune posts a letter to the editor…

I read with interest the May 9 News Tribune article “ St. Louis County signs on to Rice Lake broadband project .” I hope that included in the $3,800-per-household cost is a requirement for internet providers serving the area to hook up interested homeowners. Otherwise the county will have wasted taxpayer dollars to decorate telephone poles with expensive black cable for the residents to admire from across the road.

Almost two years ago a similar project in the rural, far east end of Duluth resulted in just that. Fiber optic cable strung from telephone poles ready to connect to homes. However, two years later, the only internet provider “servicing” this part of Duluth has yet to even contact residents about connecting their internet service to this fiber optic line — tantalizingly close, yet impossibly far away. Were taxpayer dollars used for this project as well? Who knows, as our local elected politicians have shown no interest in exploring this issue. Getting fiber optic cable into rural communities is a great political talking point. However, it seems that politicians really don’t care if the cable is actually used.

Many of us living in rural areas, in frustration, have abandoned the promise of fiber optic internet and turned instead to Starlink high-speed satellite internet for a fraction of the $3,800-per-household cost our county just approved for the Rice Lake project. I hope that the county commissioners were smart enough to make sure this massive amount of money promised for this project will have the intended result of gaining high-speed internet access for our rural friends and neighbors. But from my experience, I am skeptical.

I understand the frustration – but I think it rest more in the follow though and follow up than on the investment.

Ceylon approves broadband contract with FREA (Martin County)

The Fairmont Sentinel reports

Ceylon City Council held its May meeting on Tuesday. It began with a phone message from CEDA’s Kelly Wilken which discussed the responses to the broadband project. The council had read the sealed bids that had been opened at a previous meeting. The LTD Company was one of the bidders and discussion was held about the FCC questioning their capabilities to do broadband to more than 100,000 in Minnesota. The Federated REA bid was also discussed. The council liked the fact that the FREA has been reliable in the town and that they are a more local company with a good business reputation. The council approved beginning contract negotiations with FREA concerning the broadband in Ceylon. They scheduled a meeting for negotiations for May 26th. This will give FREA a time to round out their contract proposal.

I assume the funding is coming from their Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program award.

St. Louis County says yes to Rice Lake broadband project

Duluth News Tribune reports

The city of Rice Lake will bring broadband internet to its City Hall and connect more than 200 households and businesses, following a decision by the St. Louis County Board last week.

The board voted unanimously to support $400,000 to go with a city of Rice Lake match to make the $835,835 deal a reality.

Consolidated Telephone Co., headquartered in Brainerd, has committed $35,835 toward the project, and is contracted to install the fiber-optic network.

“We’re looking at 267 connections with this project,” Rice Lake City Councilor Suzanne Herstad told the board May 3 in Duluth. “Hopefully, this will still be a good building block to start doing a piece here and there, setting up loops wherever we can.”

Herstad noted the failure of a larger federal application, and still wanting to partner on continued efforts at improved rural broadband connectivity with Gnesen Township to the north, and Lakewood, Grand Lake and Normanna townships in surrounding directions.

They are using ARP funding…

“This is a much-scaled-down project,” Herstad said, explaining how Rice Lake City Hall, 4107 W. Beyer Road, had been using satellite internet, but is required to hold a static internet protocol address in order to conduct election business.

Le Sueur County Broadband Fair – well attended, good questions and tour of local wellness center

The Blandin Broadband crew attended the Le Sueur County Broadband Fair on Thursday. Hosted by the Le Sueur County Broadband Initiative, it looked like a pretty simple setup but it got a lot done. Providers were invited to set up a table. There local broadband team created a few “booths” that promoted the Affordable Connectivity Program (broadband subsidies to households that need it) and other funding opportunities like Congressionally Directed Spending. There was a vendor selling delicious BBQ and a few places to sit.

The event was very well attended. I would guess 60+ people through the event.

Getting people together to chat freely about broadband was a great idea. A lot of customers got to the right people – even if that just meant letting off some steam. A lot of potential customers heard from a number of providers. Engineers from the County chatted with different providers about where the fiber really is. Providers looking at maps and realizing that they can more towers now that the original community has FTTH.

Before the event, we attended the broadband steering committee, where we heard them plan contingency upon contingency based on what funding comes in and through which door it arrives. Le Sueur broadband is a study in persistence and resilience.

Also, we learned about the Clubhouse for folks with mental health issues in Le Center and ended up visiting it the next day. It’s a terrific community-led spot for folks with persistent and/or constituent mental health issues to go to learn skills, build friendships or just get away from the other parts of their world that might be causing stress. You can see our tour below.

Kandiyohi County spends almost $500,000 on ARPA on broadband in Hawick and around Long Lake

The West Central Tribune reports…

Over the last several weeks, the Broadband and Advanced Technology Committee has been working closely with Vibrant Broadband of the Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association to design and obtain funding for broadband projects on the east side of the county.

The committee is part of the Kandiyohi County and city of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

“Broadband has been such a priority for us and we’ve struggled to get things moving,” said Kandiyohi County Commissioner Corky Berg.

