MRBC Update: Senate Tucks Broadband Funding into Jobs Omnibus Bill

An update from the MN Broadband Coalition…

Senate Tucks Broadband Funding into Jobs Omnibus Bill
The Minnesota Senate amended the Jobs and Economic Development Omnibus Bill on Monday, June 21 to include $70 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. As we have said in this space before, the Legislature’s final weeks are fluid, and nothing is a sure thing until the vote is completed on a bill. Such is the case with broadband funding this week.
Legislative leadership’s plan for broadband was to include it in a bonding bill. However, as the special session has progressed, Senate leadership became less confident in the prospects of a bonding bill meeting the supermajority threshold necessary to pass the House. Since regular budget bills require a simple majority, they decided to add the broadband funding to the Jobs Omnibus Bill. For those keeping score at home, this is broadband’s third home this year: agriculture, bonding, and now jobs.
The Senate took up the Jobs bill Tuesday, June 22 and eventually passed it 45-21.
We do not know what the House will do with this bill or if the Jobs bill will be the final home for broadband this year. Regardless, the funding is agreed upon by the House, Senate, and Governor and we are optimistic they will not leave Saint Paul without funding it. Leaders have said they want to have the budget closed up by Friday. The state will officially shut down on July 1 without a budget, but various aspects of state government—including campground reservations, state employee layoffs, and road construction projects—will start winding down by the end of this week if the Legislature doesn’t act. They have lots of incentive to get the job done! We will keep you updated.

From MN Broadband Coalition – Action Alert! Broadband Funding

From the Minnesota Broadband Coalition…

Legislators are back at the Capitol for a special session. Budget bills began to move through the process this weekend and we expect them to continue working through June 30. We can’t let them leave Saint Paul without funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program!
Right now, leaders have agreed to put at least $70 million for the grant program in the bonding bill. This bill requires a supermajority approval, which means Republicans and DFLers must vote for it.
We need your help! Please contact your legislators and urge them to pass a bonding bill that includes at least $70 million for broadband funding during the special session. Make sure to let them know you don’t want to see any changes to broadband policy language, too! The Coalition has opposed the proposed policy changes like adding “fixed wireless” to state broadband definitions.
We are asking you to email your state senator and your state representative TODAY and urge them to pass a bonding bill during the special session.
Tell them:

  • Keep their promise at the end of regular session to put $70 million in the grant program.
  • Around 157,000 Minnesotan households lack access to the lowest speeds considered broadband.
  • Pass a clean funding bill without any policy changes.
  • Without a bonding bill, the broadband grant program will have no funding and rural Minnesota will continue to be left behind.
  • Tell them your broadband story! If you have broadband, let them know how it has improved your life. If you don’t, tell them how it would help you and your community.

Contact Info

Please email your local legislators and the four legislative leaders

  • Find your local legislators’ contact information here.
  • Email the four legislative leaders here.
    • Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
    • Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman
    • Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent
    • House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt

Kandiyohi County commits $1.3 million ARP funding to broadband

Gov Tech reports

Kandiyohi County, as part of the federal American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package, will receive over the next year approximately $8.3 million. The funds can be used to pay for a wide range of projects, programs and personnel, as long as it can be tied back to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An area getting a lot of attention is high-speed broadband. The rules of the American Rescue Plan say funds can be used for critical infrastructure projects, including broadband investments that can provide 1,000 megabits per second upload and download speeds.

At a work session June 10, there was a consensus of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners to spend a large chunk of the county’s allotment, perhaps as much as 75 percent, to help fund several broadband improvement projects across the county.

Here are the specifics…

The County Board began to make good on that consensus Tuesday, committing $1,314,386 to a project that will expand high-speed broadband to Dovre, Mamre, St. Johns and Arctander townships.

OPPORTUNITY: Applications for schools and libraries to get tech equipment open June 29

Telecompetitor reports

Schools and libraries can start filing applications on June 29 for financial support for various tech equipment, including laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and broadband connectivity for off-campus use by students, school staff, and library patrons. The funding comes available by way of the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund, the FCC announced.

The fund itself is the largest single effort for student connectivity in the nation’s history, according to acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel It was designed to build on the the processes and structures of the existing E-Rate program, a Universal Service Fund (USF) program aimed at assisting schools and libraries with technology and connectivity funding support.

