Rural Jobs and Investment Act – another pocket of potential broadband funding?

Last week I wrote about $350 million in the Farm Bill for broadband. Today I found, what I think is another pocket of funding that might also help with broadband and/or rural technology projects. Binghamtom writes about Senator Gillibrand’s bipartisan Rural Jobs and Investment Act…

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced that her bipartisan bill, the Rural Jobs and Investment Act, has passed the Senate as part of the final conferenced version of the Farm Bill. The legislation now heads to the House of Representatives for a final vote. Gillibrand’s legislation would expand access to much-needed resources and investment for rural entrepreneurs in Upstate New York to start and expand local businesses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 57 percent of rural communities throughout New York State saw more businesses close than open from 2012 to 2016.

Here is what it proposes to fund

This bill would invest in rural communities through a Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) Grant Program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Business-Cooperative Service. This program would award grants of $500,000 to $2 million each to locally-driven “rural jobs accelerator partnerships” made up of entrepreneurs, local leaders, investment organizations, and training providers to improve their local economy and position their region to be more competitive.

 

This funding would be flexible and provide transformative investments that can meet multiple needs of rural communities, including:

  • Developing innovation centers to serve as space for mixed-use housing, business development, training, and co-working opportunities, and help redevelop community downtowns;

  • Fostering networking and collaboration among local entrepreneurs;

  • Helping rural entrepreneurs and businesses connect to new markets;

  • Turning more research and development at universities and other research institutions into new companies and business growth;

  • Facilitating the on-shoring of high-wage jobs in rural communities;

  • Providing skills training to prepare workers for quality jobs and provide businesses with the workforce they need for success;

  • Investing in infrastructure upgrades required to support new business growth, including the deployment of high-speed broadband service.

I’m not clear as to how this fits in with the previously mentioned $350 million but it does appear to be a separate pool. And even if that last bullet point gets lumped in with the $350 million, the other projects listed would help communities better use technology.

Mediacom extends fiber to Fountain (Fillmore County) with MN State broadband grant

Bluff Country News reports…

Mediacom Communications announced it has built more than seven miles of fiber optic cable connecting the homes and businesses of Fountain to its Fillmore County broadband network.

By mid-December, Mediacom will activate the new portion of its network to deliver advanced telecommunication services, including robust one-gigabit-per-second internet speeds that are up to 40 times faster than the minimum broadband definition set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The project was made possible by a Border to Border Broadband Development Grant provided by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

Through this public/private partnership, DEED allocated funds to pay for up to 48-percent of the $400,000 network construction cost. Mediacom’s capital investment covered the remaining 52-percent of the project to create Fountain’s first facilities-based broadband network and makes gigabit internet speeds available to residents and businesses throughout the community.

Mediacom has been a longtime service provider in the Fillmore County communities of Canton, Chatfield, Lanesboro, Mabel, Peterson, Preston, Rushford and Spring Valley. With the addition of Fountain, 183 mid-sized and smaller communities throughout Minnesota are now connected to Mediacom’s fiber-rich broadband network.

 

USDA offering up to $600 million in loans and grants for broadband

The USDA announced some good news and bad news today. They are dedicated money to broadband…

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service. Answering the Administration’s call to action for rural prosperity, Congress appropriated funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget for this broadband pilot program. USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

In the form of grants, loans and mashups…

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28).

But they are funding areas with 10/1 access or worse and minimal requirement is an upgrade to 25/3…

Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms. USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mbps.

