Sytek deploys 100 miles of fiber to server Morrison County and looks at the ReConnect Broadband grant to continue

Brainerd Dispatch reports

Sytek, a telephone and internet provider located in Upsala, was awarded a Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Grant in 2020 and has since placed 100 miles of fiber, extending service to 300 additional homes.

“I am thrilled to hear that Sytek is working hard with the resources available to provide broadband service to hundreds of additional homes in our community,” said grant supporter Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, in a news release. “I look forward to supporting their bid for additional grants to extend service to more rural homes in the future, and I thank them for doing hard work to ensure Central Minnesota residents have the resources they need to support local students, employees, and businesses.”

Sytek will be seeking an additional grant from the Reconnect Broadband program, which would allow them to serve up to 1,000 more homes in rural Minnesota.

Kandiyohi County and Res Baker and Lang make broadband a hot topic

The West Central Tribune reports…

State Rep. Dave Baker and Sen. Andrew Lang, during a visit to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, agreed with the commissioners on the importance of getting broadband to the rural areas of the county. Both said completing changes to legislation language and grant matches were important priorities for this year’s legislative session.

Broadband was a hot topic…

The topic the group spent the most time on during Tuesday’s meeting was broadband. Since early 2021, the county board has made expanding the reach of high speed broadband a high priority, even pledging up to 75% of its coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan act to the cause.

“This group of people are very committed to broadband,” said Connie Schmoll, who has been working on county broadband projects on a contracted basis.

In recent months the state and federal government have also brought broadband forward as a priority, in part due to the pandemic and how it showed the need for high speed internet access across the nation. The federal infrastructure bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars for broadband infrastructure, some of which will come to Minnesota.

“It has become the new rural electric issue. It is infrastructure, it has to happen,” said Commissioner Rollie Nissen.

However, not everything is running smoothly in getting broadband projects approved, funded and constructed. Some of the rules and regulations attached to state broadband grants and federal funding are making it difficult for the county to put all the pieces together. Kandiyohi County has its eye on both a federal grant and a state Border to Border grant, but those regulations are slowing the process.

One of the biggest issues still be hashed out is whether both the state and local units of government like Kandiyohi County can use American Rescue Plan act dollars to fund the same broadband project. Kandiyohi County wants to use part of its ARP money to fund the 50% local match required of the state Border to Border broadband grant. However, the state might use its ARP money to pay its half of the project as well, and state law doesn’t allow that.

“That would really be helpful, if we would remove some of those barriers applying for those grants,” Imdieke said.

The county would also like to see the match local governments are asked to pay when awarded a state broadband grant, presently 50%, to be lowered, to make it easier for more rural areas to participate.

They have run into a familiar hiccup…

Yet another barrier is the inability for the county, when using the state Border to Border program, to be able to extend broadband to areas already within the purview of a private service provider, whether that business provides the service to that area or not. Incumbent first right of refusal means if an unserved or underserved area is within the service area of a private internet provider, that provider can block a Border to Border funded project from moving forward. The county has run into problems with this rule in the past. Kleindl would like to see that rule removed.

Both Baker and Lange agreed that changes needed to be made to the rules. What may have made sense years ago, such as the first right of refusal or the size of grant matches, might no longer work.

“I think it is policy getting in the way,” Baker said. “Money isn’t the issue.”

The county board, Schmoll and others are pushing for those changes to be made quickly, in time for grants to be awarded and projects to be moved forward for construction.

Le Sueur talks to State Reps and Senator about frustration with RDOF and State grants creating blockage for better broadband

Le Sueur County News reports…

According to a report by the Blandin Foundation, nearly one in four Le Sueur County households are under-served or unserved. But despite the record $70 million in Border to Border grants, Le Sueur County is at risk of not seeing a single cent in state grants.

Many under-served and unserved areas of Le Sueur County are now ineligible for Border to Border grant dollars since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctioned over $408 million in grants to internet service providers to construct fiber optic networks across northeastern and southern Minnesota.

Of all the companies competing for grants, the largest sum is expected to go to a little-known ISP: LTD Broadband. The telecom provider bid for over $311,000 in 102,000 locations across the state. LTD’s planned fiber optic network encompasses approximately two thirds of unserved and under-served areas in the county.

I’ve written before about the situation in Le Sueur, they have been ineligible for state funding because of the LTD proposed opportunity with RDOF. So far nothing has changed as we wait to hear with LTD gets the funding but Le Sueur has been working to tell the story and on new plans…

Le Sueur County officials and the Board of Commissioners aired these frustrations to state legislators in a meeting on Tuesday. County officials pushed Sen. Rich Draheim (R-Madison Lake), Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL-Northfield) and Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont) to bring the eligibility issue to the DEED Office, which distributes Border-to-Border grants, and the governor’s office.

