EVENT Oct 21: Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators

From BroadbandUSA…

You are invited to join NTIA’s BroadbandUSA Practical Broadband Conversations Webinar 

 

Topic: Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators

Date:   Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Time:  2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET

Overview: The rapid shift to online learning can be a challenge for students, families, and educators – particularly in low-income, rural, and tribal communities. As the new school year begins, the longstanding issue of digital inclusion stands in sharp relief. Join BroadbandUSA on October 21st to learn how communities are helping students get connected, assisting parents and caregivers gain the skills to help their children navigate online learning environments, and transitioning educators to online teaching. This panel will explore the challenges that communities and schools are facing, their innovative solutions to keep students connected, and their plans to transition from short-term solutions to long-term sustainable programs.

Speakers:

  • Dr. Christine Diggs, Chief Technology Officer, Albemarle County Public Schools, VA
  • Michael Culp, Director of Information Technology Department, Albemarle County, VA
  • Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Director, Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe, NM
  • Joshua Edmonds, Director of Digital Inclusion, City of Detroit, MI

Moderators:

  • Emy Tseng, Senior Program Specialist, BroadbandUSA, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Please pre-register for the webinar using this registration link. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Want to access past Practical Broadband Conversations webinars? Visit our webinar archives for past presentations, transcripts and audio recordings.

Senators Tina Smith, Amy Klobuchar push bipartisan effort to improve financial stability of Electric Coops, Small Rural Broadband Providers in Next COVID Relief Package

From Senator Smith’s office…

U.S. Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) are pushing Senate leaders to add their bipartisan plan to help stabilize the finances of the nation’s rural electric cooperatives and rural broadband providers in the next coronavirus relief package.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senators pressed their Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which would make it possible for rural electric cooperatives and telecommunications providers to refinance their Rural Utilities Service (RUS) debt at lower interest rates. By taking advantage of current lower interest rates, these rural cooperatives and businesses would be able to better manage cash-flow, invest in rural communities, and pass savings on to customers. The letter was signed by a bipartisan group of Senators who back the measure.

Sens. Smith and Hoeven say that this bill would also spur stronger recovery from the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rural cooperatives and businesses have struggled due to a decline in electrical consumption from industrial sources and an increase in unpaid bills from customers who have faced financial hardship.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached every corner of our country, creating financial hardship for communities and businesses in almost every sector of our economy,” wrote the Senators. “Rural areas have not been spared, and the crisis has highlighted existing disparities in things like broadband that have made recovery an even larger challenge. At the same time, many member-owned cooperatives and broadband providers have struggled financially as a result of the economic downturn related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Allowing borrowers to refinance their RUS loans at the current lower interest rates would enable a stronger recovery by providing rural cooperatives and businesses flexibility in managing their cash flow. Some estimates have predicted that this move could save businesses millions per year in debt payments, allowing these companies to invest in electric infrastructure or rural broadband networks in their communities, and pass savings on directly to customers. These investments would be especially vital as rural communities work to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.”

In addition to Sens. Smith and Hoeven, the letter was signed by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Sen. Smith has been working to get relief to rural electric coops during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, Sens. Smith and Hoeven led a bipartisan group of Senators in urging the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to support rural electric cooperatives and ensure their access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  When Sen. Smith heard that Minnesota cooperatives were at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they received grants to expand broadband or recover from a disaster, she wanted to reverse that. The key government spending package that was signed into law last year included her bipartisan bill with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to ensure co-ops can retain their tax exemptions when they receive government grants.

You can read a copy of the letter here.

Paul Bunyan Communications Returns Capital Credits Early; Over $4.1 Million Distributed, Largest in Cooperative Histor

I don’t usually share such business-focused press releases, but it’s a good time for good news and it seems like a sign that you can make a business case for rural broadband at Gig speeds…