The banking behind RS Fiber & other ways banks are helping to expand broadband

The Office of the Comptroller of Currency recently published the November issue of Community Development Investments. The theme is expanding broadband. They really get into the nitty gritty. I think it’s great reading for anyone who is thinking about financing options. So I’m going to include the annotated table of contents:

  • Community Reinvestment Act Consideration for Rural Broadband Development Initiatives Banks financing certain broadband development initiatives can receive Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) consideration for promoting economic development in certain rural communities and helping to revitalize distressed and low- and moderate income communities across the nation.
  • Closing the Digital Divide: How Banks Can Help Rural Communities With Broadband The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides an overview of broadband technologies and explains how banks financing broadband initiatives can help reduce the digital divide in rural communities in need of reliable, high-speed internet access.
  • Cooperative Connection: Banks Back RS Fiber to Bring Broadband to Rural Minnesota First National Bank of Fairfax, Minn., and other local banks are helping to finance a cooperative formed by 10 cities and 17 townships determined to provide quality, high-speed internet access in southwestern Minnesota. The case study serves as a working model for rural communities interested in establishing public-private cooperatives to deliver quality internet.
  • Falcon National Bank: Financing Wireless First, Then Broadband in Rural Minnesota A community bank’s decision to finance Palmer Wireless began a successful partnership that turned into a decade-long relationship, benefiting the bank, Palmer Wireless, and the communities the bank serves by expanding an existing broadband network.
  • U.S. Bank: NMTC Helps Expand Internet Access in Appalachian County in Ohio U.S. Bank used the national bank public welfare investment authority and helped to finance a new market tax credit project that expanded an existing broadband network for rural residents in Appalachian communities in northeastern Ohio.
  • United Bank, Alabama: Wiring Branches, Several Business Customers With Broadband United Bank invested in a fiber-optic network solution to communicate more effectively between its rural branches using video conferencing and other online communication channels. This investment also benefited several local businesses that needed high-quality internet service.
  • Wiring Alaska: Two National Banks Help Connect Remote Native Communities First National Bank Alaska and U.S. Bank made loans backed by federal loan guarantees to benefit Alaska’s Native communities by financing the expansion of fiber-optic networks in geographically remote areas that for too long had poor or no internet access.

The article on RS Fiber was of course of special interest to me. I won’t summarize the whole article, as the value is in the details, but here’s a taste…

The RS Fiber Cooperative (RS Fiber) is bringing low-cost and high-speed fiber-optic broadband to an area of southwestern Minnesota that includes 10 cities and 17 townships in Renville, Sibley, and portions of Nicollet and McLeod counties. Serving more than 6,000 households, businesses and farms, schools, public and private institutions, and hospitals with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity, the cooperative serves an area of over 700 square miles at a development cost of $53 million.

RS Fiber’s success was made possible by a multilayered approach to financing involving banks; federal, state, and local governments; a community development financial institution; a private foundation; private equity investors; and member revenues. Playing a key role in the effort was First National Bank of Fairfax. The bank’s $50,000 investment helped finance initial engineering and predevelopment work. The bank’s capital was the catalyst for securing construction financing from other lenders. The bank made the investment using the public welfare investment (PWI) authority

RUS Broadband Program applications now accepted for 2019

According to the Federal Register

The Rural Utilities Service (RUS), an Agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), announces that it is accepting applications for fiscal year (FY) 2019 for the Rural Broadband Access Loans and Loan Guarantees Program (the Broadband Program). RUS will publish the amount of funding received through the final appropriations act on its website at https://www.rd.usda.gov/ newsroom/notices-solicitation- applications-nosas. RUS is accepting applications on a rolling basis throughout FY 2019. This will give RUS the ability to request additional information and modifications to a submitted application whenever necessary. Applications will be processed on a first come, first served basis. Every 90 days, RUS will conduct an evaluation of the submitted applications. During the evaluation period, applications will be ranked based on the percentage of unserved households that the applicant proposes to serve. RUS will conduct at least two evaluation periods for FY 2019. Because the Agency will receive applications throughout the fiscal year, subsequent evaluation periods can alter the ranking of applications. In addition to announcing its acceptance of FY 2019 applications, RUS revises the minimum and maximum amounts for broadband loans for the fiscal year.

