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.

CTC works with Ely and Little Falls to bring fiber to local businesses

Earlier this month, the Institute for Local Self Reliance wrote about CTC working with Long Prairie. CTC is a cooperative, they work with several Minnesota communities. Last week ILSR wrote about their work in Ely and Little Falls

Two other cities, specifically, Ely and Little Falls, have also partnered with CTC to bring fiber loops to their business districts. Both communities have faced challenges when it came to building and connecting their residents and businesses to a fiber network.

They give a great history of both locations, I’ll just grab from the CTC chapters, starting in Ely…

“[The] Little Falls [effort] was really spurred based on business retention,” Buttweiler said. “Thankfully, these businesses went to the city with this problem in advance of it being [so] critical that they had to leave, and the city recognized the urgency.”

As a result, the city of Little Falls and CTC started their partnership around 2013. The city partnered with the Initiative Foundation, Region Five Development Commission and the Morrison County Economic Development Corporation to pool together around $550,000 to lend CTC for the construction of a fiber network. CTC was already serving areas on the edge of Little Falls, and the co-op is based just 30 miles away in the Brainerd-Baxter area.

The network, which took the shape of a fiber ring, would run through downtown Little Falls and into the two main industrial parks where the majority of the city’s requests were coming from.

“It was good foresight from the people that came before me to develop this partnership because it really served a need that we had at the time and knew that we would need in the future,” Jon Radermacher, Little Falls City Administrator told us in an interview.

CTC ended up paying off the loan in seven years and now owns the network. Radermacher said the partnership just made sense.

And in Little Falls…

One of the big reasons communities take on these projects is because it can help stimulate the local economy through jobs and the taxes these businesses pay that help support new projects.

Airborn ended up being one of the businesses that Little Falls and CTC connected to the network. Though it cost $60,000 to connect Airborn, once it was that day-long upload speed turned into a minute.

“The value of that $60,000 was paid back pretty quickly and that firm that we connected said ‘We feel that we need to support this,’ so they ended up contributing $10,000 to the project,” Radermacher said.

Once they were successfully connected, not only did the original businesses stay, but new ones came.

“It’s enabled the city of Little Falls to attract new businesses and we continue to expand that network as the city recruits new businesses into the community,” Buttweiler said.

Long Prairie (MN) partners with CTC for FTTH

The Institute for Local Self Reliance reports on Long Prairie…

In embarking on its journey to improve local Internet access six years ago, Long Prairie (pop. 3,300) ended up partnering with one of the most aggressive fiber network builders in the state – Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) – on a solution that meets local needs. The two finished a ubiquitous Fiber-to-the-Home build in 2018, with CTC now owning and operating the network.

They ran into issues, including uncooperative incumbents…

In 2015, Long Prairie tried to qualify for the Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program to solve connectivity issues. Part of the grant included doing speed tests to show the incumbents were not providing 25/3 service locally, but less than half that speed. Unfortunately for the community, those tests and the application were challenged by the incumbents and thrown out – another funding wave went by with no luck.

This remains a huge barrier for a lot of communities working to bring the connectivity in their communities up to or beyond the federal definition of 25/3. Incumbents report that they are providing 25/3 when they aren’t, but won’t make updates to improve their network. This takes communities out of the running for state and federal dollars to build networks that work for them.

They found a solution that included a city issued bond and cooperative provider…

The city issued a bond to finance the project and CTC and Long Prairie entered into a series of agreements beginning in 2016, the first of which was that CTC would assume responsibility for the construction of a citywide Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) network and make payments on the $3.7 million loan over the course of 10 years.

The second agreement was that CTC would lease the network from the city over those 10 years to provide services to businesses and residents. The final agreement was the right of first refusal to purchase the network. At the end of 10 years, CTC would automatically take ownership, or at any time during the lease agreement once the loan was paid off.

CTC was able to build the 111-mile network from 2017-2018, passing 1,303 locations.

Electric Coops could help close broadband gaps – esp with eased easement policies

The Worthington Globe posts a letter from Darrick Moe, Minnesota Rural Electric Association…

Surprisingly, even a full year after the pandemic’s onset, 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection with 25 Mbps or faster speeds. Another 125,000 do not have any wired internet providers with services available at their place of residence, according to the organization BroadbandNow.