“It seems that the state is going to receive a significant amount of money from the federal government for broadband investments, and if this policy issue isn’t addressed, we’re not going to be eligible for these investments,” said County Administrator Joe Martin.

Draheim responded that the state was tied by conditions attached to federal dollars and believe the county’s concerns are primarily tied to the federal government’s actions.

“I think it stems more from the federal government than the state government,” said Draheim. “I definitely will be in contact with the broadband department and others at the state level to see if there’s anything we could work around, but I think we need to be talking to Washington and not St. Paul.”

Draheim offered to have a non-partisan staff member answer clarifying questions on whether it was a state decision or federal conditions that led to the county’s grant request being denied.

In the future, Draheim advocated for the state to shift its focus away from fiber networks and toward subsidizing rural high speed internet through satellite dishes.

”It’s very disappointing for Le Sueur County that we’re in this position. Moving forward, I think the state legislators are going to have to look at what’s the next step,” said Draheim. “We have literally pumped billions of dollars into internet across Minnesota. Unfortunately, most of those federal dollars go to ‘rural internet,’ but it just connects large cities through rural Minnesota and doesn’t help the people of rural Minnesota.”

I think it’s worth noting Draheim’s focus on satellite. I’m afraid we may see a resurgence of interest in satellite in the legislature because it has gotten better but it still does not compete with the fiber, which is built for today’s need and future needs. People and businesses will move to an area with fiber to build a future; they won’t move to areas with satellite-only.

Border-To-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant Update

An update from the Office of Broadband Development…

The FY22 and FY23 broadband grant program is scheduled to be funded with federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Sec. 604 Capital Projects Fund (CPF). The 2021 Legislature directed that $70 million of Minnesota’s allocation from that fund should be used for the broadband grant program. There is a three-step process for the state to receive the federal funding (which is being administered by the U.S. Department of Treasury): submit an application; upon Treasury’s approval of the application, execute a grant agreement; submit a state Grant Plan and one or more Program Plans for Treasury to review and approve.

The Office of Broadband Development (OBD) at the MN Department of Employment and Economic Development is working through Treasury’s process for accessing the funding. Because this is a new process and aspects are outside of OBD’s control, OBD cannot commit to a specific date when the Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant Application window will open. However, we are mindful that state law requires OBD to post the scoring criteria for this program at least 30 days before opening the application window. Therefore, OBD has posted the scoring criteria on the website and will move as expeditiously as possible to post the grant application and open the application window upon all of the necessary approvals from Treasury. OBD does anticipate that the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program will be conducted very much like prior broadband grant rounds, so you may want to review the materials available on the website related to those rounds if you are interested in applying for FY22 funding. Here is a direct link to the website: Broadband Grant Program / Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (mn.gov)

Minnesota’s total Capital Projects Fund allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act is $180,702,620. At this time, $70 million has been allocated by the state legislature for the broadband infrastructure grant program. OBD anticipates that decisions regarding the remaining CPF funding will be made during the 2022 legislative session.

Separately, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law on November 15, 2021, also contains funding for broadband infrastructure. That federal funding is being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. NTIA is required to issue a Notice of Funding Opportunity by May 15, 2022. Information on how and when that funding will be available to the states will be contained in the Notice.

MN Broadband Task Force asks Governor Walz to expedite and increase request for federal funds for broadband

The MN Broadband Task Force sent a letter to Governor Walz, Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, Senator Erin Murphy, and Representative Debra Kiel…