Instead of the regular fall distribution, Paul Bunyan Communications has sent out the 2020 Capital Credit return early to its members and it is the largest return in the cooperative’s history, over $4.1 million.
Paul Bunyan Communications is a not for profit company that strives to provide the highest quality service at the most affordable rates. As a cooperative, membership in Paul Bunyan Communications includes sharing in the financial success of the company. Profits are allocated to the members based on their proportional share of the allocable revenues. These allocations may then be returned to the individual members through capital credit retirements.
The 2020 distribution includes 20% of credits earned in 2019 and the remaining credits earned in 2002. For current members with a distribution amount of $100 or less, a credit has been applied to your June bill. Checks have been mailed out to members receiving more than $100. “The state of the cooperative is strong and our all-fiber optic network, the GigaZone, is one of the largest rural gigabit networks in the country. This enables our members to keep connected to work from home, distance learn, use telehealth services, watch streaming video, and much more. To help our members in these current circumstances, our Board of Directors felt strongly about paying out capital credits as aggressively and as quickly as possible” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.
“Our cooperative member-owned structure and rural focus allows us to provide technologies and a level of service to our members unlike other providers. We are well prepared and committed to provide our members the critical communication services they need with the local customer service they deserve now and well into the future. Thank you to all of our members for being a part of Minnesota’s largest broadband cooperative!” added Randy Frisk, Board President.
“Our cooperative provides the latest in technology at cost. There is no membership fee to join Paul Bunyan Communications and there are no annual membership dues. To become a member of the cooperative, all you need to do is subscribe to either local phone or broadband Internet service. You get the latest in technology backed up by our talented team of over 130 local employees that all live and work here” added Dave Schultz, Paul Bunyan Communications Chief Financial Officer.

MN Cooperative Fiber Coverage up 1,000 square miles from 2019

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has updated their 2017 report on how Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America; they update it on a regular basis. The quick take from the Minnesota perspective – coverage in Minnesota has increased by 1,000 square miles – or percentage wise from 21.6 to 22.3 percent in the last year.

2020 Coverage

2019 Coverage

And here are recommendations…

Federal and state governments must recognize that cooperatives are one of the best tools for ubiquitous, rural, high-speed Internet access.

  1. Design funding programs with cooperatives in mind.
    1. Letters of credit from the largest banks may be hard to come by for smaller cooperatives.
    2. Make applications as simple and easy as possible. Staff time is limited at small cooperatives.
    3. Develop grant and loan programs rather than create incentives in the tax code for infrastructure investment.
  2. Encourage cooperatives by removing barriers and encouraging partnerships.
    1. Remove barriers to electric cooperatives exploring the possibility of fiber network. Cooperatives should not be prevented from applying to federal grants that they are eligible for because of hindersome state laws.
    2. Encourage partnerships, including with existing muni networks.
  3. If you live in a rural area, talk to your neighbors, co-op manager, and board members about the potential for Internet networks. Successful cooperative projects are community-led projects. About 70 percent of electric cooperatives have less than 10 percent average turnout for their board member elections.25
    1. Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Missouri had excited members go door-to-door and gave out yard signs to encourage folks to get involved with the project. Many community members also wrote letters of support for the project.
    2. In New Mexico, the local business community voiced their needs at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative board meetings to encourage the co-op to build a fiber network.
    3. Delta Montrose Electric Association in Colorado overcame an initial reluctance to develop an Internet access project after overwhelming demand from its members.26
  4. Make it clear that rural connectivity is about more than entertainment. Farmers, programmers, and entrepreneurs all need high-speed Internet access. Rural connectivity also supports needed research.
    1. Allband Communications Cooperative started a non-profit called ACEWR, which collaborates with universities and research institutions across the United States. It is a prime spot for research on local wildlife, endangered species, and conservation projects. The nonprofit also has an online workforce development program to train locals in new skills, empowering them to succeed in the 21st century economy

CTC hosts open houses in Cherry Feb 27 & 28 to discuss new USDA supported network expansion

I reported on CTC’s USDA $5.2 million investment in Cherry and Great Scott townships on the Iron Range. The Hibbing Daily News reports more…

“We’re thrilled to receive this award,” said Kristi Westbrock, CEO and General Manager at CTC, in a statement. “Residents and business owners in the Cherry Township area have made it very clear that they need high-speed internet in order to thrive. We look forward to partnering with NESC and to serving this area for years to come.”

To help spread the word and answer questions about their internet services, staff from CTC are set to host two open houses this week at Cherry Town Hall, located off Highway 37, just outside Hibbing. The first open house will be held 4-6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, and the second will be held 9-11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 28. Refreshments will be provided.

CTC is a member-owned cooperative according to their website. Anyone in the new service area who signs up before Feb. 29 will have the installation fee waived plus the first two months free with a monthly charge of $50 with a two-year contract.

And contact info…

For more information about the ReConnect Pilot Program, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.

For general inquiries about CTC or the upcoming service to the Cherry area, call 218-231-9100, or visit www.goctc.com/cherry.

