Governor Walz budgets $50 million for broadband grants for 2022 (none for 2023)

Governor Walz has released his budget for the next biennium. On pages 21-22, he outlines $50 million for the MN broadband grants – for the first year of the biennium (2022). This compares to the $120 million introduced in the MN House and expected in the Senate…

Recommendation : The Governor recommends $ 50 million in FY 2022 for the Border -to -Border Broadband Grant program. The recommendation allows the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to reserve up to 3% of grant funds for program administration and broadband mapping.

Rationale/Background: Access to robust broadband is now recognized as a critical factor in the economic and social sustainability of all Minnesota communities. The need has only grown dramatically since the start of the pandemic. The state has a broadband mapping program which annually gathers current information from all providers about where broadband internet is available and at what speeds. While great progress has been made over the last several years, with 91% of households and businesses having access to a moderate level of service that meets the state’s 2022 goals; only 87% of rural homes and businesses have access at this minimum definition. In addition, the state as a whole is at 73.6% of homes and businesses meeting the 2026 broadband goal of access to 100Mbps/20Mbps service.

Proposal: This proposal funds the Border -to -Border Broadband Development Grant Program in FY 2022. This funding commitment will build on several years of public and private investments in broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state and will facilitate meeting the statutory goal of border -to -border access of 25Mbps/3Mbps broadband service by the year 2022 (§237.012) and begin to pave the way for achieving the state’s 2026 goal of reaching everyone with a service capable of delivering 100Mbps/20Mbps.

Here is the expenditure review for the Broadband Development in DEED (from page 4) with dollar amounts in thousands…

  • FY2018 (Actual) – $28,744
  • FY2019 (Actual) – $586
  • FY2020 (Actual) – $23,898
  • FY2021 (Estimate) – $21,725
  • FY2022 (Forecast Base) – $648
  • FY2022 (Gov Recommendation) – $50,648
  • FY2023 (Forecast Base) – $662
  • FY2023 (Gov Recommendation) – $662

Here’s a chart the Governor has included to show the impact of previous grant investments…

Kandiyohi County (MN) is looking for more fiber in 2021

West Central Tribune reports…

Connie Schmoll, from the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, hopes 2021 is the year a major broadband project is started in underserved areas of the county. She presented information Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board, looking for board support on a potential project that could require financial backing from the county.

Here’s a list form of the various opportunities:

  • survey conducted in Kandiyohi County last year of internet availability and usage showed many were not happy with their internet as the pandemic added significantly to the data being used at homes across the area.
    The good news is there might be fiber broadband expansion on the horizon. Late last year LTD Broadband was one of the winners of the Federal Communications Commission Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction. …
    “They are going to be providing fiber in a large portion of the south part of the county,” Schmoll said.
    While that would reduce the number of underserved households, there would still be pockets of need.
  • There is some positive news on that front. The Federated Telephone Cooperative has been allowed to expand its service area.
    “They are interested in Kandiyohi County, to move into our county, especially the west side and northern area of our county,” Schmoll said. “That was a huge plus.”
  • Schmoll is hoping to bring together a fiber broadband project with at least three rural townships in partnership with Federated, which has said it will provide 25 percent of the project costs.
    A similar project that never quite got off the ground in Dovre, Hamre and St. John’s Townships was estimated to cost close to $4 million and the service provider was only willing to provide 15 percent of the cost.
  • Border to Border Broadband Development Grant from the state, if awarded, could provide up to 50 percent or $5 million toward a project. However, the state Legislature has not yet approved funding for another round of grants for this year, Schmoll said.
  • County Administrator Larry Kleindl said even if every township in the county wanted that $25,000 for a broadband project, the county could financially make it work.

And end with a statement that shows the level of priority in the area…

“The viability of our rural areas is literally at stake here,” said Commissioner Steve Gardner. “I don’t believe that we as a board can afford to be bashful about supporting financially the efforts to bring broadband to all of these underserved areas.”

Senators Klobuchar, Smith and 151 others ask FCC to look carefully at RDOF applications

Telecompetitor reports

A broad coalition of Republican and Democratic senators and representatives have sent a letter to the FCC asking the commission to thoroughly vet RDOF auction winners. At stake is $9 billion in rural broadband funding awarded through the reverse auction, which was completed last year.