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act funding that Minnesota is slated to receive, there is a Sec. 604
Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund that is intended to be used “to carry out critical capital projects directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options, in response to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).” The U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury), which is charged with administering this fund, notes on its website that a
purpose of this funding is to “contribute to the Administration’s goal of providing every American with
the modern infrastructure necessary to access critical services, including a high-quality and affordable
broadband internet connection.”
In August 2021, Treasury identified the amount of Sec. 604 funding that would be allocated to each state; Minnesota’s allocation is $180,702,620. In September 2021, Treasury issued guidance as to how the Capital Projects Fund dollars may be used and broadband infrastructure projects were identified as a presumptively eligible use.
In the 2021 Minnesota legislative session, language was passed to fund the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant program with $70 million over the biennium and with that funding coming from the Capital Projects Fund. This decision was made prior to either information being released regarding Minnesota’s total allocation or guidance on allowed uses.
Minnesota is required to apply for this funding by December 27, 2021 and once its application is
approved and an agreement signed with Treasury, the state must submit a Grant Plan and a Program Plan(s) outlining how it intends to use the state’s allocation of $180,702,620. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband would urge the state to submit its application as soon as possible and once an agreement is in place, file a Grant Plan and Program Plan to use all the funding for the state’s Border-to-Border
Broadband Infrastructure grant program. With prompt approval by Treasury, the Office of Broadband
Development could then open a grant window and approve projects in time to be built, or at least started, during the 2022 construction season. As you are aware, Minnesota’s construction season is shortened due to weather and it is imperative to get the ball rolling as soon as possible.
The guidance issued by Treasury indicates that any home or business in Minnesota that does not have a reliable, wireline broadband service of at least 100Mbps download and 20Mbps upload is eligible for this funding. The latest data available shows that there are at least 240,000 households in Minnesota without a broadband connection meeting those speeds. Assuming an average cost of $5,527 per location to deliver a broadband service (taken from the Task Force’s 2020 annual report), deploying service to those 240,000 households would require funding of over $1.3 billion. Even assuming the grant portion for that funding is capped at 50 percent as it is under current state law for the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program, funding of $663 million would still be necessary.
While Minnesota has been a leader amongst the states with its Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program having awarded $126.2 million to reach approximately 57,000 locations with broadband service between 2014 and 2020, the state is falling behind. In March 2021, Wisconsin awarded over $24.8 million for 58 projects, in October 2021 Wisconsin awarded $100 million to 83 projects and in early November announced that the next grant window to award another $100 million will open December 1, 2021. In October 2021, Iowa announced that it would make available another $200 million for broadband grants in addition to the $100 million in grants announced in September 2021 as part of its Empower Rural Iowa Broadband Grant Program. A few other examples include Missouri announcing it will use at least $400 million for broadband infrastructure; Ohio is using $250
million to improve high speed internet service; Texas Governor Abbott just signed a bill allocating $500
million for broadband infrastructure; and Virginia has plans to use $700 million to provide universal
broadband by 2024.
The pandemic has made clear the need for fast, reliable broadband service to all homes and businesses in the state. Federal funding is available to get that infrastructure deployed. Broadband is the foundational element that is a force multiplier for all other issues. We need it to better address critical challenges and build economic opportunity, competitiveness, and prosperity. The state has in place a
nationally recognized broadband office and grant program. All that is needed is for the Governor and
the Legislature to direct the available federal funding to the Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program so that the real work of building out the infrastructure to meet the state’s broadband
goals can be achieved. The time is now to invest in our communities.
Thank you for your prompt consideration of this request.
Sincerely,
Teddy Bekele
Chair, Governor’s Broadband Task Force

Jackson County looking at state broadband grant – outside of potential LTD-claimed RDOF areas

The Jackson Pilot reports

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday heard from Federated Rural Electric regarding plans to apply for a state grant to expand broadband in rural northwest Jackson County.

Federated General Manager Scott Reimer said the co-op wants to build out fiber to the home in rural Jackson County, adding the Heron Lake area is a good place to start because it was not put up for auction in the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund reverse auction.

The move comes on the heels of controversial behavior by two companies, Nextlink and LTD Broadband, which mopped up large swaths of territory at the auction, including most of Jackson County. LTD in particular has been accused of failing to acquire the proper licensing in states it has bid to build in, resulting in it being kicked out from those states and being unable to build out commitments in those areas.

“They’ve been denied in several states because of that,” said engineer Chris Konechne, who is working with Federated on the grant. “Minnesota will be the last shoe to drop because they were founded here.”

Surveys have indicated an interest among the roughly 201 people who might be served by the project and Reimer said the application is the next step in Federated’s broader goal of building out fiber Internet service in all areas of Jackson County that lack it.

Up to $520,000 could be funded through the grant.

Greenwood Township looks at local, state and federal options for broadband funding

The Timberjay reports on broadband funding and hopes for Greenwood Township…

Chairman Mike Ralston told the Greenwood Town Board that the township’s $5.5 million request for broadband funding is part of the just-approved Senate Infrastructure bill, having been put on the list by both Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar.
This funding, if approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Joe Biden, would provide the vast majority of the estimated $6.6 million project.
The township will also be applying for grant funding from a new St. Louis County broadband program that will award a maximum of $400,000, and grant dollars from the IRRR.
Greenwood Township also received $50,316 in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, but whether the board will set aside those funds for a local match to the proposed broadband project is yet to be determined. The township will receive a similar amount in 2022.