For questions about business services, call 218-454-1166, or email business@goctc.com. For questions about residential services, call 218-454-1144, or email residential@goctc.com.

Cooperatives excel at rural broadband – how can we help?

The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILRS) has updated their report on the growing role of cooperatives bringing better broadband to rural areas – including a map of showing where cooperatives provider fiber service…

You can see that cooperatives are really making a difference in the Midwest. In fact, here are the top five states with cooperative fiber coverage…

ISLR and others have made the case for cooperative providers before. The very quick high level look is that cooperatives’ stakeholders are their customers so they are at least as interested in providing them with service and improving the community as making a profit. And they are more patient with return on investment than many for-profit providers.

The report does highlight some recommendations to better support cooperatives – here’s an abridged version…

Federal and state governments must recognize that cooperatives are one of the best tools for ubiquitous, rural, high-speed Internet access.

  1. Design funding programs with cooperatives in mind.

  2. Encourage cooperatives by removing barriers and encouraging partnerships.

  3. If you live in a rural area, talk to your neighbors, co-op manager, and board members about the potential for Internet networks. Successful cooperative projects are community-led projects. About 70 percent of electric cooperatives have less than 10 percent average turnout for their board member elections.

  4. Make it clear that rural connectivity is about more than entertainment. Farmers, programmers, and entrepreneurs all need high-speed Internet access. Rural connectivity also supports needed research.

Paul Bunyan annoucces The GigaZone Comes to Big Falls (Koochiching County)

Big news for Big Falls…

The GigaZone has come to Big Falls! As a result of continued upgrades to the cooperative’s all-fiber optic network, members in Big Falls now have access to GigaZone services including Internet speeds up to a Gigabit per second.

“We continue to make great progress on upgrading our network to incorporate even more members into the GigaZone. I’m very proud of all the hard work our cooperative has put in so far as we put our membership and region at the forefront of the very latest in communication networks.” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

The GigaZone is currently available to over 35,500 locations, making it one of the largest rural all-fiber optic networks in the United States! Check out our online map http://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/map/ showing the current areas of the GigaZone as well as those that will be constructed/upgraded in the future.

GigaZone service options include unprecedented Broadband Internet speeds of up to 1000 Mbps – a Gigabit. Members who subscribe to GigaZone Broadband can also add PBTV Fusion and/or low cost unlimited long distance service. All current service options also remain available to cooperative members within the GigaZone.

Many current wireless routers cannot support blazing GigaZone Internet speeds.  To help, the cooperative is offering GigaZone Integrated Wi-Fi that uses the latest in advanced Wi-Fi technologies to maximize the in-home wireless experience. This service is free to all new GigaZone customers for the first six months, with a minimal charge thereafter.

Paul Bunyan Communications recently mailed out information to the new locations that are now in the GigaZone and the cooperative has an online map available at http://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/map/ showing the active areas of the GigaZone as well as those areas that will be constructed/upgraded in the future.

“If you are wondering when the GigaZone will reach you, the online map of the active areas and plans for this year is a great resource.” added Brian Bissonette, Paul Bunyan Communications Marketing Supervisor.

Paul Bunyan Communications has the region’s largest and fastest all fiber optic network with over 5,500 square miles throughout most of Beltrami County and portions of Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis Counties. The Cooperative provides Broadband High Speed Internet Services including the GigaZone, digital and high definition television services, digital voice services, Residential and Business IT services, and is also northern Minnesota’s certified Apple Service Center.

Meeker Coop deploys Vibrant Broadband Meeker and parts of McLeod, Kandiyohi, Stearns, Wright and Renville counties

The Hutchinson Leader reports…

Meeker Cooperative’s big move to making its Vibrant Broadband internet service available to its customers throughout the county received praise Thursday from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

The governor attended a “ribbon cutting” ceremony at the cooperative’s headquarters in Litchfield during which he and other speakers said that internet connectivity today is as important as electricity was 80-some years ago when rural electric cooperatives began supplying that service.

“To the entire board of Meeker Cooperative, you embody what community means,” Walz said. “This harkens back to a time when running that final mile of power line was a big undertaking. There wasn’t an economy of scale that made sense, but what did make sense was the understanding of the economic engine that we could turn loose.”

There was a nod to the Coop’s board…

Meeker Cooperative CEO Tim Mergen said the cooperative began looking at the broadband project back in 2016, and credited the board of directors for backing it.

