Wabasha County to invest $1 million American Rescue Plan funds on broadband

Post Bulletin reports

Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante said the county board voted to commit $1 million of its $4.2 million American Rescue Plan money to expanding rural broadband access. While counties across the country still have questions on the federal guidelines for spending those funds – Plante said the county will hire a consultant to ensure it follows those guidelines to the letter once their hammered out – he envisions a grant program where internet providers can apply through a request for proposals, letting the county know what projects they prioritize in rural areas for their clients.

“Land-wise, a significant portion of the county is either unserved or underserved,” Plante said. “Primarily, we’re good in the cities. Population-wise, a substantial portion does have those internet capabilities. But businesses and families in the more rural areas need access to that.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, underserved areas are places with wireline broadband of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, but less than 100/20 Mbps. Unserved areas are places with no wireline broadband of at least 25/3 Mbps.

Not everyone pushed for broadband…

Not everyone was supportive of the plan to spent $1 million on rural broadband. Wabasha County Commissioner Brian Goihl said that between the lack of guidance from the federal government, the fact that the county has until Dec. 31, 2023, to put plans in place and another three years for project completion, and other pressing spending needs in the county, he’d prefer to spend the $1 million on other projects.

EVENT Sep 22: Broadband Informational Meeting Coming In Wright County

From Wright County

Wright County is in the process of gathering information and public input on improving the county’s broadband capability and part of that process will include a public informational meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22 in the Wright County Board Room at the Government Center in downtown Buffalo (10 Second St. NW).

The county has contracted with the firm Design Nine out of Blacksburg, Virginia to complete a broadband study which included a public survey that was mailed out to all county residents in August. Jack Maytum, a senior broadband analyst with Design Nine, will be making a presentation of the results and will answer questions residents might have concerning the project.

The goal is to connect the underserved areas of Wright County with high-speed internet. The study will serve as a guide for the implementation of an expanded and improved broadband network and provide strategies to address rural high-speed internet deficiencies. The study will also provide the standards required for the county to seek out funding for state and federal grant programs designed to improve broadband connectivity.

For more information or for those with questions about the process or the informational meeting, contact Wright County Project Administrator Elizabeth Karels at elizabeth.karels@co.wright.mn.us or by calling (763) 684-8604.

 

EVENT Sep 22: Wright County is looking at better broadband

Patch reports

 

Wright County is in the process of gathering information and public input on improving the county’s broadband capability and part of that process will include a public informational meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22 in the Wright County Board Room at the Government Center in downtown Buffalo (10 Second St. NW).

The county has contracted with the firm Design Nine out of Blacksburg, Virginia to complete a broadband study which included a public survey that was mailed out to all county residents in August. Jack Maytum, a senior broadband analyst with Design Nine, will be making a presentation of the results and will answer questions residents might have concerning the project.

The goal is to connect the underserved areas of Wright County with high-speed internet. The study will serve as a guide for the implementation of an expanded and improved broadband network and provide strategies to address rural high-speed internet deficiencies. The study will also provide the standards required for the county to seek out funding for state and federal grant programs designed to improve broadband connectivity.

Dakota County Broadband Report 2020

Every county should publish a county broadband annual report! If you do have one – please send it my way. If you don’t,  Dakota Broadband Board (DBB) model is a good one to use (starts on page 19)…

In 2020 the Dakota Broadband Board continued to make significant strides towards its goal of connecting and serving public facilities throughout its member communities in an efficient manner. As stated in the Joint Powers Agreement, the intent of the DBB is:

  • To create a high-performance institutional network for the efficient management of physical network assets owned among members (conduit, fiber, cable, etc.), and to enable more efficient and lower cost price agreements for member for a variety of IP-based services
  • To utilize excess capacity to enhance business attraction, business retention, and economic development opportunities through wholesale access to private sector providers
  • The DBB will not be a retail provider of services to businesses and residents in Dakota County

Project activity continued to increase in 2020 for DBB members. These projects not only improved the way that members were able to serve the public across a variety of programs and platforms, but also increased redundancy in the network to protect against unexpected interruptions and enabled members to better plan for and react to emergencies in their communities. Over 17 miles of fiber were added to the network as a result of DBB projects in 2020.

Through collaborative planning efforts and improvements in administrative processes, the organization also continued to produce effective and responsive outcomes for its members.

The broadband landscape in Dakota County in Dakota County will continue to change. At the conclusion of 2020, the DBB was in the process of considering the issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP) to facilitate the update of its current Systems Plan. This process will help provide DBB Board members with the data needed to continue to move the organization forward in the future

The report goes on to highlight DBB Projects, Project Planning, Collaboration and Partnership (they excel here!) Budget Summary and Communication and Process Improvement.