Just like water and electricity, broadband has quickly emerged as an essential service, and border-to-border broadband access is a state priority.

Historically, when large companies win state and federal grants to expand broadband access, they often cherry-pick a path serving larger population centers to enhance profits. This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach. 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.

In the 1930s, a similar situation unfolded in rural Minnesota. For-profit utilities had the opportunity to bring electricity to rural communities, but many of those companies chose not to build power lines in the areas. Fast forward 90 years, and profitability is now preventing deployment of broadband in rural communities.

With a primary mission of serving the needs of the communities they serve, not-for-profit electric cooperatives came to the rescue for rural America by stringing power lines in smaller, less populated areas. Today, electric co-ops can be an asset in making broadband accessible to all Minnesotans.

He mentions one way the State could make it easier for electric cooperatives to serve broadband…

Currently, if an electric co-op wants to deploy broadband or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband, they must first get a newly signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal challenge, the Minnesota Rural Electric Association has worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current electric service easements to also deploy broadband, providing they give easement holders six months’ notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value.

Blandin Broadband Lunch Bunch Digital Ready Communities Notes and Video

Thanks so much to everyone who came to the Lunch Bunch today and especially to Annie Cruz-Porter, Calla Jarvie and Emily Del Real for coming to talk about the Digital Ready Communities program. One fun offshoot of the Fall Broadband conference was that three Minnesota communities were able to work as pilots with the program at Purdue University. Today we got to loop back with the program and partners.

This is a fascinating program that helps communities focus on how folks in a community are connecting with each other and the outside world, especially online. It includes a assessment, a survey and creating a team to be more purposeful about building local, trusted channels for communication as well as creating a message that promotes the community to the outside world.

Register for future Lunches: Upcoming May 12 and May 26

And here’s the chat Continue reading

EVENT Apr 23: MN Small Cities Coronavirus Funding Info Session

From the Mn Department of Employment and Economic Development

As part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Minnesota received a $37.6M special allocation to address community needs to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. After an open community input process on how to use the money, and an approval from the Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD), we’ve received clearance to open up this grant program and are excited to receive applications.

DEED is administering this Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, and we encourage cities and counties across Minnesota to consider applying. Cities and counties of all sizes in Minnesota – including both entitlement and non-entitlement jurisdictions – are eligible for funding.

Eligible activities include $5M for COVID-19 emergency assistance, $4.5M in rehabilitation of buildings critical to pandemic response, and $25.5M in broadband infrastructure.

Grant applications are now being accepted and the deadline to apply is 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 1, 2021. DEED is hosting a webinar at 1:00 p.m. this Friday, April 23 to provide potential applicants with an overview of the process and program and to answer any questions.

Applications in this competitive grant process will be rated according to need, impact and cost effectiveness. Funds are intended for projects that are focused on the locality and that will be used primarily for low-and-moderate income residents.

Here’s more on the program:

In the public service category, funding is earmarked for projects that provide a new or increased level of public service in specific areas:

  • $3M will be available for subsistence assistance to income-eligible residents economically impacted by the pandemic for rent payments, mortgage assistance, or utility payments.
  • $1M will be available for testing kits, personal protective equipment and other related items to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
  • $1M will be available to support food shelves/pantries that provide increased access to food and delivery support to those impacted by COVID-19.

In the retrofitting buildings and commercial rehabilitation category, $4.5M has been allocated for projects that would address a wide range of improvements and rehabilitation activities related to food shelves, social distancing requirements, HVAC systems, patient treatment centers, existing shelters or other facilities used for emergency shelters.

The state has earmarked about $25.5 million for broadband infrastructure to support increased connectivity for telework, telemedicine, telelearning and televisits. See the program page for more about what broadband projects would qualify.

Call for Applications and Webinar

  • Here is information on the Call for Applications.
  • DEED will host a webinar to provide potential applicants with an overview of the program and to answer any questions. This Microsoft Teams meeting will be held at 1:00 p.m. Friday, April 23.
  • You can Join on your computer or mobile app or call in (audio only): 1- 651-395-7448 (Phone Conference ID: 687 187 744#).

Electric cooperatives want to use easements for broadband as well as electricity

Minnesota legislature is looking at a bill that would extend electric cooperative easements to include use broadband and electricity. The Albert Lea Tribune posts a guest post from Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association about easements….

