Waiting for broadband in Alexandria MN

Alexandria Echo Press posts a letter to the editor…

Last year our neighborhood was excited to receive notice that Runestone Telecom would be installing high speed internet cable with access to our homes, thanks to the state Border-Border Grant Program. One year later we’re still waiting for that high speed internet access.

A news report in the April 9 Echo Press gives the statewide goal for internet access speed of 25 megabits per second downloading and 3 mbps uploading by the year 2022. Our home internet speed test is 0.89 mbps downloading and 0.19 mbps uploading, making basic internet access frustrating. I can imagine how impossible it would be to work from home or to do online schooling.

The author bring up the history of the grant funding…

The Echo Press also reported that Gov. Walz is proposing to budget $50 million for the state Border-to-Border Program for 2021. In 2016 Gov. Dayton proposed $100 million for the newly created state program. Republican legislators, who claim to represent rural interests, cut the grant to $28 million.

MRBC Legislative Update: House Passes Agriculture Bill, Broadband Funding

From the MN Broadband Coalition…

House Passes Agriculture Bill, Broadband Funding
The MN House of Representatives passed its Agriculture Omnibus Bill SF 958 Thursday afternoon 69-63. $30 million for the Border-to-Border Grant Program and $350,000 per year for the Office of Broadband Development are among the provisions. The House has passed quite a few of its omnibus finance and policy bills this week. The debate and passage of the agriculture bill took only a few hours. Some bills this week took well over 8 hours of floor debate and amendments before they were passed.
The Senate already passed its omnibus package late last week. Their bill included $40 million in funding with the option of up to $120 million if federal funds became available. The bill also included the same $350,000 per year for the Office of Broadband and some policy provisions that the House did not consider this year. The next step is a conference committee of 10 to resolve the differences between the two bills. Here are the conferees:

  • Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) Co-Chair
  • Sen. Gene Dornink (R-Hayfield)
  • Sen. Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing)
  • Sen. Bruce Anderson (R-Buffalo Township)
  • Sen. Erin Murphy (DFL-Saint Paul)
  • Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko) Co-Chair
  • Rep. Samantha Vang (DFL-Brooklyn Center)
  • Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona)
  • Rep. Todd Lippert (DFL-Northfield)
  • Rep. Nathan Nelson (R-Hinckley)

The conference committee will meet to review the differences and the co-chairs will begin to negotiate a final deal that can pass both chambers of the Legislature. Typically, the Agriculture budget is one of the more collegial items that the Legislature passes, so it is a good thing that broadband funding is part of the bill.
We will ask conferees to make the largest investment in broadband that they can and to remove the policy changes from the bill, including altering the statutory broadband definitions to include “fixed wireless.” Ideally, we would like to see a clean funding bill.
There are less than four weeks left in the legislative session before they adjourn for the year on May 17th. The next stage of the legislative process will be fluid and information could change in a matter of hours. Please bear with us as we navigate this, and we will keep you as up to date as possible.

Senators Weber and Rosen support the Ag Bill with $40 million for broadband over two years

The Lakefield Standard reports

Local state senators say the agriculture budget bill approved by the Senate last week is focused on helping Minnesota farmers while also spurring innovation in the agriculture industry and providing resources for broadband expansion throughout the state.

“This is a bipartisan compromise that focuses on our shared agricultural and rural priorities,” local state Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said after voting for the bill last Wednesday. “We’re helping Minnesotan farmers and our rural communities by prioritizing innovative investment, mental health and broadband infrastructure to drive development across our state.”

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, agreed.

“There are few things more important to the success of our state than a strong agriculture economy,” Rosen said after casing her vote for the bill last Wednesday. “This bill continues our rich tradition of ag innovation and provides resources for important priorities, like mental health support and broadband expansion to communities that need it most.”

Here are the specifics…

The Senate agriculture budget bill also gives historic funding to the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years. This funding will develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas.

Senator Weber supports $40M for broadband in MN

Windom News reports…

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Senate passed its Agriculture budget bill to support agriculture, rural development and rural COVID-19 recovery. The comprehensive legislation is focused on helping Minnesota farmers while spurring innovation in the agriculture industry and provides resources for broadband expansion throughout the state.

