Rep Kresha introduced HF 1137 – $100 million for broadband funding

The Brainerd Dispatch reports…

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, authored a bill, H.F. 1137, that would provide $100 million to improve high-speed internet access for unserved and underserved areas of the state.

Kresha has been a strong proponent of broadband expansion throughout his first six years in the House and has successfully authored previous legislation to fund Minnesota’s Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program, according to a new release.

Here’s more info on the bill:

White House report: how the Federal Government can increase broadband access

The White House releases a report on broadband…

This report outlines a vision for how the Federal Government can increase broadband access and actions that Agencies are taking to increase private-sector investment in broadband. Previous attempts to expand broadband connectivity have made progress and provided valuable lessons that guide this Initiative. The report’s recommendations are grouped into three categories: streamlining Federal permitting processes to speed broadband deployment, leveraging Federal assets to lower the cost of broadband buildouts, and maximizing the impact of Federal funding.

Here are the actions they highlight in the report:

  1. Launch and Effectively Execute $600 million in New Federal Investment in Rural Broadband, Using Strategies to Spur Private-Sector Capital and Maximize the Value of Taxpayer Dollars.
  2. Leverage the Department of the Interior (DOI) Towers for Communications Use.
  3. Provide Tools for Expedited Access to Federal Assets in Priority Markets.
  4. Create One-Stop for Broadband Permitting Information.
  5. Revise Common Application Form and Quarterly Metrics for Permit Requests.

Better federal broadband coordination is needed – is MN a good model?

The New York Times posted an column from Christopher Ali, professor at University of Virginia on the need to better coordinate federal funding for rural broadband…

Despite the large amount of funding coming from the Rural Utilities Service and the F.C.C., rural America has not seen broadband deployed and adopted at the same speed and effectiveness that it had with electricity and telephone service almost a century ago. The reason for this lag is a lack of coordinated federal policies, which in turn has allowed major telecommunications companies to receive a large portion of these funds without much regulatory accountability. An opaque set of grant and loan stipulations make it difficult for communities to apply for funding, and in some states, a series of laws actively prohibit or inhibit towns and cooperatives from wiring their own communities.

Ali points out that investment is being made but not in a coordinated way that is accessible to smaller providers. But he points to Minnesota as a model worth considering…

I recently traveled to the Midwest to find out where and how federal broadband policies have failed rural America. I spoke with residents, business owners, broadband providers, farmers and officials, and they all told me about the need for high-speed connectivity and a renewed federal strategy.

On the trip, I learned how high-speed broadband keeps professionals living and working in rural America, like the insurance agent I met in Rock County, Minn., who no longer has to lease a second office to digitally file paperwork. It keeps rural businesses competitive, like the radio station in Rock County that no longer needs to subscribe to two Verizon accounts, paying over $1,000 per month for internet service. And it keeps rural students studying, since around 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires an internet connection. Rock County is one example of how communities in rural America can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by broadband.

Almost every state has a broadband deployment plan, Minnesota foremost among them. With so many plans, however, come as many definitions of broadband, target speeds, eligibility requirements for grants and a host of unique priorities. To ensure that high-speed broadband is available for all rural Americans, regardless of state, we need a national rural broadband plan. Standardizing state rural broadband policies isn’t enough: We need a plan to identify and galvanize stakeholders — not just the major telecommunications companies — to inspire change in our current policy approach and democratize the funding process, and to champion the cause of rural broadband across the country. President Franklin Roosevelt and the Rural Electrification Administration did it in 1936 with electricity. We can do the same today.

He ends by pointing out that we need to make changes to who gets the federal funding if we want to serve rural MN…

Last, this national rural broadband policy would show the United States is serious about global competition in community connectivity, agriculture, data processing, telemedicine, education and a host of other industries. Our lack of universal broadband means we are losing that competition. We are losing because we are not taking all stakeholders into account. We are losing because of a lack of coordinated and coherent policies. We are losing because major telecommunications companies get the bulk of funding and fail to deliver. We are losing because the agencies in charge of rural broadband do not even know who has broadband and who does not.

Le Sueur County moves forward with broadband plan – starting with feasibility support by Blandin Foundation

Le Sueur County News posts a letter to the editor from Barbara Dröher Kline…

Last year, while meeting residents of Minnesota House District 20A as a candidate, I heard numerous complaints about access to high speed broadband.

Also during the campaign, I attended a Region Nine Broadband Summit, learned where there are significant issues in each township as well as learning about solutions. I met with Dr. John King, my Le Sueur County commissioner, to discuss how to move ahead locally.

An expert from the Blandin Foundation presented at the May 15, 2018, Le Sueur County Board meeting, where the board unanimously approved applying for planning resources from Blandin. That application was approved. A group of county residents and county staff met with providers, took a survey, attended an intensive planning conference last fall.

As a result of these efforts, last December, the commissioners approved a contract for a professional feasibility study and we submitted another Blandin application for a $25,000 grant to support the study. On Jan. 29, the grant was approved! I am so proud of how many county residents stepped up to work in the planning process, the responsiveness of county staff and board, and the timeliness of this process. We are now poised to apply for state funding this fall. This IS rural economic development.

If you haven’t, we invite you to complete the survey of your home or business internet capabilities. Find the survey at www.lesueurcounty.org. Put your home and/or business on the planning map to help the consultants identify local needs.

When Lifeline dwindles: the FCC is decreasing the field of players

Lifeline is a federal program that subsidizes phone and internet access for low income households. It can offset internet access by $9.25 a month. Right now only 28 percent of eligible households take advantage of Lifeline programs.