Supervisor Sue Drobac asked Ralston why other board members weren’t informed that the township had received the American Rescue Act funding as of the end of July. She said that members of the township’s broadband committee had submitted their own application.
“We need more communication,” Drobac said. “We spent a lot of time on this.”
Ralston agreed, and said he had sent the application to Deputy Treasurer Tammy Mortaloni to complete.
“There was a long list of COVID-related items we could use it for,” he said.
The board asked the broadband committee, which includes Drobac and Supervisor Barb Lofquist, to be in charge of submitting the grant to the new St. Louis County broadband program, which will distribute a total of $1.75 million in American Rescue Plan monies for broadband projects. That grant application is due in September.
The board voted down a motion by Drobac to place the $50,316 in American Rescue Plan dollars into a restricted broadband account, with Ralston and Supervisors Carmen DeLuca and Paul Skubic all voting against.
The board then approved, unanimously, a motion that any grants written specifically for broadband infrastructure would go into a restricted account. This still leaves the township the option of using some or all of the $50,316 for the broadband project.
A survey for township residents to gauge interest in receiving broadband should be available on the township website, www.greenwoodtownshipmn.com, and all township property owners will be mailed a letter urging them to complete the study, or to return a paper copy as soon as possible.

MinnPost looks at Legislature’s impact on rural areas.

MinnPost looks at Legislature’s impact on rural areas. Here’s what they said about broadband…

Minnesota legislators this year tried to address many of the issues facing Greater Minnesota, from farming pollution to broadband access, meat processing capacity and lack of child care. Here’s a look at some of the policy and spending proposals with outsized impact outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro area that did — or didn’t — get through the majority-Democrat House and the Republican-led Senate this year.

Broadband grant program

State broadband officials recommended $120 million in new spending on high-speed internet infrastructure in Minnesota over the next two years. Lawmakers eventually voted for $70 million, which is still the largest one-time infusion of cash into Minnesota’s grant program. The $70 million was paid for by the federal stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year. It’s still not enough money to completely close Minnesota’s longstanding disparities in internet access.

They don’t do into greater detail but the fact that it isn’t state money is a flag because it means that federal rules may apply, which means lower speed goals and other factors. Also it puts broadband off a budget line item in a way and I never think that’s such a good thing. On the other hand, it’s nice to use federal funds where we can.

Senator Carrie Rudd mentions broadband funding as a highlight

The Pines and Lakes Echo offered Senator Carrie Rudd an opportunity to recap the 2021 Legislative session…

This was a long legislative year – under the trying circumstances Minnesota has faced, we were able to accomplish a great deal, and the highlights are a small part of the story. Most importantly, we reaffirmed our commitment to all Minnesotans, and ensuring the best quality of life our state offers.

With notes on broadband funding…

The pandemic made it very clear that broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, and we have work to do in that area. Therefore, included in the agriculture budget was important funding for broadband expansion.

Last year we provided a large investment for expansion efforts to our rural communities, and we again this year invested in broadband expansion thanks to federal funding from the American Recovery Plan. This continuous investment shows our commitment to ensuring Greater Minnesota is no longer left behind in broadband expansion.

Rep Pelowski outlines role of Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee and broadband

In the Crookston Times, Rep Pelowski talks about the role of the new Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee…

Despite being a new committee in the Minnesota House, the Industrial Education and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee navigated the unfamiliar waters of pandemic legislating successfully, delivering on the primary goals built around the committee’s inception – funding an industrial technology teacher licensure and certification program, investing in statewide broadband, and replenishing the state’s Disaster Assistance Contingency Account. As chair of the committee, I worked in a bipartisan manner with my colleagues to ensure these nonpartisan measures received the support they deserve.

And how they handled broadband funding this year…

In a similar fashion, our committee’s work on broadband would also get wrapped in a larger bill during the special session. As chair, I was appointed to the Agriculture conference committee, which also included broadband in its purview. Made of House and Senate members, the conference committee – later referred to as a working group after the regular session – crafted legislation that would fund operations for the Office of Broadband Development. In addition to this, $70 million in federal funding over the next two years in broadband infrastructure was included in the Jobs, Economic Development, and Labor Budget.

Minnesota Farmers Union calls $70 million for broadband one of the most important pieces of legislation

WNAX Radio reports…

Several priorities for Minnesota Farmers Union members were contained in legislation passed by State Lawmakers this session. MFU Government Relations Director Stu Lourey says getting biofuels infrastructure approved along with funding for expanding smaller meatpacking facilities and reauthorizing the Farmer Lender Mediation program were all legislative wins.

He says one of the most important pieces of legislation that passed was for $70 million dollars for broadband internet that has become essential for farmers, ranchers and businesses.