“This is a bipartisan compromise that focuses on our shared agricultural and rural priorities,” Senator Bill Weber (R-Luverne) said. “We’re helping Minnesotan farmers and our rural communities by prioritizing innovative investment, mental health and broadband infrastructure to drive development across our state.”

They go into the details…

The Senate agriculture budget also gives historic funding to the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years. This funding will develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. This funding from the legislature matches the critical need that has become apparent in the wake of COVID-19.

MN Senate passed comprehensive budget bills with $40 million for broadband

Minnesota State Republican Caucus reports…

On bipartisan votes today, the Minnesota Senate passed comprehensive budget bills related to agriculturehigher education, and commerce and energy.

“The Senate’s budget strengthens our commitment to core priorities in agriculture, higher education, energy, and commerce,” said Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester). “The reason these bills gained bipartisan support is that we made an attempt to strike a broad balance and work across the aisle. These aren’t partisan issues; it’s about doing what is best for Minnesotans.”

Agriculture

The Senate’s agriculture budget helps our agricultural community recover from the pandemic by strengthening our Ag sector supply chains and invests in helping more meat processing facilities expand and grow. It provides historic funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years to develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Additionally, the budget includes grants for farm safety equipment and allows the creation of a grain storage facility safety curriculum, as well as mental health outreach on farms and additional mental health services, like the state’s 24-hour crisis hotline.

Original bills for broadband recommended $120 million for broadband.

MN Border to Border grants do not require wired solutions – but do require 100/100 scalability

After watching two legislative meetings today on broadband funding I realized it might be helpful to say – that the Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is technology neutral. Here’s what they say about wireless solutions in their Grant FAQs

In order to qualify for Border-to-Border Broadband development dollars, does a project need to be wired access only or would a high speed wireless provider qualify if it met the speed goals defined by the grant?
The statute that created the grant fund defines eligible expenditures as “the acquisition and installation of middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure that support broadband service scalable to speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 100 megabits per second upload.” To meet this requirement, the grant application (at question 4.7) asks for a demonstration that the installed infrastructure is scalable to speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload and that the information must be certified by the manufacturer or a professional engineer. Any technology that meets this standard will be considered eligible.

Technology is not important – what is important is that the project be scalable to 100/100 – in other words the project must be forward looking. They don’t want projects that will not be able to meet the needs of the users in the near future. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of what that might look like. As students and workforce were shifted to remote work, many households realized that their broadband was not sufficient.

What I heard today was legislators who want to offer the constituents a solution immediately. They are talking to people who have nothing – so they’ll take anything. Unfortunately that’s a short lived satisfaction. If you have 10/1 access today, 25/3 is an upgrade, but it is still not enough if you have several people who will be engaging online (multiple Zooms, uploading homework, getting into the office VPN network) the constituents will still experience difficulties, they will still want more. If the network that is built is scalable, more improvements may be possible. If the network is not scalable improvements would require new building, new investment.

An immediate solution is nice. A solution that meets the needs of constituents now and in the future may be even nicer.

Proposals that strive for higher broadband speeds score higher on application criteria but that is not the only criteria.

MN House Ways and Means Committee: moves broadband funding to

Representative Ecklund’s bill (HF14) is moved into HF1524 as a separate article and then HF1524 is placed on general register…

High level notes…

  • Originally recommended $120 million for broadband over two years
  • Now asking for $30 million for one year and $350,000 per year for operating funds for the Office of Broadband Development

Questions/concerns

  • Do we have enough work to spend $30 million?
  • Does the Office of Broadband Development allow for non-fiber solutions? [yes! But I’m going to say more in another post]
  • Can’t we have the federal funding pay for our broadband?
  • Can we use public funding to give end customers money to get satellite connections?

MN Senate SF958: $40 million in state funding for broadband

The MN Senate Committee on Finance met to discuss SF958 (Westrom) Omnibus agriculture and broadband finance and policy bill.

Here are the barebones highlights:

  • The Senate recommends $40 million for broadband grants; $10 million is dedicated to unserved areas and grants need only match 45 percent of project (as opposed to the usual 50 percent). They recommend that if federal funding is available, then that funding be used first up to $80 million for broadband. And they want state funding to extend over two years.
  • They have added fixed wireless into the definition of served/ unserved/ underserved and asked the Office of Broadband Development to map wireline and fixed wireless access.
  • There was quite a bit of discussion around how to track the federal CVOID money as it impacts state appropriations.