“They’re the ones that took the big risk to go ahead and say, ‘yeah, let’s go ahead and move this project forward,’” Mergen said. “They did what the board of directors did 84 years ago when the co-op was formed to bring electricity out to the area we now serve electricity to. it was a great big leap of faith then, it was a leap of faith now.”

And some info on the network…

Meeker Cooperative looked to change that in its service area, which includes Meeker and parts of McLeod, Kandiyohi, Stearns, Wright and Renville counties, when it announced in November that it had begun installing a fiber optic backbone, connecting its 14 substations throughout the county to provide Vibrant Broadband.

Darwin and Dassel were the first towns in the service area to receive the new technology on July 1. Mergen wrote in a column for the Meeker Pioneer — the cooperative’s monthly newsletter — that it would take about two years to complete countywide connections.

But it’s the start that many have been looking for – not just in Meeker County, but throughout the state, and even the nation.

In an earlier article the Hutchinson Leader reported on speeds they had seen with Vibrant…

In a test it conducted earlier this year, Meeker Cooperative found download speed with Vibrant Broadband is approximately 50 megabytes per second with an upload speed of about 8 megabytes per second, about double the speed provided by a competitor in the test.

That will help them get to the 2022 MN state speed goals, but not the 2026. However the fiber deployed to the towers helps bring fiber closer to the homes and that will help them reach the 2026 goals.

Broadband on Public Radio – Improving Rural Areas

I thought I heard this on the radio last week – Inside The Movement To Improve Access To High-Speed Internet In Rural Areas. I’m glad that Benton shared the link to the archive. It’s a 4-minute story about getting broadband to small towns in Texas.

The answer in the town they visited is an Electric Cooperative, who had this to say…

It’s not about making money. You’re not doing this to make money. You’re doing this to allow your communities to survive and to be here 20 years from now.

It sounds a lot like some rural Minnesota towns, although this story mentions cowboys a lot more.

Paul Bunyan Communications Returns Over $2.8 Million Member’s Share in Cooperative’s Success

Two years ago I looked at the community ROI of public investment in broadband. It turns out that while businesses can have a difficult time making the business case for better broadband – the community does see a return. SO it’s great to see a cooperative, such as Paul Bunyan, sharing their ROI with their customers and sharing the info with everyone…

Over $2.8 million has been returned to members of Paul Bunyan Communications, the cooperative announced today.

Paul Bunyan Communications is a not for profit company that strives to provide the highest quality service at the most affordable rates.  As a cooperative, membership in Paul Bunyan Communications includes the opportunity to share in the financial success of the company. When profits are earned they are allocated to the members based on their proportional share of the allocable revenues.  These allocations may then be returned to the individual members through capital credit retirements.

For current members with a distribution amount less than $75, a credit has been applied to your August bill. Checks have been mailed out for distributions of $75 or more.

“The state of our cooperative is very strong with over 27,600 active members throughout our 5,500 square mile service territory.  We have been very busy building one of the largest all-fiber optic rural Gigabit networks in the country, the GigaZone, which is revolutionizing the way members live, work, and play.  It is rewarding to see all those efforts continue to pay off and return these profits to our membership” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

“For over 65 years we have been providing the latest in technology at cost.  There is no membership fee to join Paul Bunyan Communications and there are no annual membership dues. All you need to do is subscribe to either one line of local phone or Broadband Internet service and you become a member. You get the latest in technology backed up by our talented team of over 130 local employees that all live and work here” added Dave Schultz, Paul Bunyan Communications Chief Financial Officer.

“In a highly competitive industry with national competitors our cooperative has been successful because we put our region and our members first.  We don’t have to worry about customers all over the place like in Sioux Falls, Fargo, Minneapolis, or anywhere else. Our investments go here, back into our network, our services, and our communities.” added Brian Bissonette, Paul Bunyan Communications Marketing Supervisor.

If you were a member of the cooperative in 2002 and/or 2018 and accrued more than $10 in total capital credit allocations, but do not receive the credit on your account or a check by September 22, please contact Paul Bunyan Communications at (218) 444-1234 or (218) 999-1234.

Rural Minnesota Cooperatives Partner to Connect Aitkin County

The Institute for Local Self Reliance recently highlighted the FTTH project in Aitkin County

The lakes and forests of Aitkin County in northern Minnesota make it an ideal location for a vacation home, but poor connectivity has historically limited days spent at the cabin to weekends and holidays. However, a new partnership between Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) and Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) is making it possible for families to extend their trips up north by connecting lakeside cabins with high-speed Internet access.

