MN Broadband Coalition Update: Action Alert: Broadband in the Time of Coronavirus

An update from the MN Broadband Coalition…

Action Alert: Broadband in the Time of Coronavirus
Good afternoon everyone!  We hope you and yours are doing well, all things considered.
You may have noticed that there has been an uptick in news articles discussing access to broadband as it relates to school and business closures and healthcare. We are glad that people around the state are, perhaps, beginning to see what has been clear to the Coalition for a long time: there are still thousands of homes and businesses in the state with no access to broadband, and many others who are underserved by their current service.
As Coalition members, you or your organization may be approached by news outlets our journalists who want to speak about broadband access in your community. We are asking that if this happens, please refer all press inquiries to Nathan Zacharias: nathan@zachariasgovrelations.com We have assembled a group of area experts from our Coalition to cover inquiries related to education, healthcare, ISPs, economic development, agriculture, and businesses.
In addition, we’ve come up with a series of talking points for you to use with legislators, local officials, or in op-eds to your local paper. You can find them below. Most importantly, we’re asking everyone to stay positive with their message. We have an opportunity to continue to educate Minnesotans about broadband, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page.

Please write an op-ed for your local paper in addition to speaking with your legislators.

Sample Letter—Remember to Personalize!
As schools and businesses continue to shut down across the state, we are being asked to work, learn, or receive care from home. But the reality is that thousands of Minnesotans still don’t have access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet.
Giving our children a quality education has always been a priority in Minnesota. Now that our children have been asked to stay home from school, we’re seeing a digital divide between those who have broadband those who do not. Some Minnesota schools are more able to close and employ e-learning solutions than others. It is simply not a viable option for every district in the state. Even though students have connectivity at school, some do not have connectivity in their homes or adequate bandwidth to receive and send online curriculum assignments or projects. Students without access to quality broadband are at a distinct disadvantage from students who have access.
This divide is also present in healthcare. Connecting rural hospitals with their patients via tablet or other smart device is next to impossible if the patient does not have access to the high-speed broadband and technology that drives telehealth services. With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, rural healthcare providers can treat more patients working with specialists in healthcare system hub sites. We’ve been told “stay home if you are sick.” Broadband would allow you to not only work from home but to receive care from home as well.
The current pandemic has proven that broadband is no different than any other basic service that people need. It is an essential part of our daily lives. We need to do everything we can to ensure border-to-border access.

Area Experts

  • General:  Nathan Zacharias; Vince Robinson
  • Education: Steve Giorgi, RAMS
  • Healthcare:  Mayo Clinic
  • Agriculture:  Stu Lourey, Farmers Union
  • Providers: Brent Christensen, MN Telecom Alliance
  • Businesses:  Doyle Jelsing, Neighborhood National Bank
  • Economic Development: Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County EDA

General

  • The Coalition is made up of a very broad representation of public, private, and non-profit entities that reach across agriculture, health care, economic development, local government, business and Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  We have all come together with a common goal of achieving Border to Border Broadband.
  • COVID-19 is showing us in real time how important access is for ALL Minnesotans.
  • We need broadband to stay connected to each other, to do business, to grow our food, to educate our children, and to deliver healthcare. Broadband has become an inextricable part of our everyday lives and all of our citizens are entitled to it.
  • More and more we are being asked to work, learn, or receive care from home. The Coalition is uniquely positioned to help the rural communities we serve in Minnesota identify the gaps in coverage and work with other stakeholders to ensure Minnesotans have reliable access to all the benefits and tools that broadband provides.
  • We should not confuse short-term “fixes” with long-term solutions.
  • The Coalition continues to work with the Governor and Legislature on a long-term solution, which we believe is continued funding of the Border to Border Broadband Grant program.
  • The current pandemic has proven that Broadband is no different than any other basic service that people need. It is an essential part of our daily lives.