Rural Minnesota lags behind the rest of the state, grants help close the gap

The Alexandria Echo reports

About 92% of Minnesota homes and businesses have internet service of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

But that percentage drops to 83% in rural Minnesota, the agency said. And time is running out to meet the state’s goal of ensuring those speeds for all Minnesotans by 2022.

And they give the local details…

In Douglas County, Alexandria, Osakis, Holmes City and much of the southwestern part of the county are considered to have good internet service, according to the state’s 2020 map of internet access. Most of the unserved areas are in the eastern third of the county, and along the Douglas-Otter Tail County line. Most of the underserved areas, meaning those that only reach the 2022 state goal, are along I-94 and in the northwestern part of the county.

To provide incentives to extend broadband to Minnesota’s hard-to-reach places, the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program has provided $126 million to fund more than 179 projects connecting more than 57,000 homes, businesses and farms, said Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Angie Dickison.

EVENT April 13: MN House to discuss broadband: Ways and Means Committee

From an email from the Committee Admin…

AGENDA – Ways and Means Committee – Tuesday, April 13, 9:00am – Remote Hearing by Zoom

NOTE: The committee will recess at 10:25am and reconvene at the Call of the Chair

 

HF1670 (Ecklund) – Labor and Industry omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

HF1342 (Noor) – Workforce and Business Development omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

  • NOTE: The language of HF1670 (Ecklund) will be added to HF1342 during the hearing

HF14 (Ecklund) Broadband grant program deposit transfer

HF1524 (Sundin) Agriculture omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

  • NOTE: The language of HF14 (Ecklund) will be added to HF1524 during the hearing

HF1684 (Hornstein) – Transportation omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

HF1076 (Hansen, R.) Environment and Natural Resources omnibus (PENDING REFERRAL)

 

 

Meeting documents will be posted on the House Ways and Means Committee website at https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/Committees/Home/92029

Public Viewing Information:

This remote hearing will be live-streamed via the House webcast schedule page: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp.

MN Senate Ag Committee (Chair Den Westrom) pass omnibus with $40 million for broadband

Minnesota State Senate Republicans report

Senator Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, passed the committee’s omnibus bill on Wednesday to fund agriculture, rural development, and rural COVID recovery.

The bill includes some funding for broadband…

Further, this bill funds the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years. Rural Minnesota has faced the brunt of lack of Internet access, and this funding will develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Minnesota contains large segments of the state that fall into the categories of unserved and underserved. This significant funding from the legislature matches the critical need that has become apparent this year.

“Broadband is essential to our way of life. This has become even more clear over the past year as Minnesotans have struggled to work remotely and navigate Covid-19. If students can only access school online, it is imperative that accessibility to an internet connection is widely available. Funding broadband is addressing the issue head-on and will help rural Minnesotans flourish,” Westrom remarked.

MRBC Legislative Update: Senate Agriculture Committee Triples Broadband Funding to $120 Million

From the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition…

Senate Agriculture Committee Triples Broadband Funding to $120 Million
The Senate Agriculture Committee completed work on its omnibus bill this afternoon. The first draft of the bill included $40 million for broadband. Sen. Erin Murphy (DFL-Saint Paul) offered an amendment to the bill that would raise that figure to $120 million over the biennium. After some technical revisions from Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls), the committee unanimously approved the amendment and sent the amended bill to the Senate Finance Committee.

If the state receives guidance that federal covid relief funds can be spent on broadband, up to $80 million in additional funding would be allocated to the Border-to-Border Grant Program. If not, only $40 million would be spent.

Here’s a breakdown of how the funding would work:

  • Guaranteed Spending: FY2022 $30 million/FY2023 $10 million.
    • Federal funds must be used, but state general funds would be used if federal funds are not available.
  • If more than $40 million of federal funding is available: FY2022 $60 million/FY2023 $60 million.
    • Additional funding would be up to $30 million in FY 2022 and up to $50 million in FY2023.