At the April 19 County Board meeting, the commissioners approved spending $444,700 of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation toward a fiber-to-the-home broadband project in Hawick and around Long Lake. The project would reach 289 properties that are currently underserved or unserved by high-speed broadband. …

The total project is estimated to cost $1,005,000. Roseville and Irving townships will be providing $57,800 in funding for the project, with Vibrant funding the rest.

Since the county’s $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds began to arrive, the County Board has planned to dedicate nearly 75% of it to broadband expansion. While a few of the projects need grant approvals to move forward, the county has approved funding to a handful of smaller plans.

Willmar City Council looking at fiber to industrial park with VIBRANT

The West Central Tribune reports

The Willmar City Council gave its Planning and Development staff the OK to continue working with VIBRANT Broadband on a project would bring fiber broadband into the city’s Industrial Park. The city could then build off that backbone to offer fiber to homes across the city.

The background…

The County Board and the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission have been working hard to bring high-speed broadband projects to areas in the county that are either underserved or unserved. Most of these projects will be fiber-to-home, the best internet technology available.

While Kandiyohi County is attempting to fill its broadband holes, some in Willmar are worried about being left behind. While residents and businesses in the city can get some version of high-speed internet, it might end up being of a lower quality than what rural areas might soon have.

“The plan being developed by the county was going to leave Willmar in a deficit. Willmar was going to have worse internet than the build-out in the rest of the county,” said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin at Monday’s council meeting, adding that residential internet in Willmar is woefully under what it should and needs to be.

The plan to bring fiber to the city…

That response led Walker to VIBRANT Broadband, part of the Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association, on a project that would bring a fiber internet line the 19 miles from Atwater to the Willmar Industrial Park. The city could then use that fiber line as the backbone for a city fiber network to expand fiber-to-home opportunities to residents, perhaps as early as next year. Walker said there were no projects currently being planned for Kandiyohi County that would bring fiber broadband to Willmar.

A draft letter of intent and contract with the company has Willmar paying approximately 80% of the estimated $1.25 million project, or no more than $1 million. Walker said that money could come from the city’s Industrial Park Fund, though discussions could be had about using the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money as well.

The council said move ahead…

The council gave its approval for Walker to continue working with VIBRANT on a project for Willmar. No contracts or projects were approved Monday night, just the OK to continue ironing out a potential agreement with the internet service provider.

Cloquet Broadband Committee recommends partnership with CTC

The Pine Journal reports

During a Cloquet City Council work session Tuesday, April 5, the Cloquet Broadband Committee provided an update to the council about the responses to its broadband survey and the next steps the committee will be taking.

Holly Hansen, the city’s community development director and a member of the broadband committee, said the county at large struggles with broadband issues.

After receiving survey responses and continuing to research solutions, the next steps for the committee include finding a partner to help plan and work with the city to develop a better broadband infrastructure.

After interviewing companies in the area, Hansen said the committee recommends moving forward with a possible partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company.

Hennepin County and Minnetrista partner for Midco Broadband Expansion

Great news for folks in Minnetrista…

Hennepin County and the City of Minnetrista partner to build out broadband infrastructure and provide high-quality internet service to nearly 500 unserved and underserved homes in Minnetrista.
There has been a gap in the availability of reliable high speed internet service in the City of Minnetrista and other communities which has been exacerbated by the COIVD-19 pandemic. The City of Minnetrista established a subcommittee of Mayor Lisa Whalen, Councilmember Ann MacGregor, and City staff to prioritize the need for reliable high-speed internet in unserved areas of the community.
On February 7, 2022, the City Council approved a cost share agreement with Midcontinent Communications (Midco) for the build out of fiber to the home internet to bridge this gap and provide reliable internet service to nearly 500 unserved and underserved homes in Minnetrista.
With Hennepin County’s commitment to eliminate the digital divide, and financial support in the partnership, the City of Minnetrista is able to further bridge the gap in high-speed internet service in the community.
“Hennepin County is committed to supporting connectivity for all residents. I believe that public-private partnerships are key to eliminating the digital divide, and the project in
Minnetrista is a shining example. An investment in broadband infrastructure is more than web browsers and streaming services – it’s an investment in regional prosperity,” Commissioner Kevin Anderson stated.
“The City of Minnetrista Council, staff and community are so grateful for this partnership with Hennepin County. Their support allows our unserved and underserved residents to have access to reliable internet services, as it has become an essential part of life for us all. Thank you to Hennepin County for helping us address connectivity challenges and providing support to one of the City’s major challenges,” stated Minnetrista Mayor Lisa Whalen.

Federal funding promotes municipal networks which clashes with some state policies (including MN)

Route Fifty reports…

President Biden’s transformative push to expand internet service by treating broadband more like a public utility is on a collision course with laws in 17 states.

And, the potential conflict is raising questions about whether his administration is willing to use federal infrastructure dollars to twist the arms of mostly Republican-run states to change laws they have on the books restricting municipal broadband projects.

The states argue that these types of laws are needed to protect taxpayers and prevent government overreach.