Healthcare

  • Connecting rural hospitals with their rural patients via tablet or other smart device is next to impossible if the community or patient does not have access to the necessary infrastructure to host the level of technology that drives telehealth services.
  • Telehealth doesn’t work without telecommunications, and the benefits of broadband extend beyond remote patient care when investments are made in the necessary technology.
  • We need the infrastructure to drive data centers, which can allow providers in small practices and large health systems to communicate with one another.
  • Strong broadband in rural communities leads to strong economic development for all industries including health care. In order to recruit rural health care physicians and other professionals, a community needs a strong telecommunications network for quality of life as well as access to telecommunication and internet-based jobs. With greater connectivity, more people will see benefits in living in rural communities, which, in turn, hospitals and clinics will likely see more patients, both in-person and via telehealth means.
  • With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, rural healthcare providers can treat more patients working with specialists in health care system hub sites.
  • Without reliable healthcare, these communities are even more at risk of fading away. It’s imperative that we embrace and invest in broadband capabilities to connect with more patients remotely to keep our communities healthy and thriving.

Education

  • Some Minnesota schools are more able to close and employ e-learning solutions than others, it is simply not a viable option for every district in the State. Even though students have connectivity at school, some do not have connectivity from their homes or adequate bandwidth to receive and send online curriculum assignments or projects.
  • Not all schools in the state have undertaken one on one device distribution to their students. Many utilize devices in school but recognize the limitations rural students have so do not depend on iPads or Chromebooks for homework assignments.
  • Students without access to quality broadband are at a distinct disadvantage from students who have access and we need to invest in rural broadband expansion to close that divide and ensure all students are provided with the same 21st-century educational opportunities.

Business

  • Reliable and uninterrupted upload speeds are necessary for production. Businesses require the 2026 speed goals of 100 Mbps by 20 Mbps to accommodate the large data files they receive and send.
  • Rural businesses often lack affordable broadband options.  In order for business to continue and grow in rural areas they require fast, reliable and affordable Internet.
  • Whether they are able to work from home, run a small business, or are selling products online, broadband enables entrepreneurs to increase their household income.

Agriculture

  • For farm families, being connected via quality internet isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.
  • Farms, big or small, are businesses. And broadband internet connects them to their markets, real time information about weather patterns, potential customers, and other resources that are essential to running a business in a competitive marketplace.
  • Right now, many farmers are still storing grain—broadband helps them get up-to-the-minute information on markets so they can manage risk and get a better price.
  • Looking ahead at planting season, the internet also helps them better track and predict weather patterns.
  • Broadband can help farmers source parts and trade old equipment so they’re better prepared for the growing season.
  • In Minnesota, many of our farmers are competing in an international marketplace. And too many of them aren’t on a level playing field if they’re not connected via broadband.

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative State Grant Details (Aitkin County)

The Aiktin Age reports…

It was announced by Governor Walz that Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) was awarded a Minnesota State Broadband grant, for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet project. The project area will connect MLEC’s previous fiber project areas and stretch from south of Aitkin to north of Farm Island Lake.

The project will pass 500 homes and businesses and will provide up to one Gbps (Gbps stands for billions of bits per second and is a measure of bandwidth on a digital data transmission medium such as optical fiber) symmetrical Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) internet service. FTTH is the fastest and most reliable internet available. MLEC will, once again, partner with Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) on the construction of this project and expand the MLEC fiber internet network.

Total grants received for 2020 amount to $3.2 million, including the Community Connect Grant that was awarded to MLEC in September.

Fast Company looks at MN Broadband Grants

The Pew Research report on How State are Expanding Broadband Access has garnered a lot of attention lately for the report and the states they pull out as leaders, including Minnesota. I haven’t tracked all mentions of the report but Fast Company took a closer look at the MN Broadband grants…

Take the case of Minnesota, which has a goal of “border-to-border broadband” with download speeds of 25 megabits per second and uploads of 3 Mbps (the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband) by 2022 and 100/20 Mbps statewide by 2026.

So far, the state has invested $85.2 million in public funding—2019’s recipients include rural telephone companies and electric utilities, tribal governments as well as big-name telcos like CenturyLink and Charter—to leverage another $110.6 million in spending to get 34,000-plus households and 5,200 businesses online.

As a result, the report says, the share of Minnesota households with 25/3 Mbps broadband has gone from 86% in 2015 to 91%. And the share with 100/20 Mbps access has almost doubled, zooming from 39% in 2015 to 74%.

The report doesn’t address how many of those households got online without the help of those subsidies, but notes that the state allows internet providers to challenge any of the grants “by demonstrating that they provide service or have begun construction on broadband infrastructure at speeds equal to or greater than the proposed project.”

The catch: Before they do that, they have to provide a detailed map of their service area, making the state a little smarter for the next round of grants.

