Update on East Central Energy’s push to get better broadband to Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec, and Pine Counties

The Isanti-Chisago Country Star gives an update on East Central Energy’s journey to providing better broadband to residents within ECE’s electricity service area, which includes around 65,000 members over 14 counties, including Isanti, Chisago, Kanabec, and Pine Counties. Here’s an abridged look at the timeline that Isanti-Chisago Country Star provides…

  • ECE’s Board of Directors, back in November 2021, approved moving forward with developing a plan for a full-fiber-to-the-home project. According to a press release announcing the plan, ECE stated that the cost of such a project could be as much as $300 million. Because of that, ECE Vice President Ty Houglum stated that the only way ECE could make it work would be through appropriate outside funding.
  • During the June 15 North 65 Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Jahnz expounded on that position.
    “What we’re doing right now is a campaign to raise awareness that ECE is a great candidate to provide fiber-to-home across our service territory,” Jahnz said. “We are working with state and federal folks to talk about why that’s important and why we can be the best option for that.”
  • Jahnz said that in March, ECE applied for its first grant, which is for “a little bit of Wisconsin, a little bit in Pine County, a little in Kanabec, stretching over to Mille Lacs and up to Aitkin.” (see shaded area on map)
    He said that one grant would be $48 million in scope, with it equally being divided between the grant and a low-interest loan.
  • Besides that snafu [LTD Broadband may get RDOF funding – but I’ve written about that before], however, Jahnz is confident ECE will be able to obtain funding for a majority of its members’ areas.
    “To date, the area that we’re talking about, no one wants to go,” he concluded. “Even with funding, no one wants to go there. It’s one thing to get the money to build it. It’s another thing to have the wherewithal to maintain it, take care of it, repair it. We’ve been here 85 years, and I think we do a pretty good job of standing things back up when they fall down.”

Litchfield gets fiber from Meeker Cooperative (Meeker County)

Litchfield Independent Review reports

Litchfield residents will soon have another broadband Internet access option. Meeker Cooperative is in the process of installing fiber optic cable throughout the city. Work began in the northeast quadrant late last month and is expected to continue through September.

Cooperative Director Tim Mergen and Luke Johnson appeared before the Litchfield City Council Monday evening to explain the project. Council members appeared most concerned about the disruption to city streets, alleys and front yards caused by laying the cable and installing access boxes.

I know regular readers who have been working tirelessly to get broadband to their area will envy the problem of the deployment process, but it’s good to see folks’ reactions…

City resident Connie Lies told the council that she and others object to not only the digging, which is temporary, but also to the inconvenience of having stakes and metal boxes in their yards. Mergen and Johnson reiterated that the cooperative would be repairing the excavation damage. Most of the main line work is being done within existing frontage easements, but the cooperative is using some rear yard and alley easements where available. “Our contractors are trying to clean up on a weekly basis, weather permitting,” Mergen told the council.

Meeker Cooperative, which supplies electricity to rural areas within and around Meeker County, has been laying fiber optic cable in rural areas within its service area, over the past few years. However, it has also made several other urban installations, including in Paynesville and Eden Valley, Mergen and Johnson said.

EVENT Mar 30: Broadband Bill hearing in House – Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance & Policy

Looks like this will happen immediately before the MN Broadband Coalition Day on the Hill

Wednesday, March 30, 2022 at 8:30 AM

Chair: Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr.
Location: Remote Hearing
Agenda:

HF 14 (Ecklund) Broadband grant program money deposit transferred.
HF 4375 (Ecklund) Commissioner of employment and economic development required to prepare and submit federal fund application, and money appropriated.
Additional items may be added to the agenda.
**If you are interested in providing written or oral testimony please email the Committee Administrator by 5 pm the day before the hearing.
CA: Owen.Wirth@house.mn
This remote hearing may be viewed via the House webcast schedule page: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp

EVENT Mar 22: Talking Broadband in Cloquet

Pine Journal reports

Talking Broadband in Cloquet, 6 p.m., Cloquet Public Library. Join City of Cloquet staff to share your broadband stories, and to hear about results from the recent Cloquet Broadband survey, and completion of the Blandin Broadband Communities Program. This will be the first of two sessions on broadband in the city.