The need is evident, according to the FCC, with as many as 17 million children without the broadband access they need for remote learning. Applications will be accepted through Aug. 13. The FCC will also hold a webinar on June 25th at at 2:00 p.m. EDT to outline the program and discuss the application process.

States go through stages to fund broadband: MN lifted as early adopter

The Benton Institute posts an article from CTC Energy and Technology on the steps that state take to fund local broadband efforts. They outline three stages…

  1. In the first stage, states must develop an overall broadband plan that identifies where improved connectivity is most needed and how those needs should be met.
  2. In the second stage, states design the structure and rules of their broadband funding programs to meet these goals.
  3. In the third stage, states execute their grant strategies and then revise and adjust them for further rounds of funding to incorporate lessons learned in earlier rounds.

And they pull out Minnesota as an early adopter…

States do not progress through these stages uniformly. For example, whereas Minnesota’s grant program was initially developed from nearly a decade of prior state-level strategy development, Illinois moved from planning to grant program execution quickly and efficiently, in part because it benefited from Minnesota’s lessons learned and best practices. Multiple iterations of the Minnesota broadband task force met from 2008 until the state created an administrative entity to execute broadband strategy in 2013, with initial infrastructure grant funding in 2015. The grant program has evolved by using feedback from prior grant cycles to fine-tune its approach and cultivate a pipeline of potential projects. In contrast, states such as Illinois and Virginia learned from Minnesota’s example and demonstrate how the time between planning and program execution can be dramatically reduced. Illinois’s $420 million grants program was launched in 2019, following simultaneous development of the program and availability information-gathering, stakeholder outreach, and strategy development.

While it’s always nice to be an early adopter, the article points out that a good idea will be replicated. Minnesota needs to go through these stages routinely to make sure to stay on top of the game.

EVENT Jun 15: Rural Broadband & Telehealth Financing

Looks like an interesting session…

Rural Broadband & Telehealth Financing
Tuesday, June 15 at 2:00 PM Eastern —
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many disruptions in our daily lives and highlighted disparities among communities. Schools have gone remote, healthcare providers have increased seeing patients virtually, and small businesses have shut their doors to in-store customers. These disruptions have particularly impacted rural communities where there is already a gap in accessing high-speed internet.

Join us for the CDFA // BNY Mellon Development Finance Webcast Series on Tuesday, June 15 at 2:00 PM Eastern to hear experts explain how rural communities can embrace the challenges of financing high-speed internet for the economic and societal gains provided by broadband.

Speakers:

  • James Young, Vice President, The Bank of New York Mellon, Moderator
  • Caitlin Cain, Vice President and Rural Director, Local Initiatives Support Corporation
  • Lindsay Miller, Of Counsel Attorney, Ice Miller LLP
  • Kenneth Neighbors, Partner, McGuireWoods LLP

To participate, register below. You will receive the login information on the day of the webcast. Registration is free and open to all interested parties.

Get Engaged! Contact Allison Rowland.

US 2021 Digital Equity Act proposes $1 billion in grants for digital inclusion

NDIA (National Digital Inclusion Alliance) reports

Originally introduced in April 2019 by U.S. Senator Patty Murray (WA), and reintroduced in 2021 the Digital Equity Act proposes to authorize more than $1 billion in Federal grant funding over the next five years to support digital inclusion programs throughout U.S. states and territories.

The Senate bill has been cosponsored by Senator Portman (OH).

The Digital Equity Act would create two major Federal grant programs, operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), to promote digital equity nationwide. The proposed funding for each program is $125 million per year for five years — a total of up to $1.25 billion.

One program would be carried out through state governments, with funding allocated by formula, and would incorporate state-by-state digital equity planning followed by implementation grants to qualifying programs.

The other would be an annual national competitive grant program, run by the NTIA, to support digital equity projects undertaken by individual groups, coalitions, and/or communities of interest anywhere in the U.S.

The Digital Equity Act references definitions of “Digital Inclusion” and “Digital Equity” developed by NDIA.

The NDIA has a host of tools to understand more, act and spread the word.

32,638 MN households enroll in Emergency Broadband Benefits

USAC (Universal Service Admin Co) reports on enrollments and claims for Emergency Broadband Benefits (EBB). As of June 7, 32,638 MN households had enrolled. According to Erik Flock at E-Rate Central, that is 1.5 percent of the Minnesota total households. Compared to other states, Minnesota ranks 30th for adoption rates. Louisiana has highest adoption rate (4.7 percent) and North Dakota has the lowest (.2 percent) with the statewide adoption rate is 1.9 percent.