The letter was championed by Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune, as well as Representatives James E. Clyburn and Tim Walberg. Also signing the letter were an additional 153 senators and representatives.

Service providers were required to submit a short-form application in order to participate in the auction, which awarded funding for an area to the bidder that committed to deploying broadband to unserved locations in the area for the lowest level of support. A weighting system favored bids to provider faster service with lower latency.

Senator Smith and Senator Klobuchar both signed the letter. Here’s the paragraph (from the letter) that highlights their concern…

As responsible stewards of USF funds, we ask that the FCC redouble its efforts to review the long-form applications that will now be submitted. We urge the FCC to validate that each provider in fact has the technical, financial, managerial, operational skills, capabilities, and resources to deliver the services that they have pledged for every American they plan to serve regardless of the technology they use. We also strongly encourage the FCC to make as public as possible the status of its review and consider opportunities for public input on the applications. Such transparency and accountability will be essential to ensure the success of this program and to minimize any opportunities for fraud or abuse.

I have written about some of the concern about RDOF in Minnesota. And just earlier today I wrote about how many providers do not seem to be meeting their obligations in deploying broadband with federal CAFII funding. Here concerns outlined by Telecompetitor…

As Telecompetitor has noted, the 10 biggest RDOF winners won a combined 76% of the total funding awarded. Four of those winners are companies that traditionally have used fixed wireless technology who bid in the highest speed category (1 Gbps downstream), at least for some areas.

Fixed wireless equipment manufacturers persuaded the FCC that they had equipment capable of supporting gigabit speeds, although the technology is relatively unproven, especially for rural areas. Perhaps recognizing that, the big fixed wireless RDOF winners left themselves the option of deploying fiber broadband to meet their buildout requirements – one of them even bid to use fiber broadband exclusively for gigabit deployments. But some stakeholders have questioned whether some of the winners can afford to deploy gigabit fiber for the level of support awarded.

Also among the top 10 RDOF winners is satellite broadband provider SpaceX, whose technology also is relatively unproven. The company is in the process of deploying a constellation of non-geostationary satellites to support its bid in the second-highest speed category – 100 Mbps downstream.

Frontier and CenturyLink report they may not have met CAF II deployment deadlines for 2020 – in MN and other states

Telecompetitor reports

The CAF II program awarded funding to the nation’s larger carriers to bring broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas within their local service territories. Frontier accepted $283 million in funding annually and CenturyLink accepted $514 million annually.

Funding recipients were given six years to complete buildouts to a specific number of locations and were given interim deadlines to complete deployment to a specific percentage of locations.

In a letter to the FCC, CenturyLink said it met or exceeded the program’s December 31, 2020 milestone in 10 states but may not have met the 100% milestone in 23 states. Frontier told the FCC that it met the year-end 2020 milestone in eight states but may not have reached it in 17 other states.

The companies must report more definitive deployment data by March 1.

Last year at this time, Frontier said it had met the CAF II deployment milestones for year-end 2019 in 16 states but might not have met the target in 13 others. CenturyLink said it had met milestones in 10 states but might miss the target in 23 others.

Frontier filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April 2020, but attributed this year’s deployment delays to the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than the bankruptcy.

Neither company reports meeting their goals in Minnesota…

According to CenturyLink, states for which the company may not have met its 2020 CAF II deployment target include Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

States for which Frontier may not have met its 2020 CAF II deployment target include Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Frontier said it expects to meet its final CAF II deployment milestone by June 30 in all outstanding states except Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, where the expected completion date is September 30.

The frustration is that this leaves many people without broadband – again. The goal is to build to 25/3 (even lower in some areas) and they haven’t done that. To put that in perspective, it does not get them closer to the MN State speed goal of 100/20 by 2026. In Minnesota we are used to the State MN border to border broadband grant rules where project must build networks that are scalable to 100/100. That is not the case with these networks and getting to 25/3 does not mean getting to 100/20 will be easier.