New America reports that the FCC is making it harder for more people to access the funds…

Unfortunately, the FCC, under Chairman Ajit Pai, recently limited the number of providers that can offer Lifeline service in tribal areas (though that decision is now tied up in legal proceedings), and in November 2017, the agency proposed a series of changes to the program that, together, would severely hobble the program and take Lifeline service away from millions of people. Put differently, the FCC is chipping away at the one federal program charting a path of opportunity for Americans cut off from the internet.

“Our statistics suggest the program has shrunk 30 percent under Chairman Pai’s watch,” John Heitmann, a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP who has represented Lifeline-participating companies, said at a recent New America event, which broadly explored the function of the Lifeline program and the need to protect it.

Heitmann elaborated on the 30-percent drop in the program over the past two years, attributing it to, “in large part, regulatory uncertainty created during Chairman Pai’s administration. [Pai] started by eliminating [Lifeline Broadband Provider] LBP designations within weeks of walking in the door,” Heitmann added, referring to Pai’s decision, at the very beginning of his administration in 2017, to revoke nine broadband companies’ official designations, which had allowed them to participate in the program. “That sent a signal to the marketplace that we have problems. … The companies have been having difficulty attracting investment to grow in the Lifeline space.”

The FCC is also trying to change the rules on who can be a Lifeline providers. The funny thing is that the big wireless providers don’t really want the “business” of serving reduced rate retail service; instead they seem happy to work with resellers…

The FCC has also put a target on wireless resellers—indeed, this was one of the central points of conversation at the event. The FCC has proposed that only companies that build and operate wireless networks—so-called facilities-based providers—should offer Lifeline service. This is supposedly to fuel broadband infrastructure investment, which is a worthy cause, but, notably, that’s the task of several other FCC programs—not Lifeline. Wireless resellers, as their name suggests, purchase service from facilities-based providers and resell that capacity to their own customers, including Lifeline customers. Frequently with Lifeline providers, these resellers tailor their products for Lifeline recipients to ensure that they’re affordable, maximizing the $9.25 per month subsidy; often the service is free to the customer. Banning these providers from the program would potentially leave millions of low-income Americans unserved.

Heitmann noted that all four of the country’s large network providers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint) “voluntarily resell their services to Lifeline wireless resellers.” These four providers are “happy to resell their services … because they’re not particularly good at serving these low-income consumers.”

Yosef Getachew, Director of the Media and Democracy Program at Common Cause, echoed these sentiments, noting that the proposal to eliminate wireless resellers would take away the “actual carriers” serving the low-income communities who “don’t necessarily have a bank account or good credit history or are suffering from disabilities” and thus require affordable services made possible through the Lifeline program. Given that wireline and facilities-based providers don’t have incentives or the motivation to serve these communities, Getachew added, “it’s the resellers who have actually developed the relationships, the customer base, and the credibility to actually provide service to these communities.”

Think of it this way: The proposed elimination of wireless resellers not only contradicts the very purpose of the Lifeline program, but it also undermines current revenue streams that nurture broadband infrastructure investment.

It sounds like a federal program that is already under-utilized is getting harder to access…

The FCC’s proposal, on the whole, represents a wholesale attack on the Lifeline program. Instead of merely rescinding its program, the agency has rebranded a series of coordinated attacks that would obstruct the program’s ability to help consumers as “reforms.” Thankfully, these proposals haven’t been formally approved by the FCC. But as long as they remain on the table, they live on as a constant threat to millions of low-income Americans who rely on the program for the communications services they require in their day-to-day lives.a

Gov Walz prioritizes broadband in spending plan

The Duluth News Tribune reports on Governor Walz’s presentation to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities …

Walz also said his spending plan, set to be introduced next month, will include a “moonshot” to bring broadband access to rural Minnesota in two years, add funds to maintain roads and bridges and a create a new mechanism for bringing dollars to schools in a more equitable way.

It would be nice to see a moonshot to bring broadband to rural areas. I remember last summer, while running for office, Walz mentioned $300 million for broadband. That would be a good moonshot.

Broadband expansion happening in rural areas of Region Five

The Wadena Pioneer Journal reports…

Two area internet providers plan to hit the ground running this spring with expansion projects that will get folks in Todd and Wadena counties within reach of high-speed internet.

They’re able to lay fiber optic technology in these unserved and under-served areas thanks to millions of dollars in grant funding.

The projects are a cooperative effort involving regional telecommunications companies Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) and West Central Telephone Association (WCTA), with assistance from the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC) and Sourcewell.

CTC is involved in a $2.5 million project that will give about 500 residential homes the opportunity to tap into 1 gig speeds. This project area covers homes in the Sylvan Shores area south of Staples including homes around Philbrook, Fawn Lake, Moran Township and surrounding areas. It includes about 130 route miles of fiber.

WCTA is also working…

Meanwhile West Central Telephone Association is continuing work to the west and south of Wadena and southwest of Staples.

“We’ve completed the construction phase for the year, other than the final splicing crews,” WCTA marketing director Geri Salmela said of the Wadena project. “Our teams are following the splicing crews to connect customers now, and our office staff is busy scheduling installations for roughly 130 customers. When complete, these customers will have access to 1,000 Mbps broadband, also known as Gigabit service. …

The WCTA project comes at a cost of about $9,000 per premise or $26,000 a mile. It enters into areas that were not served before by high-speed internet.

Deployment started with a feasibility study…

Since 2015, Sourcewell has made a combined total of $500,000 of investments to complete feasibility and engineering for regional broadband projects. In partnership with CTC and WCTA, these substantial outlays have leveraged funding through the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Office of Broadband. R5DC’s Executive Director Cheryal Lee Hills stated in a news release, “Our region is extremely fortunate to have a partner like Sourcewell who offers unparalleled contract purchasing solutions, services to our schools; local units of government and communities, then continues above and beyond to invest in critical issues that make a difference in our quality of life.”