The two co-ops are working together to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, XStream Fiber, that will bring fast, reliable broadband access to homes and businesses in MLEC’s service territory. MLEC hopes that the improved connectivity will benefit the local economy by encouraging seasonal residents, who make up more than 40 percent of the cooperative’s membership, to stay in the region for longer.

It’s a tale of collaboration with the cooperatives working together spurred by a network created with support from a Minnesota broadband grant…

CTC’s role in the partnership is to provide network connectivity, Internet backhaul, and backend support while MLEC manages billing, marketing, and other subscriber services. The cooperatives coordinate technical support calls, with MLEC handling basic issues itself and pushing higher level problems to CTC. The electric co-op owns all of the fiber infrastructure within its service territory.

The Xstream fiber might not have made it into the ground the $1.76 million Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grant that MLEC received in 2016.

21 percent of MN can access fiber through a Cooperative

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has updated their 2017 report on how Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America, because…

In the 18 months from when we originally released our report on rural cooperatives, we have seen a tremendous increase in attention on cooperatives as a key approach for dramatically improving rural Internet access. Many cooperatives have become more aggressive in building next-generation networks for their member-owners and their neighbors. This updated report reflects the latest data we could gather on this essential movement.

Here are some of the high level highlights:

    • More than 140 co-ops across the country now offer residential gigabit Internet access to their members, reaching more than 300 communities.
    • Co-ops connect 70.8 percent of North Dakota and 47.7 percent of South Dakota landmass to fiber, and residents enjoy some of the fastest Internet access speeds in the nation.
    • Georgia and Mississippi have overturned state laws banning co-ops from offering Internet access, and other states, including Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas, have implemented legislation that will further ease the way.

And  a look at what’s happening in Minnesota.

They mention a few Minnesota coops and the impact of Minnesota state grants…

In addition to federal funding sources, co-ops
are often eligible for state and local grants. The
Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Grant
Program has awarded funds to several
cooperatives, and multiple states looked to it as
a model for their own grant programs. Local 22
government funding for connectivity is rarer, but
in Minnesota, numerous counties have
provided loans and grants to electric and
telephone cooperatives for broadband projects,
often to supplement federal or state funding.23
For example, Cook County, Minnesota, offered
Arrowhead Electric Cooperative a $4 million
grant after the co-op was awarded $16 million
in stimulus funding.

“Fiber is the name of our game at CTC” Kristi Westbrock featured in ISE Mag

I love to see Minnesota getting broadband attention, I’m especially pleased to see a smart MN Woman featured in an interview with ISE Magazine – Kristi Westbrock, CEO at CTC. You can read about CTC and fiber…

ISE: What are your priorities in terms of fiber investments in 2019? What are the challenges you face when working with your own team and/or contractors to deploy fiber in rural Minnesota? What are some of the tactics and solutions you employ to get them expedited and completed on budget?

Westbrock: Fiber is the name of our game at CTC. While we’ve dabbled in alternate service offerings, CTC has committed that our long-term investments will be designed as FTTP.

Challenges always surround making financial models in fiber builds sustainable and eventually profitable. CTC has been using several tools to determine the feasibility in areas of high demand that serve as expansion projects for us. Knowing our committed take rates have been critical in determining the success of each build. Gaining customer commitment prior to building fiber in a neighborhood, township, or rural community, has also been critical to the return on the investment. Churn of a customer, once they have a fiber connection, is nearly non-existent for CTC, which is a testament to the service quality fiber brings.

The largest challenge in building FTTP in Minnesota is simply the weather. Our build season is short, typically May to October, and then construction is put on hold. This creates long delays when those who are anxiously awaiting Internet service in rural areas can’t get it due to the weather. Because of the short time to build, the plow needs to go into the ground as soon as the frost is out, and State and Federal permitting needs to be expedited.

And on life as a cooperative…

ISE: Share the differences and nuances about working with a telco cooperative. Why is that type of structure a strength for CTC? How can it impede network transformation?

Westbrock: The first 10 years of my career were spent working for private and publicly traded companies. Bottom line and profits drove strategy. Then I transformed to working for a Cooperative. It was a learning curve to understand the 7 Principals of a Cooperative and tying those into the short- and long-term decisions that are made.

The Cooperative has a Board of Directors that is elected by the membership, which are the owners. The overriding goal of a telecommunications Cooperative is to bring services to those that are unserved while ensuring stability for the member owners.