Also there is the concern for customers that the promise or threat of building has kept competitors out of their market. The promise of a CAF II network has made it more difficult for the communities to get funding from other sources. CAF II funding focused on the providers only – communities didn’t not sign up or on to the program.

Keller and Heckman’s Overview of Broadband Funding Opportunities in the COVID-19 Relief Act

Remember Baller Stokes & Lide? And their awesome daily email of broadband stories? Well, Jim Baller, Sean Stokes and Casey Lide have joined Keller and Heckman, LLP, as Partners and their daily email has been rebranded as Keller and Heckman. And they remain generous as ever sharing their Overview of Broadband Funding Opportunities in the COVID-19 Relief Act. Here are the highlights of the overview – visit the website to dig into the details.

  • Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants (NTIA):  $300 million grant program for broadband projects by “covered partnerships” in eligible service areas. The term “covered partnership” is defined to mean (a) a State or one or more political subdivisions, and (b) a provider of fixed broadband service.
  • Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants (NTIA):  $1 billion grant program for broadband infrastructure deployment, broadband affordability programs, distance learning, telehealth, and broadband adoption activities on Tribal land.
  • Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (FCC):  $3.2 billion for an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program providing a reimbursement subsidy for the provision of broadband service and associated equipment to qualified households in the form of a monthly discount not to exceed $50 ($75 for an eligible household on Tribal land).
  • Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program(NTIA): $285 million for grants to minority institutions, organizations, and consortia to support broadband development and adoption.
  • COVID-19 Telehealth Program(FCC): An additional $250 million to the existing FCC Telehealth Program.
  • Amendments to Secure and Trusted Networks ReimbursementProgram (“Rip and Replace”): $1.9 billion allocated to fully fund the program. Adopted various amendments relating to reimbursement for providers obligated to remove and replace covered communications equipment.

Federal stimulus will help pay internet bills and boost broadband access across Minnesota

I have written about this funding earlier; the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

Carla Green spends about six hours a day on her computer, studying for her GED, selling custom scents and doing other work.

Green, 26, has been struggling to pay $60 a month for wired internet service in her International Falls apartment — something she needs to make a better life, she says.

So she reached out to a local community action program for help and is waiting to get a provided hotspot, which she hopes will be fast and reliable enough for her school work.

Recognizing the millions of households in Green’s situation, Congress designated emergency help for families to acquire and keep internet service in the latest federal COVID-19 relief package.

The $900 billion stimulus includes $7 billion for broadband and network infrastructure initiatives, including $3.2 billion for emergency help with monthly bills for service. Rural areas, tribal governments and other underserved populations will benefit as well.

Here are some of the details on the programs that directly support current customers…

In the stimulus package, about $3.2 billion is slated to help financially struggling households with up to $50 a month for internet service (or $75 per month for those on tribal lands) with payments going directly to the service providers. Those eligible could include households with children on free and reduced school lunches, Pell Grant recipients or the recently unemployed, according to an analysis by the alliance.

The Federal Communications Commission, which is tasked with figuring out how to administer the program, is taking public comment through Feb. 16.

Details on deployment investment…

In addition, $300 million will go to expand broadband in rural areas. In Minnesota, about 17% of rural homes do not have wire line internet service with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, and are considered “unserved.”

About $65 million will go to improve the accuracy of broadband availability maps — one of several measures U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has advocated as co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus.

And the impact of COVID on the digital divide and vice versa…

As more business has gone online during the pandemic, it has widened the divide between those who have internet and those who don’t, he said, prompting those without internet to pay bills and make purchases in person.

“How can you limit your exposure to the coronavirus when you have to go everywhere for everything?” Meyer said.

Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic made internet access even more of a necessity for school and work, too, when millions of students and employees were sent home for distance learning and working.

MN HF14: $120 million for broadband grants is introduced in the House

MN House of Representatives Daily Intro to Bills (Jan 7) reports

Ecklund, Sandstede, Sundin, Lislegard and Keeler introduced:

  1. F. 14,A bill for an act relating to telecommunications; transferring money for deposit in the broadband grant program.

The bill was read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance and Policy.