The Biden administration’s view is that one way to lower broadband prices around the country and to expand service into areas where it’s lacking is to get more municipalities and public utilities to begin offering high-speed internet—similar to electricity or water.

Minnesota is one of the states that will be impacted…

Minnesota allows municipalities to acquire or construct telephone exchanges upon obtaining a majority vote in a referendum on that issue. But if an exchange already exists in an area, a municipality can construct a new one only upon obtaining a 65% super-majority of the votes. (Minn. Stat. Ann. § 237.19). Also, Chapter 429 of the Minnesota Statutes, which applies to “Local Improvements, Special Assessments,” states in Minn. Stat. Ann. § 429.021(19) that the council of a municipality is empowered to improve, construct, extend, and maintain facilities for Internet access and other communications purposes if the council finds that: (i) the facilities are necessary to make available Internet access or other communications services that are not and will not be available through other providers or the private market in the reasonably foreseeable future; and (ii) the service to be provided by the facilities will not compete with service provided by private entities. (Minn. Stat. Ann. § 429.021(19))

HBC and Winona County Announce $2.6 Million Rural Broadband Expansion Project

Good news from HBC

Hundreds of rural Winona County homes currently struggling with broadband access, will soon be connected to high-speed broadband. Hiawatha Broadband Communications, Inc. (HBC) and Winona County (MN) are working together again to bring broadband service to some of the most rural areas of the county.

Construction of the $2.6 million project will begin this spring with fiber-optic broadband services being brought to the Sylvan Heights, Saratoga, Big Trout Drive, Spillway Drive, and the Arches areas in Winona County. The project will bring high-speed fiber-optic broadband to 200 homes, many with school aged children, that have been severely challenged by the lack of broadband service.

“Broadband is a major key to education, economic, and life-style requirements going forward,” HBC president Dan Pecarina said. “Providing the opportunity for children to fully participate on a level playing field is the number one challenge for those in rural parts of the country. In addition, more and more job opportunities are becoming flexible which allows people to work from home.”

This is not the first time HBC and Winona County have collaborated to expand broadband in the county. Since 2016, the two entities have worked together to bring broadband to eight rural areas, including East Burns Valley, Cedar Valley, Pickwick, Ridgeway, Wilson, Witoka, Whitewater, and Elba. These projects have brought broadband to nearly 3,000 rural homes in Winona County that previously lacked broadband service.

This new fiber optic network is expected to be completed in the second half of the year. Gigabit broadband speeds will start being activated by the end of August. All areas will have access before the end of the year.

 

 

Kandiyohi County and Meeker County working with Vibrant on ReConnect grant

The West Central reports

Over the past year, Kandiyohi County has been concentrating on bringing high-speed broadband to all corners of the county. The County Board has even pledged to use up to 75% of its American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus relief money to fund various broadband projects.

At the Feb. 15 County Board meeting, the commissioners approved a letter of support for a grant application being pursued by a party outside of Kandiyohi County. Vibrant Broadband from Litchfield is applying for a USDA ReConnect grant, which, if awarded, would bring high-speed broadband to nine townships in eastern Kandiyohi County, along with nine townships in western Meeker County.

Both the Kandiyohi County and Meeker County boards of commissioners approved resolutions supporting the application at their Feb. 15 meetings. …

The project would include laying fiber-optic cable. If the grant is awarded, there is no county match, meaning Kandiyohi County would not have to put any money toward the project.

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…

Broadband Technology Options: Mini video lessons for communities

The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality educators help communities navigate their futures. They have been working with our colleague Bill Coleman to create short micro-learning videos that highlight economic and community development emerging ideas, new research, best practices and lessons learned.

Le Sueur County is working on better broadband with local champion Barbara Dröher Kline

After a broadband provider that will meet the needs, the strongest tool for a community that needs better broadband is a local champion. It was fun to see the New Prague Times give a nod to a strong champion in Le Sueur County – Barbara Dröher Kline…

“If you’re looking for a silver lining in this pandemic, improved broadband service in Le Sueur County is one.”
– Barbara Dröher Kline

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Le Sueur County has spent $1.7 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to improve the speed and reliability of internet service throughout the county.

It might seem like a cause-and-effect situation, as stay-at-home orders and mandated distance learning highlighted the need—or lack of—good, quality internet access. However, the groundwork, which made the county’s large-scale improvement projects possible during 2020, was laid by a small citizen task force, years prior to the pandemic.

The movement began in early 2018 when Barbara Dröher Kline of Union Hill was running for the Minnesota House of Representatives District 20A seat. She and her husband had moved to the area in 2016 and were frustrated with their slow, unreliable internet service. Their frustration grew after learning their neighbor had a fiber internet connection (built with a state grant), which allows for better, more reliable internet service—a service the Dröher Kline household was not eligible for because of the telephone area in which it is located.

After attending a regional summit on broadband, Dröher Kline met with her county commissioner, John King, and County Administrator Darrell Pettis about the opportunity to work with the Blandin Foundation, a rural foundation that supports local broadband planning.

The article goes on to give a brief history of broadband in Le Sueur, which Barbara is still working on.