Being a Cooperative is the magic ingredient in what we do each day. We focus each day on members, employees, and communities, to provide life-changing technology solutions for a sustainable future. Sometimes this means that the models don’t work out to have payback in a normal business model. Serving unserved areas is and will continue to be a focus of CTC. We are thankful for programs through the RUS. We also are deeply engrained in the communities we support, therefore having high recognition of being the local provider. Recently we underwent a full customer journey study; through this we learned that customers in our communities want to purchase from a local provider with local service.

RS Fiber and HBC form Long-Term Agreement and plan expansions

Great news for folks in the area. It’s always good to hear about folks who are willing to expand fiber to rural Minnesota…

RS Fiber Cooperative (RS Fiber) has announced the formation of a long-term operating relationship with Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), giving RS Fiber the opportunity to meet and expand on the original goals for the project.

 

RS Fiber hired HBC to build and operate the gigabit fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) network when the project was launched three-years ago to bring high-speed broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties. RS Fiber and HBC recently struck a partnership agreement where HBC will provide funding for the continued operation and growth of the network.

 

To build the network, RS Fiber acquired financing through several sources. Many financial institutions deem the construction of broadband networks as high risk, resulting in higher interest rates. After the network is built and customer numbers grow, the lender risk is reduced allowing for more favorable interest rates. This past year, RS Fiber has been working to restructure its high interest loans in an effort to create a longstanding and sustainable Cooperative. The culmination of that work has resulted in an arrangement between RS Fiber and HBC that strengthens their business relationship for years to come and keeps the RS Fiber mission and vision intact.

 

“We knew we had the right vision and great support from the cities and townships in our project area,” said Kevin Lauwagie, Chairman of the RS Fiber Board of Directors. “We have held strong to the commitment we made to our patrons and residents of our region. This relationship with HBC will help us continue to provide advanced services that rural Minnesota deserves.”

 

“This network and RS Fiber’s commitment to rural broadband is right in line with HBC’s vision and values” stated HBC President, Dan Pecarina. “We are committed to small town and rural broadband deployment, so operating this

network with our RS Fiber friends provides the opportunity to advance this much needed service.”

 

RS Fiber has completed construction of gigabit FTTP networks in 10 communities located in Renville, Sibley, McLeod, and Nicollet Counties of west central Minnesota. RS Fiber has also used this rich fiber network to connect to tall structures such as towers and grain elevators to provide high speed fixed-wireless services to the rural areas of the region.

 

RS Fiber currently serves more than 2,200 customers, with plans to rapidly expand its customer base. “Fiber-Optic networks provide more speed, capacity, and reliability and those features will help drive more innovative services to RS Fiber customers,” stated Pecarina.

 

“We are already seeing tremendous economic growth within the RS Fiber communities, like the medical school coming to Gaylord” added Lauwagie, “along with education, telemedicine, and precision agriculture benefits.”

 

RS Fiber will soon be announcing several new service options for customers to enhance their video, telephone, and broadband Internet experience. RS Fiber is also looking to expand its network to bring the benefits of the high-speed broadband to more rural residents and businesses in the region.

Bipartisan Bills Introduced to Correct Tax Law Hindering Rural Co-op Broadband – led by Sen Tina Smith

It seems like my weekend is being spent catching up with smart people. Doug Dawson on 5G and now the ILSR Community Networks folks on tax laws and cooperative broadband potential.

Community Networks have been keeping up on the topic…

Last November, we reported on a change to the tax code that is deterring rural telephone and electric cooperatives from leveraging government funding to expand broadband access. We were alerted to the issue by the office of Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig requesting that they remedy the issue and announcing her intention to introduce corrective legislation.

Good news is that changes are being proposed…

Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks. …

To end the legal uncertainty that electric and telephone co-ops are now facing, the RURAL Act would explicitly exclude government funding for broadband infrastructure and other important investments from the member income test. Specifically, the bill would exclude the following funding sources from a co-op’s gross income for the purposes of determining tax-exempt status:

“any grant, contribution, or assistance provided pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act or any similar grant, contribution, or assistance by any local, State, or regional governmental entity for the purpose of relief, recovery, or restoration from, or preparation for, a disaster or emergency” or “any grant or contribution by any governmental entity . . . the purpose of which is substantially related to providing, con­struct­ing, restoring, or relocating electric, communication, broadband, internet, or other utility facilities or services.”