 

Paul Bunyan Communications Wins Smart Rural Community Showcase Award

Always nice to have good news to share on a Monday from our friends at NTCA and Paul Bunyan

The Rural Broadband Association Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield today announced Paul Bunyan Communications as a winner of the 2021 Smart Rural CommunitySM (SRC) Showcase Award.

Paul Bunyan Communications is a member of NTCA, the premier association representing nearly 850 independent, community-based telecommunications companies in rural communities across America. NTCA’s SRC program is a network of communities supported by providers who are committed to creating opportunities in their communities through high-quality broadband service. Showcase Awards are given to those SRC members that best exemplify the program’s goal of driving growth in rural communities.

“To be a Smart Rural Community provider means going above and beyond to provide the highest quality service to your neighbors,” said Bloomfield. “And the Showcase Award Winners are those who best exemplify the ways a broadband provider can change lives and make their communities great places to live. I congratulate Paul Bunyan on their tremendous work and thank them for their commitment to serving rural America.”

“We are honored to be recognized as one of the three national 2021 NTCA Smart Rural Community Showcase award winners!  We have an incredibly talented team and this award is a direct result of their hard work and dedication.  Our cooperative is committed to providing the very best in Broadband services to our membership and we take great pride in having built one of the largest rural all-fiber optic networks in the United States” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

To learn more about the SRC program, click here. The 2021 Showcase Award Winners were announced at the 2022 Rural Telecom Industry Meeting and EXPO (RTIME)

 

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…

Minnesota Rural Electric Association says broadband a top legislative priority

KTOE reports

The Minnesota Rural Electric Association (MREA) is among the groups vying for funding and lawmakers’ attention in the next legislative session. MREA Director of Policy and Regulatory Affairs Mike Bull says in addition to electric vehicle funding, broadband expansion is a top priority…

“Not every co-op wants or needs to provide broadband, but for many co-ops, rural broadband is the new rural electrification where farmers and other rural cooperative leaders are pulling together to provide an essential service that for profit companies wouldn’t bring to rural Minnesota.”

Bull says dealing with standard pole attachment fees for cable companies is another top priority heading into the new session.

CTC to Expand Fiber Footprint in Northeast Minnesota (Carlton and St Louis Counties)

Great news from CTC

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) recently secured a state-of-the-art, allfiber network spanning nearly 610 miles in northeast Minnesota, allowing them to provide high-speed, reliable internet services to businesses and residents throughout the area.

A newly established, long-term partnership agreement with the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) allowed for the growth. The network represents 3,160 route miles of fiber: a 20% increase in CTC’s service area. Most importantly, the move will boost the economic capacity of the region, more readily allowing for business growth and workforce development.

“Not only does this tie in with our strategic plan but it will spur business innovation and lead to more job opportunities,” said Kristi Westbrock, CEO/General Manager at CTC. “Plus, it will allow us to have a deeper connection with local cities and townships and more easily secure state and federal funding to get internet to those who need it most.”

“CTC has a proven track record serving Northern Minnesota with reliable telecommunications services and innovative business solutions”, said Paul Brinkman, Executive Director at NESC. “We are delighted to enter into a long-term partnership with CTC to expand high-capacity broadband access and job-creating business development in St. Louis and Carlton Counties.”

The fiber network spans the cities of Cloquet, Hibbing, Chisholm, Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert, Biwabik, Tower, Ely, Aurora, and the surrounding areas and will provide broadband internet of up to 10 Gigabits. For more information and a map of the area visit http://www.goctc.com/NESC.

 

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) partners with Aitkin County to expand better broadband

Aitkin Age reports

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) has announced that MLEC fiber internet will become available for more customers.

In partnership with Aitkin County, MLEC is bringing fast and reliable fiber internet service to 565 homes. The project area includes the townships of Idun, Pliny, Rice River, Seavey, White Pine, Williams and the city of McGrath. MLEC will, once again, work with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) on the construction of this project and expand the MLEC fiber internet network.

The $4,823,654 grant is a part of the Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG-CV). The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) awarded $34,656,956 in grants to 15 Minnesota cities and counties across the state.