Want to know more about EBB? Or want to help others find out about it? Send them to GetEmergencyBroadband.org.

Study finds the FCC Could Waste Up to $1B Due to Bad Map Data

Government Technology reports

It’s common knowledge that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has utilized misleading map data to measure broadband coverage and award funds, but critics don’t always cite how much taxpayer money is wasted as a result.

A Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) white paper released yesterday estimates the FCC could “improperly send” anywhere from $115 million to $1 billion to “wealthy, densely populated census blocks that have one or more service providers offering high-speed broadband.”

The money comes from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which was awarded to areas in an initial phase last year based on Form 477 data, a widely criticized set of information.

It looks like the CCA was funding the same things I was finding when I dug into the maps and found that the Viking Practice Facility was listed as unserved. I don’t think there are many people that would argue the concerns with mapping – the question is will they do something about it before they invest!

Biden Administration makes $1 billion in grants available for broadband on tribal lands

The Verge reports

The Biden administration will make $1 billion in grants available to expand broadband access and adoption on tribal lands, Vice President Kamala Harris announced at the White House Thursday. The funds, from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will be made to eligible Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian entities for broadband deployment, to support digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth, and distance learning.

Get more info..

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, part of the coronavirus relief package Congress passed in December, will fund programs to help make broadband more affordable for tribal areas to help fund the digital divide, the Commerce Department said.

NTIA will be holding webinars to inform the public about the grants. The next Tribal Broadband Connectivity webinars will be held on June 16th and 17th.

Pipestone County thinks about American Rescue Plan – broadband comes up

The Pipestone Star reports

Pipestone County has received $886,309.50 from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Pres. Biden earlier this year.
That’s half of the $1,772,619 the county will receive through the program. The county will receive the second half in May 2022.

Broadband is an option for investment…

County Administrator Steve Ewing said during the May 25 Pipestone County Commissioner meeting that the county has until Dec. 31, 2024 to incur and obligate the funds and until Dec. 31, 2026 to expend the funds and complete all work. He said the information about what the funds can be used for is still “somewhat vague.”
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the funds can be used to support public health response to the pandemic, address negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, aid communities and populations hardest hit by the crisis, replace lost public sector revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers, and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

It sounds like they have at least considered it…

“There is a clause in there that says if small units of government don’t want to use it, they can in turn give it to the county and we can utilize their money to build a nest egg for other larger projects,” Ewing said. “We could partner with some of the townships on some broadband possibilities too.”

Will Enbridge tax snafu impact broadband investment in Northern MN?

MinnPost reports

A group of northern Minnesota counties, cities, towns and school districts are now on the hook for a massive bill from Enbridge Energy after a long-running court saga over the oil and gas company’s property taxes was largely resolved this week.

State tax courts earlier this year ruled the Minnesota Department of Revenue had overvalued Enbridge’s property between 2012 and 2016, and the state on Wednesday appealed only the ruling for 2012 to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The bill for all five years is likely more than $30 million, according to preliminary estimates made in April by DOR. While that’s not an enormous sum for the state to handle, local governments, at least for now, have to pick up most of the tab, even though DOR was responsible for the problem.

The Bemidji Pioneer outlined the counties involved in an earlier article on the “tax saga”…

Last month, the Minnesota Tax Court made decisions in favor of the Enbridge company, which argued that it had been overtaxed for several years by the Department of Revenue. In the decisions, the state agency was found to have overvalued the company’s pipelines from 2012-216.

However, while what was challenged in court were the valuations by the state, counties are the parties that will be liable for the tax refunds. Enbridge’s pipeline system runs through 13 Minnesota counties, which may be impacted by the decision.

They include Aitkin, Beltrami, Carlton, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, Itasca, Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and St. Louis Counties. The subject has been in litigation for several years and has remained a great concern to local government units.

This is what you get when your worlds collide and you get notices of info on infrastructure and Line 3 for different reasons. If left holding the bill, I’m concerned that these 13 counties will have less money for broadband. Now some of these counties are fine but some are not. I have listed the counties below with their ranking for access to broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 up.