The additional funding for broadband is a major victory for broadband advocates at the Legislature. The bill still contains some policy provisions that the Coalition is concerned about, like changes to the statutory broadband definitions. We will ask the upcoming conference committee on the bill to remove those provisions. However, we remain thankful to Sen. Torrey Westrom, the Chair of the Agriculture Committee, as well as the rest of the committee members for making broadband a top priority.

Broadband is a vital part of Minnesota’s Economy – especially when everyone is connected

The Wahpeton Daily News reports

The Next Minnesota Economy is an ongoing series focused on the economic regrowth of the state after a year of regression… In the sixth of the series, Daily News examines broadband access and the difficulties of gaining statewide access.

They provided an overview…

In Minnesota, 92 percent of businesses and houses have access to a moderate level of internet service, but moderate access is not conducive to development and growth, Grove said. In rural Minnesota, 83 percent of businesses and homes have access to the minimum definition of broadband.

Mentioned difficult areas…

But getting broadband into lacking areas can be difficult, said Vince Robinson, CEO at Development Services, Inc. Geography and distance pose problems when it comes to remote areas of the state because every mile of fiber costs a set amount per space. The fewer people in a space, the more difficult it is to make a financial case for service providers to reach them, he said.

“These service providers cannot afford to do it on their own,” Robinson said. “That’s really the biggest issue: The folks that are left to serve are either hollowed out from activities that took place through other expansion programs … or they’re people that are on the fringes of service activities.”

And possible solutions…

There are federal programs and a state program — the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program — that can help target those communities. Providers can make use of federal funding to expand their services, but they may be expanding “moderate” services, which are too slow to support day-to-day activities.

It’s key that the state and federal programs have high goals for broadband access and the money to incentivize providers to expand high-speed broadband, said Marc Johnson, director of the East Central Minnesota Education Cable Cooperative.

“It’s vital for them that that boost is there for them to e able to consider serving some of these areas,” Johnson said.

 

Legislators agree on funding broadband – but how much and wired vs wireless are unknown

Mankato Free Press reports…

Members of the Minnesota Legislature’s minority parties are no strangers to partisanship, but they say lawmakers can find agreement on a host of issues before this year’s legislative session ends in mid-May.

Broadband, federal business loan and unemployment benefit tax relief, and summer school funding are among the Legislature’s shared priorities thus far.

And they go into detail…

“I think this will be the session where the greatest of support is put into rural broadband in the state’s history,” Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, told more than 100 people in a Senate DFL virtual town hall on Greater Minnesota issues Tuesday night.

Frentz said after the town hall he expects even more support than normal from lawmakers who have all faced pleas for help with internet issues in the wake of the pandemic. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pitched spending up to $120 million over the next two years in proposals earlier this year, and a Senate GOP budget includes $40 million for one year of broadband funding.

Frentz said he wouldn’t be surprised to see that target grow during budget negotiations. The bigger question, according to him, is whether that funding goes to wired fiber optic broadband projects or wireless projects.

DFL and GOP lawmakers have split in the past over which kind of broadband to support. Democrats tend to favor wired broadband projects as they’re the most reliable internet options, but they’re also the most expensive broadband networks to install. Republicans tend to favor wireless internet options as they’re cheaper, but critics say wireless broadband networks fail too often.

Lawmakers have heard more testimony this year from wireless broadband providers who say the technology is catching up and offering internet that’s just as reliable as wired connections, which Frentz said has softened stances on spending priorities.

I will make one correction, the current Border to Border grants are open to wireless providers. Changing the legislation won’t change that.

100 Households in Iona MN getting broadband (Murray County)

The Worthington Globe reports on broadband in Iona, MN (population 129) …

By the end of the year, about 100 Iona households, farms, businesses and community facilities should have access to broadband internet.

The primary internet service for the community, Lismore Cooperative Telephone Company, received a border-to-border broadband grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in the amount of $732,831 to expand the fiber network. Lismore Coop will provide $512,667 in matching funds, and Murray County is contributing $100,000.

To date, Iona customers have had wireless internet, Lismore Coop General Manager Bill Loonan explained. However, with so many folks on the wireless network, bandwidth is limited, and speeds average about 25 megabytes per second (mbps).