And more details

A bill for an act
relating to telecommunications; transferring money for deposit in the broadband
grant program.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

Section 1. BROADBAND GRANT PROGRAM; TRANSFER.

$60,000,000 in fiscal year 2022 and $60,000,000 in fiscal year 2023 are transferred from
the general fund to the commissioner of employment and economic development for deposit
in the border-to-border broadband fund account established in Minnesota Statutes, section
116J.396, subdivision 1, for the purposes specified in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396,
subdivision 2.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Earlier this week, Senator Bakk said he would push for $120 million for broadband. Last month, we saw that the MN Broadband Task Force was recommending $120 million for broadband.

FCC Seeks Public Input On New $3.2 Billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The FCC is looking for input…

Initiative to Connect Low-Income Households Funded Through Recent
Congressional Appropriation Responds to FCC’s Call to Keep Americans Connected
WASHINGTON, January 4, 2021—The Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau today issued a request for comment on how best to administer a new $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program created by Congress to help low-income
consumers access the Internet. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 directed the Commission to create the program, which would reimburse participating companies for providing discounted broadband service and connected devices to eligible households during
the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re excited to get to work on this new program, which responds to my call last June for Congress to fund a program to advance the Keep Americans Connected initiative that we launched when the pandemic started,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will go a long way to ensuring that low-income American families and veterans are connected during the pandemic, and that students can engage in remote learning with support from the program’s funding for connected devices. Our staff is moving quickly to stand up this program so we can quickly direct funding to consumers who need the help, while also guarding against waste, fraud, and abuse. We look forward to getting public
input on how best to structure this effort.”
The Consolidated Appropriations Act sets forth several requirements for the program: To participate in the program, a provider must elect to participate and either be designated as an eligible telecommunications carrier or be approved by the Commission. Participating providers will make available to eligible households a monthly discount off the standard rate for an Internet service offering and associated equipment, up to $50 per month. On Tribal
lands, the monthly discount may be up to $75 per month.
Participating providers will receive reimbursement from the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program for the discounts provided. Participating providers that also supply an eligible household with a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet (connected device) for use during the
emergency period may receive a single reimbursement of up to $100 for the connected device, if the charge to the eligible household for that device is more than $10 but less than $50. An eligible household may receive only one supported device. Providers must submit certain
certifications to the Commission to receive reimbursement from the program, and the Commission is required to adopt audit requirements to ensure provider compliance and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. In structuring the program, the Commission seeks input on a range of
issues including:
 Which providers can participate in the program and what do such providers need to do
to elect to participate?
 How should the Commission set up an expedited process for approving broadband
providers for areas where they are not eligible telecommunications carriers?
 How should the Commission and providers track participating households and verify
that they are eligible?
 What services and connected devices are eligible for reimbursement from the program?
 How should the Commission structure the reimbursement process?
 What rules are needed to ensure appropriate service on Tribal lands?
 How should the Commission and participating providers promote awareness of the
program?
 What requirements are needed for robust auditing and enforcement of federal rules?
 What reporting requirements are needed both during the program and at its conclusion?

And if you need some ideas, you can check out yesterday’s post on the NDIA’s take on the act. I expect they will come out with some recommendations soon. If you’re very interested in the discussion, you can check in with NDIA on how to be a part of them.

FCC Grants Additional 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window Licenses – including three in MN

The FCC reports

The FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau has granted 22 additional applications for licenses to use the 2.5 GHz band to close the digital divide and to provide broadband and other advanced wireless services to rural Tribal communities. These spectrum licenses, which were granted to Tribal entities across the country through the agency’s first-of-its-kind Rural Tribal Priority Window, provide for exclusive use of up to 117.5 megahertz of 2.5 GHz band spectrum that can be used by Tribes to connect their communities.

“We continue to make significant progress in putting this prime mid-band spectrum into the hands of Tribes so they can connect their communities to business, health care, and educational resources online,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Far too many Tribal communities are on the wrong side of the digital divide, and this Rural Tribal Priority Window is making a real difference in helping to bring digital opportunity to these communities. This is one of the initiatives of which I’m most proud during my time at the Commission.”