  • Aitkin – 81
  • Beltrami – 5
  • Carlton – 76
  • Cass – 66
  • Clearwater – 22
  • Hubbard – 18
  • Itasca – 28
  • Kittson – 35
  • Marshall –  61
  • Pennington – 10
  • Polk – 17
  • Red Lake – 30
  • St. Louis – 39

$288 Million in Funding Available to States to Build Broadband Infrastructure

From Broadband USA (NTIA)…

NTIA recently announced the availability of $288 million in grant funding for the deployment of broadband infrastructure. Grants will be awarded to covered partnerships between a state, or political subdivisions of a state, and providers of fixed broadband service.

NTIA’s Broadband Infrastructure Program was established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. In the priority order defined by the Act, NTIA will accept applications for projects that are designed to:

  1. Provide broadband service to the greatest number of households in an eligible service area;
  2. Provide broadband service in an eligible service area that is wholly within any area other than a county, city, or town with more than 50,000 inhabitants and the urbanized area contiguous and adjacent to a city or town of more than 50,000 inhabitants;
  3. Be the most cost-effective, prioritizing such projects in areas that are the most rural;
  4. Provide broadband service with a download speed of at least 100 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 20 Mbps;
  5. Meet the requirements of this NOFO.

More information about the program, including requirements for grant applications, can be found in the Notice of Funding Opportunity. NTIA is also holding a series of webinars to further inform the public about the program. The upcoming Broadband Infrastructure webinars will be held on June 9 and 10.

Political parties are that broadband is needed but not on the solutions

Vox details the differences in how Republicans and Democrats see broadband. First there was a difference in the investment…

While Republicans and the White House are still debating the cost of the overall infrastructure package, they have come to an agreement on how much the package should spend on broadband — $65 billion — after Biden agreed to compromise last week. The new figure represents a significant reduction from his original broadband proposal, which had a $100 billion price tag. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the decision was “all in the spirit of finding common ground.” It appears the details are still being figured out.

There is a debate about investing in public versus private providers…

One key disagreement is a long-simmering debate over the idea of municipal broadband. Throughout the United States, some local governments, nonprofits, and co-ops have made long-term investments to build their own broadband networks without relying on the private sector. Biden is a big fan of this approach. The White House calls these municipal broadband networks “providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.” Notably, large cable companies that benefit from being the only provider in many areas don’t like this competition, and they have even lobbied for legislation banning them. Broadband Now, an internet provider website, says municipal broadband is now restricted in at least 18 states.

There is a debate about whether to invest in now or the future…

Public versus private investment is not, however, the only fault line in the recent bipartisan consensus over funding broadband. There’s also long and ongoing disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over what kind of technology should be deployed to facilitate these internet connections. Right now, many get their internet routed to their homes through coaxial cable networks, while some are still dependent on DSL-copper phone lines, which are even slower. Biden thinks that should change, and that US broadband should be high-speed and “future proof,” a term Republicans have interpreted as code for fiber. Fiber, advocates have argued, would last for decades and could be easily adjusted to account for higher and higher speed demands.

But Republicans have said that the Biden definition of high-speed and “future proof” would make too many households eligible for subsidies that could go to people who don’t necessarily need internet updates.

MN legislators agree to$70 million on broadband

I have already noted this number in an earlier post, but always fun to see mainstream media talk about broadband as a win. MinnPost reports

Minnesota lawmakers this year have said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for universal access to quality internet as many residents worked or attended school from home.

In response to the lack of adequate broadband in parts of the state, especially rural areas, legislators agreed to spend $70 million on a state grant program that aims to build high-speed internet infrastructure across Minnesota.

The windfall, likely paid for by the stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year, isn’t enough to completely close internet disparities that have long plagued Minnesota, and the state may still miss goals for broadband speed and distribution set for 2022. But if legislators approve the cash in a special session later this month, it would be the largest infusion of money into the program since it began in 2014.

And some details…

But legislative leaders did agree on $70 million for broadband. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told MinnPost on Thursday the money would come out of a $179 million ARP fund dedicated specifically by the feds for capital infrastructure projects.

Gazelka said they landed on $70 million over the two-year budget because that’s how much lawmakers felt the program could handle, but he didn’t close the door on eventually spending more than $70 million by the time a final budget is passed. “It could be more than that, but that was the minimum that we would do there,” he said.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Friday that legislators are still waiting for more guidance on the $179, and that it’s possible it must all be spent on broadband over several years. “There’s a big question about whether that money can be spent on actually anything else,” Hortman said. “So it might all end up being spent on broadband but we don’t know.”