Also Dakota County is ahead of the game in many ways and very generous with the information they share.

A voice for Open access municipal networks

The Salt Lake Tribune reports…

Now that Washington’s about to pass the infrastructure bill (“The American Jobs Plan”), it is critical that the truth about open access municipal broadband networks be told: They work; they are successful; they spur competition; they are closing the digital divide.

They also are an irritant to big cable and its allies, whose henchmen have been busy at work in a well-financed lobbying campaign, trying to derail the process to ensure that a good portion of the potential $65 billion-plus for broadband reverts to them.

In a commentary carried by Fox News on June 13, Rep. John Curtis, from Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, claimed that municipal networks “don’t work,” are ineffective ways to extend broadband access, and “not capable of the investment risk.” Worse, he said that municipal networks have failed in Utah.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The inconvenient truth that Curtis misses is that municipal fiber is hugely successful in Utah, even in his own district.

You can read the full story for the details. I have herd people refer to municipal networks in Minnesota in the same way so I thought this might be a good reminder. There are many ways to define success in the public sector – getting residents what they need is a big part of the equation.

Asset mapping in Le Sueur County – including broadband plans

Yesterday I attended a Le Sueur County asset mapping community workshop in Le Center. No Zoom – an actual meeting with people. There were 40 some people in the 4H building on the county fairgrounds. It was great to be in the same room with people working and it was great to hear about how folks weathered the COVID storm and exciting to see how planful they were being about moving forward.

Like many communities, Le Sueur is in a position of having federal funding coming in and they are looking at what to do with it, starting with asset mapping. In small groups we listed the assets in the county – from Lakes to the people to local organizations. Then, again in small groups, we brainstormed projects to highlight or best use those assets. Broadband was just one of the topics that came up.

Greenwood Township is looking at options for better broadband

The Ely Timberjay reports

There may be no easy answers on how to get broadband internet service to Greenwood Township, but there will be some options if the township decides to move forward. The lack of decent internet service, let alone high-speed service, is seen as a major issue facing the township in the future, particularly as increasing numbers of residents and new arrivals seek to work from home.
The town board met with Joe Buttweiler, from broadband provider CTC, along with IRRRB staffer Whitney Ridlon and RAMS director Steve Giorgi, during a special meeting on June 15.

Greenwood Township is caught in an RDOF area that is not hopeful about their prospects…

But the awarding of Rural Digital Opportunity Funding (RDOF) has put a monkey-wrench into broadband project planning in the area, with the possible awarding of a huge amount of federal money to a small internet company with no experience putting in fiber optic-based systems, let alone doing projects nationwide.
“The problem is,” Buttweiler said, “nobody believes they can do what they said they would do. It costs too much.”
Currently the FCC is vetting the company, LTD Broadband, but there is no timeline for the process, and Buttweiler said he did not expect a decision until a new FCC commissioner is installed. LTD could possibly receive $312 million for projects throughout Minnesota, not just for this area.
While this is underway, most other state or federal grant programs are unwilling to fund projects in the RDOF area, which includes huge areas of St. Louis County.

But they have a few options…

Buttweiler said there are other options for bringing in broadband, but they would involve a major investment from the township, though that investment could be paid back by the provider over the course of several years.
CTC is a co-op, he said, and doesn’t have access to huge amounts of capital. In other areas they have done arrangements where the local governmental unit comes up with the capital costs up front, and then enters into a construction agreement with CTC who would then lease the fiber from the township, including responsibility for maintenance and operational costs. This agreement could include giving CTC the option to buy back the fiber network from the township, once the costs are paid off by their annual lease payments.

And…

Another option would be to have CTC finance a smaller portion of the project up front, possibly bringing in other partners and grant dollars, along with funding from the township.
Greenwood has applied for $110,000 in federal funding, which isn’t tied to RDOF. There is also funding available from the IRRRB that could be accessed. Whitney Ridlon, who works on broadband issues for the IRRR, said they have $2 million for local matches for broadband projects, but would probably only award up to $750,000, or up to 25 percent of a project’s cost.

They are looking for input from the community…

Greenwood residents are encouraged to complete a survey on the CTC website, to indicate any interest in broadband internet service. CTC also offers television and telephone service in bundled packages. CTC is currently adding broadband service in Cherry Township (rural Hibbing), and offering broadband-speed service at approximately $60/month.
Anyone with an address in Greenwood Township is asked to fill out the survey at https://join.connectctc.com/front_end/zones.