As part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Minnesota received a special allocation to address community needs to prevent, prepare for and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the funding will be used for broadband improvement projects. Other uses will include housing assistance, food shelf assistance, retrofitting buildings and commercial rehabilitation projects.

Continue to watch for updated information on Facebook and MLEC’s website. For more information on MLEC fiber internet, call 218-429-0433 or visit www.mlecmn.net/fiber. Project area maps, internet plans and service agreements can all be found online.

Nobles County commits $2 million match for ReConnect application for broadband

The Worthington Globe reports….

One week after discussing the potential expansion of fiberoptic broadband throughout Nobles County, commissioners on Thursday authorized spending up to $2 million on the project — if the county is awarded a significant USDA ReConnect grant to support the estimated $21 million project.

Lismore Cooperative Telephone Company is proposing to complete the project with assistance from Finley Engineering, the firm hired by the cooperative to design and build the system. LCTC built up much of the rural broadband that currently exists within Nobles County, and this would expand on their efforts by delivering fiber to another 2,900 locations, serving an estimated 6,300 residents.

Nobles County Board chairman Gene Metz stepped down from leading the meeting prior to the presentation, instead taking a seat alongside his fellow Lismore Telecom board members to promote the proposal.

More details…

The cooperative’s board last week stated it would contribute $2.5 million toward the project. Of the county’s $2 million — which would likely come from its American Rescue Plan Act allotment — commissioners said Thursday they want to ask townships impacted by the project to consider designating some of their ARPA funds to it as well.

Since Worthington, Adrian, Ellsworth and Brewster are already served by internet providers, this new project would boost service to the communities of Bigelow, Reading and Dundee.

Chris Konechne with Finley Engineering told commissioners that the construction project is estimated to be completed in three years, pending the grant. Up-front engineering would be done in 2022, and there’s roughly a 30-week lead time for materials currently.

Land O’Lakes gets nice nod for bringing federal funding to broadband

Twin Cities Business reports

Not long after Beth Ford became CEO of the Land O’Lakes cooperative in 2018, she toured agriculture co-ops and farms across rural America.

By early 2019, she was alarmed that many small towns and rural residents lacked high-speed internet service, which she feared would leave them behind in the 21st century economy. She recognized the technology deficit would greatly reduce access to education and health care and harm job creation. Ford became hell-bent on securing broadband funding at the federal level.

Less than three years later, on Nov. 15, she was on the White House lawn to witness President Biden’s signing of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included $65 billion for broadband.

It’s great to see businesses step up and her work speaks to the role that cooperatives are having in rural areas deploying broadband.

EVENTS: Sept Lunch Bunch: Infrastructure (Sep 8) & Digital Use (Sep 22)

Each month the Blandin Foundation hosts two conversation or lunch bunch sessions; on the second Wednesday of the month the focus is Infrastructure and on the fourth the focus is Digital Inclusion and Use.

  • Join us on Sep 8 for our lunch bunch update on Infrastructure – Bill Coleman will lead a discussion on community broadband planning and development in an era of sophisticated mapping, complex program rules and free money.  Join us with your questions and share your expertise and best thinking.  Let’s hear what people are thinking and doing.  Bring your questions and maybe we will find some answers!  We might discover some innovative ways to ensure that we end up with the networks that we want and need. Register here 
  • Join us Sep 22 for our lunch bunch on Digital Use and Equity. More details closer to the date. Register here.

MLEC is expanding FTTH in Aitkin County (MN)

Aitkin Age reports…

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) has announced that MLEC Fiber Internet will become available for more customers in 2022.

More detail…

The Phase 5 project will pass approximately 300 homes and businesses and will provide up to 1 gigabyte per second symmetrical Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet service. FTTH is the fastest and most reliable Internet available.

MLEC will partner with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) on the construction of this project and expand its MLEC Fiber Internet network. The project area includes the west side of Farm Island Lake, runs east to Sunset Lake, then along Tame Fish Lake Road all the way to Highway 6.

The Phase 5 project will create a redundant link to CTC’s existing infrastructure. This will make the company’s fiber network stronger and prevent internet outages.