With a primary mission of serving the needs of the communities they serve, not-for-profit electric cooperatives came to the rescue for rural America by stringing power lines in smaller, less populated areas. Today, electric co-ops can be an asset in making broadband accessible to all Minnesotans.

Unlike any for-profit business or governmental entity, electric cooperatives already have the critical infrastructure in place that is needed to bring broadband to every corner of the state. 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. However, there is a legal challenge that must be addressed first.

Currently, if an electric co-op wants to deploy broadband or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband, they must first get a newly signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal challenge, the Minnesota Rural Electric Association has worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current electric service easements to also deploy broadband, providing they give easement holders six months’ notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value.

This legislative bill supports Governor Walz’s initiatives to develop strategies to unlock the benefits of universal access to broadband for all communities in Minnesota while supporting inclusion, equity and children’s initiatives. High-speed internet services are essential to community development, economic growth and prosperity, and educational attainment across the state.

MN Bill aims to expand broadband in rural MN by expending easements for electric coops

KTOE reports

A bill at the State Capitol would allow rural electric cooperatives to use existing and future held easements for broadband. Brian Krambeer is President and Ceo of My Energy Cooperative and he says the bill could help cities, especially those in Greater Minnesota, improve access to broadband.

“Electric co-ops are non-profit organizations. we’re looking for an opportunity to help and benefit our members, we want all of our members to be able to have broadband because it’s an important quality of life thing just like electrification was in the 1930s.”

U.S. Senators Tina Smith, John Hoeven Reintroduce Bill to Improve Financial Stability of Electric Coops, Small Rural Broadband Providers

From the office of Senator Tina Smith (the bill is supported by Senator Klobuchar)…

U.S. Senators Tina Smith, John Hoeven Reintroduce Bill to Improve Financial Stability of Electric Coops, Small Rural Broadband Providers Legislation Enables Rural Electric Coops, Telecom Providers to Refinance RUS Debt, Support Stronger COVID-19 Recovery

WASHINGTON, D.C. [03/26/21]—U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) reintroduced a bipartisan bill to help stabilize the finances of the nation’s rural electric cooperatives and rural broadband providers. The Flexible Financing for Rural America Act would make it possible for rural electric cooperatives and telecommunications providers to refinance their Rural Utilities Service (RUS) debt at lower interest rates. A House companion was introduced by Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) and Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.).

Sens. Smith and Hoeven said that this could help rural cooperatives and businesses better manage cash-flow, invest in rural communities, and pass savings on to customers.

“Rural electric cooperatives are critical to economic success in small towns and rural areas across Minnesota,” said Sen. Smith. “We ought to support them so they can continue to boost our infrastructure, all while supporting jobs and improving Minnesotans’ quality of life. I successfully pushed to make rural electric cooperatives eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic. And my bipartisan RURAL Act was signed into law to fix a mistake in the 2017 tax law that put the tax-exempt status of cooperatives at risk if they received government grants to expand broadband or recover from a disaster. Now, I’m focused on making sure electric cooperatives are able to refinance their Rural Utilities Service debt at lower interest rates.”

“Our legislation provides the opportunity for electric and telecommunication cooperatives to refinance their Rural Utilities Service debt at current market rates without penalty,” said Sen. Hoeven. “This is about reinvesting in our rural communities, passing savings on to consumers and further supporting efforts to continue overcoming challenges from COVID-19. Families and businesses living and working in rural communities across North Dakota and the country depend on these cooperatives and the critical services they provide.”

“It’s crucial that we address the needs of our long-overlooked rural communities, who too often encounter barriers in accessing quality, affordable utilities,” said Rep. O’Halleran. “Our Flexible Financing for Rural America Act will extend a lifeline to hundreds of electric cooperatives serving rural families and businesses.”

“In our ever-growing connected society, the need to expand rural broadband in Missouri and across America continues to be one of my top priorities in Congress,” said Rep. Hartzler. “Nearly 30 percent of rural Missourians still lack vital access to highspeed internet. The bipartisan Flexible Financing for Rural America Act will jumpstart these communities, allowing them the same essential telecommunications resources urban areas routinely enjoy in our digital age. I am proud to see strong support for our legislation and its potential benefits for Fourth District families, schools, farms, healthcare providers, and businesses.”