Kandiyohi County commits $1.3 million ARP funding to broadband

Gov Tech reports

Kandiyohi County, as part of the federal American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package, will receive over the next year approximately $8.3 million. The funds can be used to pay for a wide range of projects, programs and personnel, as long as it can be tied back to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An area getting a lot of attention is high-speed broadband. The rules of the American Rescue Plan say funds can be used for critical infrastructure projects, including broadband investments that can provide 1,000 megabits per second upload and download speeds.

At a work session June 10, there was a consensus of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners to spend a large chunk of the county’s allotment, perhaps as much as 75 percent, to help fund several broadband improvement projects across the county.

Here are the specifics…

The County Board began to make good on that consensus Tuesday, committing $1,314,386 to a project that will expand high-speed broadband to Dovre, Mamre, St. Johns and Arctander townships.

States go through stages to fund broadband: MN lifted as early adopter

The Benton Institute posts an article from CTC Energy and Technology on the steps that state take to fund local broadband efforts. They outline three stages…

  1. In the first stage, states must develop an overall broadband plan that identifies where improved connectivity is most needed and how those needs should be met.
  2. In the second stage, states design the structure and rules of their broadband funding programs to meet these goals.
  3. In the third stage, states execute their grant strategies and then revise and adjust them for further rounds of funding to incorporate lessons learned in earlier rounds.

And they pull out Minnesota as an early adopter…

States do not progress through these stages uniformly. For example, whereas Minnesota’s grant program was initially developed from nearly a decade of prior state-level strategy development, Illinois moved from planning to grant program execution quickly and efficiently, in part because it benefited from Minnesota’s lessons learned and best practices. Multiple iterations of the Minnesota broadband task force met from 2008 until the state created an administrative entity to execute broadband strategy in 2013, with initial infrastructure grant funding in 2015. The grant program has evolved by using feedback from prior grant cycles to fine-tune its approach and cultivate a pipeline of potential projects. In contrast, states such as Illinois and Virginia learned from Minnesota’s example and demonstrate how the time between planning and program execution can be dramatically reduced. Illinois’s $420 million grants program was launched in 2019, following simultaneous development of the program and availability information-gathering, stakeholder outreach, and strategy development.

While it’s always nice to be an early adopter, the article points out that a good idea will be replicated. Minnesota needs to go through these stages routinely to make sure to stay on top of the game.

Finley Guide: Best Practices for Public-Private Partnerships

Finley Engineering helps communities with broadband and energy engineering. Telecompetitor recently posted their Guide: Best Practices for Public-Private Partnerships. Boiled down they have a straightforward 7-step approach to developing public private partnerships with communities, especially in light of federal, state and local funding being made available through various COVID recovery programs:

  1. Start with a strong feasibility study
  2. Engage the broad discussion around structure of potential partnership
  3. Make your company an attractive partner
  4. Develop an effective communication plan
  5. Be prepared to respond to an RFI/RFP process
  6. Find good vendor partners
  7. Prepare for things that can go wrong

Harmony Telephone to apply for broadband grant with City of Harmony

The Fillmore County Journal reports

A public hearing to discuss the application of a grant from the Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program was held at the beginning of the May 11 Harmony City Council meeting. Harmony Telephone would like to apply for it in conjunction with the City of Harmony so that the every home in town would have access to broadband internet. The grant would pay for the buried fiber and Harmony Telephone would cover the cost of the electronics necessary for the project. No questions or comments were received from the public and the hearing was closed. The council approved a participation plan and Resolution 21-08 regarding the application for the grant.

St Paul could use COVID money for better broadband

MinnPost posts an idea from columnist Bill Lindeke…

In normal times, especially given the 2020 COVID budget crunch, cities would be hamstrung when it comes to doing anything about this problem. But these are not normal times. This month, cities across the country are getting a huge one-time influx of money, thanks to Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

In a city like St. Paul, it amounts to $187 million, and it’s targeted for COVID-related assistance and a list of infrastructure types that, critically, includes broadband.

How does St Paul Compare to Minneapolis?

St. Paul grants companies permission to provide internet access within the city every few years — the current franchisees are Comcast and Centurylink —  and that negotiation provides an opportunity to leverage benefits for people. For example, both of the current providers are supposed to provide a small income-based discount for people who qualify. (In practice, this can be a difficult application and is not always applicable.)