“In addition to Phase 5, MLEC Fiber has continued construction on our Phase 3, Phase 4, and East Lake projects,” said the release. “If you live in one of the project areas, there is still time to sign up. Crews are working hard to get as many customers connected as possible before winter comes.”

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.

Two broadband views in Duluth News Tribune – and a place for partnership between electric coops and broadband providers

Earlier this month, the Duluth News Tribune published an editorial about the need for better broadband…

One lingering barrier to border-to-border broadband, long a goal for the state, is what companies tend to do after landing state or federal grants meant to push broadband availability to more homes: “They often cherry-pick a path (that serves) larger population centers to enhance profits,” as Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association of Maple Grove, wrote in a commentary distributed last week to the News Tribune Opinion page and elsewhere.

“This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach,” Moe wrote. “Without a financial incentive to serve the smaller and more rural areas, they are bypassed time and time again for larger, more profitable service areas.”

And the electric cooperative’s role in providing service…

“Electric cooperatives already have the critical infrastructure in place,” he wrote. “Minnesota’s 44 distribution cooperatives serve 1.7 million Minnesotans in all 87 counties and operate the largest distribution network in the state with more than 135,000 miles of electric lines. Minnesota’s electric cooperatives can be part of the solution to bridge the digital divide. The cooperative business model, existing infrastructure and proven history make electric co-ops natural champions for deploying broadband to rural America.”

Already, Arrowhead Electric in Lutsen has deployed broadband to its members through a partnership with Consolidated Telephone Company, Minnesota Rural Electric Association Director of Education and Communication Krista Benjamin reported last week to the News Tribune Opinion page.

The letter is similar to one I wrote about in the Worthington Globe. Today the Duluth News Tribune has posted a response from Brent Christensen at the MN Telecom Association

Minnesota has been measuring and mapping broadband since 2008. While our state’s maps can always be improved, particularly when it comes to fixed wireless verification, they are still the most accurate in the nation. Why the News Tribune chose to get facts from outside the state is beyond me. The Minnesota Office of Broadband Development has a plethora of data and maps showing how broadband availability has grown year after year. From 68.08% in 2015 at the state’s 2022 goal of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speed and 3 Mbps in upload speed to 83.10% last October. The state’s 2026 speed goal of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload went from 40.68% in 2015 to 72.53% last October.

The editorial cited the president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association as a broadband expert and source. That would be like asking me, the president of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance, to be a resource on issues surrounding rural electrification. You can fill volumes with what I don’t know about the electric industry.

Unlike the electric industry, telecom, including broadband, is a competitive utility. Our industry is no longer a “build it and they will come” business. We have to make sure we are going to get the customers to support the infrastructure investment. This is why the editorial’s comparison of rural broadband deployment today with rural electrification a century ago didn’t work.

This is where state and federal support comes into play. Minnesota Telecom Alliance members are cooperatives, family-owned companies, privately held commercial companies, and investor-traded companies. We all have one thing in common, besides providing broadband in rural Minnesota: We can’t invest in broadband if the business case doesn’t work. Last year, Minnesota Telecom Alliance members invested more than $196.9 million to maintain and upgrade their networks, with more than $244 million projected for 2021. That is still not enough to make some business cases work.

The FCC is investing $162.2 million each year in broadband expansion. The state of Minnesota has invested more than $136.1 million in border-to-border broadband grants to further tip the scale. None of these programs allows providers to cherry-pick who they serve, as the editorial suggested. The federal dollars come with build-out requirements and performance-testing requirements that providers have to meet. If they don’t, they have to pay the money back.

There are three lingering barriers to true border-to-border broadband in Minnesota. One is our limited construction season. We cannot bury fiber during the winter. The second is supply-chain issues. There is so much broadband expansion that getting supplies and the contractors to install broadband is a major problem. And three is bad information. Misinformation keeps communities and providers apart. Minnesota has great examples of partnerships that have brought broadband to entire counties and examples where local units of government have failed miserably.

One thing the editorial got right was the partnerships between members of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association and the Minnesota Telecom Alliance: They are yet another example how Minnesota has gotten it right.