DATES: Applications under this NOSA will be accepted immediately through September 30, 2019. RUS will process loan applications as they are received. Applications can only be submitted online through the RD Apply website at https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs- services/rd-apply through September 30, 2019.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Shawn Arner, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Loan Origination and Approval Division, Rural Utilities Service, Room 2844, STOP 1597, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20250–1597; telephone: (202) 720– 0800, or email: shawn.arner@usda.gov.

USDA Partners with CTC to Broadband to Underserved Areas in Todd County

Minnesota Rural Development announces…

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development State Director for Minnesota Brad Finstad today announced more than $2 million to improve e-Connectivity in rural communities.

“Modern infrastructure for e-connectivity is no longer a luxury; it’s an essential part of economic growth,” Finstad said. “Under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Assistant Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett, USDA is dedicated to expanding access to e-Connectivity in rural communities and ensuring continued rural prosperity.”

Consolidated Telephone Company is receiving a $2.1 million loan to construct a fiber-to-the-home broadband system that will expand its high-speed service by 250 households, eight businesses and a community center in Todd County. As a result of this project, the community center, located within Moran Township Town Hall, will be able to provide free public access to two computer terminals and a public WiFi network. Additionally, this project will ensure previously underserved residents and businesses better access to improved economic, healthcare, and education e-Connectivity services.

Finstad’s announcement is in coordination with Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett’s recent announcement that USDA is investing $91 million through its Telecommunications Programs to improve e-Connectivity services in 12 states: Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia. The 19 projects will benefit more than 27,000 businesses and households.

According to a 2018 report by the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the 24 million American households who lack reliable, affordable, high-speed internet are in rural areas. USDA’s investments in broadband infrastructure are helping transform rural America, providing innovation and technology to increase economic competitiveness and opportunities.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Four Iron Range communities selected for Blandin Foundation Broadband Communities Program

Fun news to share…

Blandin Foundation announced today that it has selected four Iron Range entities for intensive, two-year partnerships with the Foundation to advance local broadband initiatives.

East Range Joint Powers Board, Iron Range Tourism Bureau, Laurentian Chamber of Commerce and Tower Economic Development Authority all were successful in their bids to become Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC).

Made possible with funding support from the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation (IRRR) and St. Louis County, this selection is unique in that all organizations are located in Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation’s northeastern Minnesota service area.

“We’re pleased that our agency can play a role in helping these northeastern Minnesota communities receive assistance in how to develop and use broadband,” said Commissioner Mark Phillips. “Developing high-speed broadband is critical to economic development, education, healthcare, and quality of life.”

“We are thankful for the leadership and support from Blandin Foundation and Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation, and are happy to partner in the Broadband Communities Program in St. Louis County,” said Barbara Hayden, St. Louis County Planning and Economic Development Director. “With so many rural areas in our county, there’s a great need for improved broadband options, certainly for our citizens, but also to boost economic development to attract and grow businesses.”

Communities were selected based on demonstrated commitment to work together across sectors to set and meet information technology goals and bridge digital divides.

Blandin Foundation staff and consultants will work with the four communities to provide planning, technical and financial support as diverse, local leadership teams design and drive digital technology initiatives that position their communities and every resident for greater success.

“High-speed Internet access – and the skills to use it – is fundamental to vibrant rural communities,” said Bernadine Joselyn, director of public policy and engagement at Blandin Foundation. “We’re excited to partner with Iron Range communities to imagine new possibilities that come with enhanced Internet access and use.”

This Iron Range cohort joins 36 rural Minnesota communities that have gone through the BBC program.

“Our experience tells us that, especially in broadband work, leadership matters,” said Dr. Kathy Annette, Blandin Foundation president and CEO. “To have commitment both at the local level and from IRRRB says something about the Iron Range. We look forward to standing with leaders in these four communities as they design and claim vibrant, connected futures.”

Next steps for each community include assessing the community’s current broadband access and use and, in early 2019, holding a series of public planning meetings.