One of the key reasons that Minneapolis’ broadband network is so much better than St. Paul’s is that it has a decade-old partnership with US Internet (USI), a Minnetonka-based company. Years ago, the city teamed up to fund an admittedly spotty municipal wireless service network. But that partnership allowed USI to invest in fiber optic broadband throughout much of south Minneapolis. That in turn allowed the city’s fiber service to be both faster and more affordable than the larger national providers.

Ask around yourself. Pretty much without exception, any USI fiber customer gushes accolades about their broadband service, which reaches speeds of 300 megabits per second (at minimum). By far the biggest complaint about USI is that it’s not available everywhere. Moving from a Minneapolis neighborhood with USI fiber to a part of town without it amounts to losing a cherished pet, and I’m convinced there are people who decide where to live based on their fiber service availability.

Maybe St Paul could improve on the Minneapolis model…

Chris Mitchell would like St. Paul to use some of its ARP money to copy and improve this model, perhaps leasing a new network to the company. Or alternately, the city could build the fiber network itself, representing something of a moonshot for a municipality that only recently began organizing trash collection.

Either way, there are a lot of options for how to leverage the funding, and it could do wonders for digital equity in St. Paul’s poorest communities. Crucially, they could use COVID money to focus on the city’s poorest neighborhoods first.

EVENT May 5: Dakota Broadband Board Technical Advisory Committee Meeting

Dakota County has been working on building broadband through partnerships for a long time. So even if you’re not in Dakota County, you might learn something lurking at some meetings.

They have one May 5, 2021 from 8:30-10:30am. One topic that may be of interest: Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Initiative. You can get the full agenda online.

Half surveyed trust local government to get into broadband

Morning Consult reports…

As the pandemic continues to underscore the importance of reliable, at-home internet service, debate rages over whether local governments should be permitted to build out and run their own broadband networks, either on their own or with the help of a private partner.

The White House, in its infrastructure proposal released earlier this month, has thrown its support behind allowing municipalities to explore such options. And a new Morning Consult poll suggests many adults agree with that stance: 53 percent of U.S. adults said local governments should be able to explore having their own internet services — but they tend to trust local governments less than private internet companies to carry out the job on their own.

The survey, which was conducted online April 16-19 among 2,200 adults, has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

 

Here are some results:

  • 54% said they had either “a lot” or “some” trust in local governments to give them the best at-home internet service, compared to 75% who said the same about private internet providers.
  • Eighteen states currently make it prohibitively difficult for towns to consider local internet service options.
  • Just 14% of adults said local governments should not be allowed to consider municipal broadband options.

Comparing Duluth’s market-based broadband solution to Superior’s Municipal open access model

Duluth News Tribune reports…

Superior is considering a $31 million investment in a fiber optic network, while Duluth is prepared to put $1 million on the table as the city weighs its options.

Duluth News Tribune goes on to compare the two cities based on broadband access; it’s a story of market-based solutions and city sponsored open access model.

The story in Duluth…

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has offered a harsh assessment of the city’s dominant broadband service provider: Spectrum Internet. …

But Larson remains unimpressed and has proposed the city spend $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds “to incentivize new service providers to enter the market” and compete with Spectrum. …

Schuchman concurred [with uneven access in Duluth], saying: “I do think one of the challenges we have is that there are areas of the city that do not have broadband, and so, while the city in general does, and we are considered ‘served’ at that point, we also have some gaps. So, it’s really important to the city and the community to close those gaps and make sure that we have equitable distribution of that access and that it is consistent and high-quality.”

Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, said the situation in the Twin Ports is “unfortunately, a story shared among cities and towns across the U.S.”

“Often, a given provider will own the phone lines, while another will own the cable lines. This creates a de facto duopoly which is one of the central barriers to broadband expansion across the country,” he said

The story in Superior…

Meanwhile, across the river in Superior, aggressive efforts to boost Spectrum’s competition in the Twin Ports are taking even clearer shape. At a Thursday night listening session, representatives of EntryPoint Networks laid out plans to potentially build out an open-access fiber optic network in Superior at an estimated cost of about $31 million. …

“It’s a robust digital road, and it’s open to, in this case, any ISP (internet service provider) that will follow the rules,” Christensen said.

For its part, the city would require users of this fiber network to pay a toll or fee that would be used to help pay off the cost of building and maintaining the system.

Christensen said the fiber network would offer customers speeds of 1 gigabit per second for both downloads and uploads, likely at a monthly cost of about $50, give or take 10%. He said the network would need a minimum of about 3,000 subscribers to be sustainable and is likely to easily exceed that threshold.

The rest of the article outlines the differences, benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Photo from Duluth News Tribune: A chart taken from a Connect Superior Webinar video on YouTube.