The Rural Tribal Priority Window was open for applications from February 3 to September 2, 2020. To date, the agency has granted 179 2.5 GHz licenses to help address Tribes’ connectivity needs. FCC staff continues to review and process all applications filed in the priority window. More information on application processing and status may be found at www.fcc.gov/ruraltribalwindowupdates.

Grants awarded in Minnesota:

  • Bois Forte Band of Chippewa MN 0009167226 (Granted File Number)
  • Lower Sioux Indian Community General Council MN 0009157301 (Granted File Number)
  • Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe MN 0009132753 (Granted File Number)

Southern Minnesota looks at impact of RDOF funding to LTD in rural Le Sueur, Steele and Waseca counties

Faribault Daily News reports on the RDOF award to LTD, especially in their area…

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission formally allocated $9.2 billion in rural broadband grants, with Minnesota receiving more than $400 million, the fourth largest of any state.

The biggest winner both nationally and in Minnesota was LTD Broadband. A Nevada-based company, LTD currently provides broadband service throughout the Upper Midwest through a network of more than 1,800 wireless towers covering more than 50,000 square miles. LTD’s service area is centered around southern Minnesota, but it stretches as far south as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as far west as Huron, South Dakota, and as far north as Alexandria.

With the new grant funding in hand, LTD is set to dramatically expand its reach, entering into a dizzying array of new markets. In Minnesota alone, it’s set to reach more than 100,000 new customers.

A significant number of those new potential customers will be local. A map of the winners created by Cooperative Network Services shows LTD’s projects would dramatically expand fiber-optic coverage locally, especially in rural Le Sueur, Steele and Waseca counties. Rice County would see increased fiber-optic coverage as well, but in more limited areas. Richland Township in the county’s southeast corner is projected to be the project’s biggest beneficiary, but Shieldsville and Bridgewater townships will also benefit.

Statewide, LTD gobbled up more than three-quarters of funding, leaving little room for other providers. One exception was in Nicollet County, where Illinois-based Consolidated Communications picked up a small project near North Mankato and Texas-based AMG Technology Investment group got one funded near Nicollet.

They seem optimistic…

While he knew that the federal government was going to spend big on rural broadband, Rice County Commissioner Galen Malecha expressed surprise that such a large allocation was given to a company he hadn’t even heard of before the announcement.

“We were surprised a relatively unknown company got the majority of the money versus the providers that already exist within the county,” he said.

But cautious…

Still, whether or not the company will be able to achieve its huge promises is a fair question, and one that concerns Le Sueur County Administrator Darrell Pettis. While Pettis is familiar with LTD, he noted they traditionally provide only fixed wireless through the air, not fiber optic.

Pettis noted that completing much more modest fiber-optic installations on time has proven a challenge at times even for providers with a great deal of experience providing fiber-optic internet, like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications.

In a worst case scenario, LTD’s ambitious broadband expansion plans might not even make it that far. LTD’s proposal will be scrutinized in greater detail and could be rejected through the FCC’s Long Form application process, which is not even due until Feb. 15.

Should LTD’s plans fall through at one point or another, Pettis said that would leave the county in a tough spot because areas covered through the federal dollars take themselves out of the running for assistance through the state’s Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program.

Klobuchar Broadband Provisions Included in Year-End Package Passed by Senate, Expected to be Signed Into Law

Big news from Senator Klobuchar, especially on broadband mapping and college kids in need of better broadband…

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, announced that several of her key broadband priorities were included in the year-end omnibus package passed by the Senate and expected to be signed into law. These provisions include funding to ensure students with the greatest financial need have access to high-speed internet based off Klobuchar’s Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act and funding to implement the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act, bipartisan legislation to improve the accuracy of the FCC’s broadband availability maps which was signed into law in March.

 

“In 2020, every family in America should have access to high-speed internet, regardless of their zip code,” Klobuchar said. “The pandemic has exposed how critical broadband is to staying connected to work, school, health care and more. These provisions will help bring us closer to ensuring all Americans have access to high speed internet by improving the broadband data collection process and connecting our college students with the greatest financial need to vital internet services.”  