Update on Nuvera’s MN Broadband grant project in Southwest Brown County

New Ulm Journal reports…

While no money was authorized for border-to-border grants for broadband development by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in 2019, for 2020, Nuvera was awarded $730,000. It is contributing an additional $1.2 million, for a total of $2 million in local community investments. Some $1.1 million will be used to build fiber connections in a rural Southwest Brown County area near New Ulm. These projects will be scheduled in the spring.

Nuvera constructed multiple fiber overbuilds to enhance customer services. As part of its commitment to investing in communities, fiber was constructed in rural areas of Sleepy Eye, Hutchinson, Mazeppa and Aurelia, Iowa. An enhanced fixed wireless solution was also installed in rural New Ulm by St. George. Fiber overbuilds were completed in four housing development areas in Prior Lake.

Commercial fiber overbuilds began in the Industrial Park areas of North Front and North Broadway Streets and downtown New Ulm for completion in 2020. Four commercial areas in Prior Lake were also targeted.

Nuvera has 11 public Wi-Fi sites in New Ulm, and 20 in all exchanges.

Minnesota projected budget surplus grows slightly to $1.5B

MPR News reports…

The state of Minnesota is expected to have a budget surplus of $1.513 billion over the next two years, the state’s budget office predicted Thursday.

This is an increase from the $1.3 billion surplus that was predicted in December.

They include info on Governor’s expected plan for the surplus…

Walz intends to release a supplemental budget around March 10. Among other items, he has said his plan would include millions of dollars in spending recommendations for broadband expansion grants, disaster response, increased rape-kit testing and farm safety initiatives.

Things seems positive but the story also talks a lot about unpredictable impact of the coronavirus, which is the reminder of all of the moving pieces in the legislature.

MN House Committee meets to discuss broadband bill HF3029

Yesterday the Greater Minnesota Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division met to discussion HF3029. Unfortunately I was at another meeting and could attend but there is an audio archive. (Download Mp3)

Here are notes from the meeting:

HF3029 (Ecklund) – Broadband development grant program annual statutory appropriation provided, and money appropriated.
The meeting started with Rep Ecklund introducing the bill explain that the extra funds would help Minnesota get on track to making the Minnesota state speed goals by 2022.
They talked about this money being ongoing funds – not a one-time appropriation, which is different from last year. Representatives wondered how long it
They hear from:
Angie Dickison and Diane Wells spoke and their presentation was similar to what they talked about at an earlier Senate Committee. There were questions/comments:
  • How are the grants dispersed in terms of unserved/underserved areas?
    The grants can go to underserves areas. There are a number of criteria that go into scoring the applications.
  • How long will it take to get to ubiquitous coverage?
    The Task Force is looking at that issue. Their last report lead to the proposed funding.
  • How will you serve the very sparse areas and economically distressed areas?
    We will likely have to look at less than 50 percent match requirement.
  • The phone companies decide on the networks. They won’t pay for a network that won’t make money. If we help some companies and not others the others will be mad. We need a national roll out – like Nebraska.
  • Can wireless help?
    Yes. We are agnostic to technology type so long as the technology will scale to 100/100 speeds required.
  • How big a problem is gopher chewing on fiber?
    It’s an issue.

Bill Eckles, BEVCOMM

Working on getting all customers on FTTH in the next 9 years. They have received 12 grants for projects totally $9.5 million; grants have covered just less than half of that cost. On criticism of the grants is that it has been a year to year grant, which makes it hard to plan. We won’t need help forever but we need help to reach some areas.

Terry Nelson, Woodstock Communications

Have received several grants most for fiber but one for a fiber-wireless hybrid. One grant application this year was denied because of the challenge project.

  • Can consumers afford Gig access?
    Most gig customers are businesses.
  • Do we use taxpayer money to pay for business speeds?
    Yes.

Vince Robinson, Lincoln County Development Enterprises & MN Broadband Coalition

Representing more than 90 organizations all of walks of life. They support $30 million ongoing for broadband.

  • Are we leaving places orphaned that will be very expensive to serve?
    Yes. The program isn’t perfect but it’s very good. Right now we have a great demand for the program but there are areas that will be extremely difficult to serve and we may need to look at less than 50 percent match.
  • Will wireless help us reach areas?
    We are seeing technologies improve maybe in the future they will be able to help. Right now line of sight can be a problem in using wireless in some areas.