Legislators Bakk and Ecklund talk about MN broadband funding

The Timber Jay asked Senator Bakk and Representation Ecklund to talk about the 2021 Legislative highlights. Broadband was on the list…

Securing $70 million for the state’s Border-to-Border high-speed broadband initiative was also near the top of their lists of accomplishments.
“I’ve been the chief author of the broadband legislation for the last four years, and that’s a huge win for the state of Minnesota,” Ecklund said. “You compile that with all of the federal money that will be coming in and we might finally get to the point where we can say Minnesota is true border-to-border broadband, but right now 257,000 households are unserved.”
“That’s the biggest (allocation) we’ve ever made, $35 million a year,” Bakk said.

Office of Broadband Development on $70 Million to Border to Border Broadband Grant Program

The Office of Broadband Development outlines some of the details of the $70 million the legislature recently approved for broadband…

The Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program funds the expansion of broadband service to areas of Minnesota that are unserved or underserved. The grant program was created in Minn. Stat. 116J.395 in 2014. The legislative focus of this grant program is to provide state resources that help make the financial case for new and existing providers to invest in building broadband infrastructure into unserved and underserved areas of the state.

The Border to Border Broadband Grant Program has historically been funded with state general fund revenues. State funding enabled OBD to open the grant application period within 30 days of the appropriation being authorized.  In the 2021 Special Session, the legislature has directed DEED to submit an application to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for $70 million of Minnesota’s capital projects fund allocation under Public Law 117-2 (the American Recovery Plan Act) to fund the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program over the next two fiscal years. The preliminary guidance from Treasury, as well as the legislative appropriation language, indicates that there will be a state application required to be submitted to Treasury for the state to access this funding. There will also be federal standards regarding how the funding can be used which are not yet known. Once Treasury has issued further guidance and clarified the application process, OBD will be able to provide more information regarding the FY22 Border to Border Broadband Grant Program’s anticipated timeline, application, and requirements.

OBD intends to follow state law guidelines for the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program, while building in any measures necessary to comply with federal requirements associated with use of the capital projects fund for the FY22 grant round. If you are not familiar with the state grant program, you may want to review the information on the OBD website at Broadband Grant Program / Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (mn.gov) until further information is available.

Please continue to visit the Office of Broadband Development website to stay up to date on the Border to Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program.

OBD has also prepared a Grant Application Template for communities to use as a resource if they are considering using Local Fiscal Recovery Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for broadband infrastructure.

Minnesota Legislature Makes Largest Broadband Investment to Date

From the MN Broadband Coalition

The Minnesota Legislature passed $70 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program today and sent the bill on to Governor Tim Walz for his signature. The Omnibus Jobs and Economic Development Bill passed the House 71-62 and the Senate 51-15. The funding will be evenly divided over the next two years.
“The Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition’s top priority this year was to fund the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. We are incredibly pleased with today’s news,” said Jay Trusty, Chair of the MN Rural Broadband Coalition. “This is the single largest investment by the Legislature in the program’s history, and it’s desperately needed. Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans lack access to even the most basic broadband service. We’re so thankful to Rep. Rob Ecklund, Sen. Tom Bakk, Rep. Gene Pelowski, Sen. Torrey Westrom, and Gov. Tim Walz for their leadership on this issue.”
The funding will come from the American Rescue Plan Act’s Capital Projects Fund. The Office of Broadband Development at DEED must apply to receive the funds from the federal government. Full guidance on the program requirements and application process is forthcoming from the U.S. Treasury.
The coronavirus pandemic showed us what rural Minnesotans have long known to be true: everyone needs access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet. Continued funding of the Border-to-Border program means we will come closer to achieving the state’s statutory speed goal of 100mbps download by 20mbps upload by 2026.

MRBC Update: House Passes Broadband Funding

An update from the MN Broadband Coalition…

House Passes Broadband Funding
The Minnesota House of Representatives passed $70 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program as part of its omnibus Jobs and Economic Development bill, SF 9. The bill passed the chamber 71-61. This bill is nearly identical to the version passed by the Senate that we updated you on earlier this week. The broadband provisions are identical and contain no policy changes.
However, differences remain between the two bills. The Senate removed a provision related to contractors working in oil refineries and sent the bill to the House. The House added the provision back in sent it to the Senate. It appears that the bill will head to a conference committee to resolve this issue. Nearly all the bill’s contents were negotiated by the House, Senate, and Governor’s administration negotiators, but the refinery provisions are a late-game wrinkle that weren’t agreed to as part of the end-of-session deal.
It remains to be seen how the Senate and House will work out their differences on this bill. The Legislature must complete its work by June 30, or the state government will begin to shut down. As always, we will give you further updates as we receive more information!