 

The following provisions were included:

  • Connecting College and University Students in Need: The provision includes funding to ensure college students with the greatest financial need have access to high-speed internet based-off the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act. The package includes $285 million funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs), their students, and minority-owned businesses near those colleges and universities.
    • The funding can be used to purchase routers, modems, wi-fi hotspots, tablets, and laptops. Funding recipients must prioritize students eligible for the Pell Grant or the FCC’s Lifeline program; approved to receive unemployment insurance benefits; currently receiving other need-based financial aid; or earning less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level (i.e., $39,300 for a family of four in the contiguous U.S.). The legislation also allows for connectivity funding for minority-owned businesses near those higher education institutions and establishes the Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to carry out programs to expand access to broadband at and in communities around HBCUs, TCUs, HSIs and other MSIs.

Congress agrees on pandemic stimulus deal – including $7 billion for broadband

The New York Times reports…

Congressional leaders on Sunday reached a hard-fought agreement on a $900 billion stimulus package that would send immediate aid to Americans and businesses to help them cope with the economic devastation of the pandemic and fund the distribution of vaccines.

The deal would deliver the first significant infusion of federal dollars into the economy since April, as negotiators broke through months of partisan gridlock that had scuttled earlier talks, leaving millions of Americans and businesses without federal help as the pandemic raged. While the plan is roughly half the size of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted in March, it is one of the largest relief packages in modern history.

It includes $7 billion for broadband access…

The agreement is also expected to provide billions of dollars for testing, tracing and vaccine distribution, as well as $82 billion for colleges and schools, $13 billion in increased nutrition assistance, $7 billion for broadband access and $25 billion in rental assistance. The agreement is also expected to extend an eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of the year.

MinnPost asks questions about federal broadband grants impact on MN grants

MinnPost has been following the potential impact of RDOF results on rural broadband in Minnesota. Here’s their latest

When the Federal Communications Commission announced $312 million in grants for one relatively small company to build broadband in Minnesota earlier this month, it stirred controversy among those who worry the internet provider can’t deliver what it promised.

Now that squabble over the company, LTD Broadband, has spilled over into Minnesota’s own grant program for development of high-speed internet.

The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition — made up of internet developers, local governments and other groups like Mayo Clinic — sent a letter Wednesday to state officials asking them to award grant money to build broadband in areas expected to be served through the federal program, in part because they have so little confidence in LTD Broadband. Some internet companies said the state asked them to submit bids for cash outside of the federal program zones.

Minnesota officials haven’t made a decision on how to proceed, but the state must navigate the fight over broadband money and territory while balancing the best way to get internet to rural residents — and to spend taxpayer dollars.

They get into the background of the RDOF program and get comment from LTD…

LTD Broadband won $1.32 billion nationally and $312 million in Minnesota — the most of any one company in the country and the state. The money is doled out over 10 years but projects are supposed to be built in six years. LTD’s CEO Corey Hauer said they will deliver gigabit service through fiber-optic internet.

Competitors in the business balked at the auction results because LTD Broadband is a relatively small company with expertise in fixed-wireless internet, where homes get service from a signal placed high on a structure, such as a silo. It can be cheaper to build than fiber, which requires a physical connection to houses, though state officials who run the Minnesota grant program have avoided fixed wireless, arguing it is slower and less reliable than fiber.

Hauer says LTD Broadband has some experience in fiber and is ready to quickly expand and meet the challenge of providing gigabit service to a huge and disparate geographic area.

And they talk about the impact of grant applications awaiting results with the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development (OBD)…

Minnesota’s border-to-border broadband program, run by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, has $20 million in state money to dole out. Barbara Droher Kline, a broadband development consultant working with Le Sueur County, said DEED asked people to submit bids that don’t overlap with areas to be served under the FCC initiative. That’s meant to ensure a wider swath of the state can be covered.

But with deep skepticism from developers over LTD’s ability to actually deliver services, many are asking DEED to reconsider.

Organizations such as the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition are asking the OBD to move ahead with awards. OBD is undecided…

Angie Dickison, executive director of DEED’s Office of Broadband Development, said she was limited in what she could say because the state is in an open grant round and because there are federal limits right now on discussing development plans for the FCC program. An FAQ posted by DEED says: “In deciding which projects should be awarded state grant funding, information on any federal funding announced prior to the state announcement will be considered.”