Mark Thell, Farmer’s Union in Carlton County

We have CenturyLink. Our local network helps us use video to see what’s happening on parts of the farm but right now we don’t have sufficient broadband to do precision ag.

Dan Larson, MN Rural Counties

His presentation was similar to what he talked about at an earlier Senate Committee. If we want to really reach the broadband goal, we should move the grants funds into the base budget of the Office of Broadband Development.

Brent Christensen, MTA

His presentation was similar to what he talked about at an earlier Senate Committee. Thank for passing Telecommuter Forward. There are 20 communities that have applied for Telecommuter Forward support.

We’re going to need to figure out whether this is for base funding.

Bill held until they get a budget target.

Update on Paul Bunyan’s MN Broadband Grant for portions of Koochiching and St. Louis Counties

Great news for portions of Koochiching and St. Louis Counties…

Paul Bunyan Communications has been awarded a Border to Border Broadband Grant from the state of Minnesota to expand its fiber optic services to portions of Koochiching County and St. Louis County.
As a result, the cooperative will begin expansion construction in late 2020 and continue into 2021. This all fiber optic project will pass a minimum of 1,100 locations in portions of Koochiching and St. Louis County. The project is estimated to cost $5.68 million, with the State of Minnesota Border to Border grant contributing $2.35, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) grant contributing $802,700, and Paul Bunyan Communications investing $2.5 million. In support of the grant, Koochiching County will contribute $26,000 towards the portion of the project within the county and Morcom Township will contribute $10,000 towards the project within the township.
“This is huge for our region. Access to quality broadband service is vital to so many different facets of life including health care, education, business, and recreation. It is why I co-authored the bill to fund the Border to Border Grant Program in 2020 and introduced legislation to allocate another $30 million for the program in 2021. I applaud all those involved with supporting the effort to secure this grant so we can keep our rural communities thriving and vibrant.” said State 3A Representative Rob Ecklund.
“We are excited to continue our expansion efforts to provide access to broadband Internet speeds to those without it in our region. Our cooperative has a long history of expanding our network to underserved areas but it has become increasingly challenging to go it alone without grant support. The State of Minnesota Border to Border Grant Program, Koochiching County, Morcom Township, IRRRB, and the Koochiching Technology Initiative were instrumental in building community support for the grant application to make this project a reality. These areas will not only get Broadband access, they will go from slow satellite or dial up Internet to speeds of up to a Gigabit per second and become part of one of the largest rural Gigabit networks in the country!,” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.
Paul Bunyan Communications expects to develop the expansion plans later this year and will contact locations along the upcoming expansion routes either late this fall or next spring. The entire project will be completed by June 30, 2022. To see if your location is included in this expansion project go to https://paulbunyan.net/gigazone/availability-map/
“This project will have an incredible impact on people’s lives. Employees will be able to work from home, students will have access to educational resources, and seniors will be able to stay in their homes longer with telemedicine.” added Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications Information Technology and Development Manager. “The leadership shown in supporting this project through local efforts of many at KTI and Morcom Township was impressive. It is that local support that is essential in getting our grant selected in a highly competitive process.” said Howard.
“Morcom’s township officials currently have difficulty conducting basic governmental functions like filing tax documents due to a lack of internet access, not to mention the difficulties students, businesses, and residents experience when they can’t get online. I’m excited to see this project move forward and am committed to meeting our broadband connectivity goals so all Minnesotans can access the fast, reliable internet service they deserve.” added State 6A Representative Julie Sandstede.
“I salute the hard work of our elected officials who championed the Border to Border Broadband Grant Program including Rep. Ecklund, Rep. Sandstede, Senator Bakk, Rep. Persell, Senator Tomassoni, and Rep. Layman. I also want to thank the Office of Broadband Development that oversees the program. This is going to make a world of difference in so many ways to a lot of people right here in northern Minnesota!” said Johnson.
Cooperative’s services will become available once the network is operational including GigaZone service options like unprecedented Broadband Internet speeds of up to 1000 Mbps – a Gigabit and low cost unlimited local and long distance GigaZone voice service. There is no membership fee to join Paul Bunyan Communications, membership is included by subscribing to either local phone service or GigaZone Internet service.