“Rural electric cooperatives provide vital electricity service across Minnesota,” said Darrick Moe, CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association. “They loan funds from the federal Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to make that happen, and pay those loans back with interest.  Typically loans can be adjusted when interest rates fall, but the interest rates on these RUS loans are effectively frozen due to penalties that get imposed for refinancing.  Senator Smith is introducing a bill, with broad bipartisan support, to remove this barrier. This is a common sense fix that will help keep power bills affordable and help cooperatives as they support their local communities. Senator Smith’s leadership in this area is appreciated.”  Darrick Moe, Minnesota Rural Electric Association, CEO.

“Small, community-based broadband providers have answered the call to keep their neighbors connected in the face of a global pandemic and the economic challenges that have followed,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. “Allowing providers who use RUS loans to take advantage of low interest rates is a commonsense step that will make a big impact and give providers the flexibility to continue to support their communities as they recover from the pandemic. On behalf of NTCA’s members, I thank Senators Smith and Hoeven and Representatives O’Halleran and Hartzler for reintroducing the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act.”

In addition to Sens. Smith and Hoeven, the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act is supported by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).

MN Legislators look at extends easements to rural electric cooperatives (HF686/SF1304)

The legislature is working on a bill that would make it easier for electric cooperatives to bring broadband to their customers and maybe beyond by allowing them to use existing easements – and rather than gather opt-in permission door to door to use easements for broadband, they could use the opt-out method by announcing it to customers in their newsletters with a deadline for customers to voice concerns. Thanks to MREA (MN Rural Electric Association) for sharing a recent article from a recent report with more details…

MINNESOTA’S ELECTRIC COOPERATIVES CAN BE A GREAT PARTNER IN BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE – BUT ONLY WITH A CHANGE IN STATE STATUTE

By Joyce Peppin, director, government affairs & general counsel

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges in the past year, including forcing school districts and business owners to figure out how to conduct operations on virtual platforms. That problem is exasperated in rural areas of the state that don’t have access to high-speed internet. Surprisingly, even a full year after the onset of the pandemic, 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster, and another 125,000 do not have any wired internet providers with services available at their place of residence, according to the organization BroadbandNow.

Electric cooperatives could be a big part of the solution to bridge the digital divide – the technological gap between those with access to up-to-date technologies and those without access. Electric co-ops are located throughout Minnesota, and unlike any other for-profit business or governmental entity, they already have the infrastructure in place. They are uniquely positioned to bring broadband to corners of the state that are currently not served or underserved, but there is a legal challenge that must be addressed first.

The problem is that for an electric co-op to deploy broadband (or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband), they must first get a new signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal change, MREA worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current easements for deploying broadband, so long as they give easement holders six months notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value. If the bill passes, co-ops would have more legal certainty that they would prevail in a lawsuit against trespass claims by landowner rights’ groups and would be more likely to help bring high-speed internet to the unserved or underserved.

While not every co-op will participate in deploying broadband, the passage of this bill will provide the state with another tool in the toolbox to bridge the digital divide. Please contact your legislators and ask them to support HF 686/SF 1304!

Minnesota cooperatives West Central and CTC on steady path of expansion (Todd, Cass and Wadena Counties)

The Wadena Pioneer Journal reports…

The focus on broadband is a commitment West Central Telephone, Consolidated Telephone Company and area leaders and organizations have been in, and will continue, for the long-term.

Both cooperatives encourage new projects in unserved areas, as West Central CEO and general manager Chad Bullock and CTC director of business development Joe Buttweiler shared on March 12. During the Todd Wadena Development Summit, attendees thanked the providers for working on broadband issues.

“Our focus has been to the unserved areas,” Bullock said. “But it’s been a steady crawl.”

West Central got a state grant for a project in Wadena and Cass Counties…

While CTC is searching for new Todd and Wadena county projects, West Central will begin their rural Staples phase two project this year. They received a $465,050 grant from the state for 56 unserved locations in Wadena and Cass counties.

Wadena County district 2 commissioner Mike Weyer is excited about this project being completed in the Thomastown area. He said the project last year came about 2 miles from his home and is expectant of this one to finish providing service.

The second phase is expected to start as soon as possible and have fiber in the ground by this upcoming winter, according to Bullock. The service will include 1 Gbps download and upload speeds when completed.