Dickison said the state is still evaluating applications and hasn’t decided how to proceed with the state grants in light of the federal auction results.  Final decisions on grants are planned for January. LTD Broadband’s “long-form application” is due to the FCC in mid-February and review could take months, Robinson said in his letter.

“We are aware of the concerns that folks have and are taking that all into consideration,” Dickison said. “We’re in a wait and see mode until we learn more about the final outcome of the auction and the end of the ‘quiet period.’”

Minnesota communities have questions and concerns on RDOF results

The results of the RDOF awards (large amounts of federal funding going to broadband providers in rural areas) are creating concern for rural communities – especially in Minnesota. I’ve written about it before – the concern is that one provider received most of the funding being invested in Minnesota over the next 10 years through the fund. That provider (LTD Broadband) is known for the work in fixed wireless but the funding is to deploy fiber.

An immediate concern is that communities have submitted proposals to the Office of Broadband Development before the RDOF announcement was made and are worried that the RDOF award will impact their chances at state funding and/or require changes to their proposals to qualify for state funding. Le Sueur County has shared a letter with me that they have sent to the Office of Broadband Development outlining their concerns. (Pasted below.) I know others have sent or plan to send similar letters. I invite folks to send me copies and I will compile them here for the public archive.

Minnesota Office of Broadband Development

Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development

First National Bank Building

332 Minnesota Street, Suite E200

St. Paul, MN  55101

December 15, 2020

Dear Office of Broadband Development,

In 2020, we have made huge strides in broadband deployment in Le Sueur County for two reasons. First, because of the successful 2019 BEVCOMM (Eckles Telephone Company) Le Sueur County award and completed project and because we were able to spend about $547,000 of our CARES Act budget on broadband infrastructure fiber built around prior and current border to border applications completed by December 1, 2020.

However, there are still many miles to complete fiber installation in the county. That is one reason why we met with and helped plan for two applications in the 2020 Border to Border grant round for BEVCOMM and Metronet. Completion of these two projects would  get additional reliable service to more of the county. It is critical for our work. We are looking ahead to 2021 planning to continue our partnerships.

That is why we are asking you today to please not penalize these two applications because of the preliminary results of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction  awards announced  Dec. 7, 2020.

Because of the auction, LTD Broadband was awarded significant territory in our county and those locations are partially covered by the 2020 applications to the Border to Border program. Eliminating those partial areas would invalidate our planning process and carefully configured budgets.  The projects would no longer be viable.

We feel that for the future of our county and its citizens, fair evaluation of these grant applications by the state must be preserved. It is our concern that LTD Broadband may not be able to fulfill the FCC’s phase 2 verification and with a denial from the state, we would then be put even further behind in the process.

It cannot be overstated how important broadband service had become prior to the pandemic but since, our county government, businesses, schools and students would not have been able to function. Please help us continue our work and the work of the volunteers serving the county to bring broadband door-to-door.

We appreciate your work and the Border to Border Grant program. Thank you for supporting rural Minnesota,

Sincerely,

Darrell Pettis

County Administrator

 

Potential Federal Emergency Assistance for Education Institutions and Connectivity

Benton reports…

A bipartisan group of senators and representatives unveiled highlights of the $748 billion Bipartisan COVID-19 Emergency Relief Act of 2020. Provisions for broadband include:

  • $6.25 billion for State Broadband Deployment and Broadband Connectivity grants to bridge the digital divide and ensure affordable access to broadband during the COVID 19 pandemic

  • $3 billion for an Emergency Educational Connectivity Fund to provide E-Rate support to educational and distance learning providers to provide hotspots, devices, and other connected devices, and advance digital equity/inclusion.

  • $200 million to Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to purchase and distribute Internet-connected devices to libraries in low-income and rural areas

  • $475 million to FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program to support efforts of healthcare providers to address coronavirus, including a 20% set aside for small, rural health providers

  • $100 million to Department of Veterans Affairs for Telehealth and Connected Care Program to purchase, maintain, and refresh devices and services to veterans for provision of access to telehealth services