USDA Invests $11 Million in Broadband for Rural Minnesota and Iowa Communities

I already posted details on the CTC project, but here’s the general info on the USDA money coming into Minnesota (and Iowa)…

Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky announced USDA has invested $11 million in three, high-speed broadband infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,395 rural households and nearly 120 businesses throughout several counties in Minnesota and northern Iowa. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “This task of providing rural Americans with broadband is of the highest importance for President Trump and his Administration. We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.”

Harmony Telephone Company will use a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 square miles in several counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Osage Municipal Utilities (OMU) in northern Iowa will use a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant to provide broadband service to underserved households, farms and businesses in Mitchell County. This will be accomplished by directly accessing a fiber trunk line that runs through the heart of Mitchell, Iowa, and up to the border of Minnesota, allowing OMU to increase its service area bandwidth. The funded service area includes 151 households spread over 20 square miles.

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) will use a $5.2 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of up to one gigabit of symmetrical high-speed internet to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in portions of Cherry and Great Scott townships in Minnesota’s famed ‘Iron Range.’ CTC will leverage existing middle-mile infrastructure, in partnership with Northeast Service Cooperative, and require only an additional 157.1 miles of new FTTP construction. The funded service area includes 667 households, two educational facilities and two critical community facilities in St. Louis County.

Background:

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

In December 2019, Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced USDA will be making available an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding in 2020. USDA will make available up to $200 million for grants, up to $200 million for 50/50 grant/loan combinations, and up to $200 million for low-interest loans. The application window for this round of funding will open Jan. 31, 2020. Applications for all funding products will be accepted in the same application window, which will close no later than March 16, 2020.

A full description of 2020 ReConnect Pilot Program funding is available on page 67913 of the Dec. 12, 2019, Federal Register (PDF, 336 KB). To learn more about eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force. To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

CTC Receives $5.2 million from USDA to serve Cherry and Great Scott townships on the Iron Range

Big news from CTC for parts of the Iron Range…

Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky announced that USDA has invested $11 million in three, high-speed broadband infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,395 rural households and nearly 120 businesses throughout several counties in Minnesota and northern Iowa. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments. CTC was awarded a $5.2 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of up to one gigabit of symmetrical high-speed internet to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in portions of Cherry and Great Scott townships in northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range area. CTC will leverage existing middle-mile infrastructure, in partnership with Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC), and require only an additional 157.1 miles of new FTTP construction. The funded service area includes 667 households, two educational facilities and two critical community facilities in St. Louis County. CTC will invest $1,743,169 in the project; a 25% match. “We’re thrilled to receive this award,” said Kristi Westbrock, CEO and General Manager at CTC. “Residents and business owners in the Cherry Township area have made it very clear that they need high-speed internet in order to thrive. We look forward to partnering with NESC and to serving this area for years to come.”

As part of this round of funding, Harmony Telephone Company was also awarded a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant, while Osage Municipal Utilities in northern Iowa was awarded a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant. “When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “This task of providing rural Americans with broadband is of the highest importance for President Trump and his Administration. We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.” In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks. More information about the ReConnect Pilot Program is available at http://www.usda.gov/reconnect. CTC is a technology advisor and full service telecommunications company based in Brainerd, MN. Formed in 1952, CTC has grown into a complete communications provider offering telephone, high-speed internet, digital television, and IT services to businesses and individuals throughout central and northern Minnesota. More information about CTC can be found at http://www.goctc.com.

MN Broadband County profiles including comparative map and PDFs

The snow is coming to most of us in Minnesota today. Good news though – I have something fun for you to check out online. Remember the 2019 County Broadband Profiles I did September? Blandin Foundation took that information and made is prettier and more accessible and each profile is now available in a PDF format, making it easier to print out and share with the Minnesota Broadband County Profiles.

I love the map because it does a nice job showing of which areas are on track to meet 2026 broadband speed goals (in green) and which ones aren’t (in red). The intention is that local communities and policymakers can use this information to access local and statewide need. Maybe it’s something you can share with your community and/or policymakers. They’re probably sitting at a desk watching for snow today too.

Telehealth in Cambridge MN brings tech solutions to the neonatal ward

Isanti-Chisago Country Star reports…

Through a new virtual care partnership, physicians at Cambridge Medical Center now have enhanced 24/7 access to Children’s neonatal care specialists. Using audio/video technology, Cambridge Medical Center physicians can hold a virtual consultation with a neonatal clinician from Children’s Minnesota.

From there, clinicians from both systems collaborate on the care management of newborns requiring acute stabilization after birth and determine whether the baby needs to be transferred to another facility for further care.

When deemed appropriate, the Cambridge Medical Center physician places a call to Children’s Minnesota and requests a virtual consultation. Within minutes, a neonatal specialist from Children’s will connect via an audio/ video conference with the Cambridge Medical Center provider and care team. There is no extra cost to the patient’s family.

For Cambridge Medical Center physicians, the virtual care partnership is a way to better serve area families.

“This virtual care relationship between Children’s and Cambridge Medical Center provides an enhanced level of safety for newborn care at the hospital,” said Dawn Dingman, RN, manager of Cambridge Medical Center’s Family Birthing Center. “By allowing the Children’s neonatal specialists to actually see the baby, we’re confident that we’ll be able to keep and serve more families here, in their own community. We take excellent care of these babies and will send them to another facility for even more specialized care if necessary.”

Partnerships like these also support Children’s vision to be every family’s essential partner in raising healthier children.

It’s a great solution for areas with sufficient broadband to make it work.

Minnesota has 134,000 locations eligible for FCC Phase I Rural Digital Opportunity Fund funding

The FCC reports on how many locations (homes and businesses) are eligible for Phase I funding later this year. There are 134,000 locations in Minnesota that are eligible. More info from FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced initial estimates of how many homes and businesses in each state could benefit from Phase I of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In total, about 6 million rural homes and businesses could be eligible for bidding in an auction slated for later this year to receive funding for high-speed broadband. This state-by-state list is for Phase I funding, which would target a total of $16 billion to census blocks with no broadband service at all meeting the Commission’s minimum speed standards. The remainder of the funding would be disbursed during Phase II. As recently announced, the FCC will vote January 30 on launching the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“The digital divide affects many people in many rural communities. I’ve said that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would be our boldest step yet to bridge this divide, and today we get a glimpse of the broad impact this investment in rural America would have across the country,” said Chairman Pai. “Our staff’s initial estimate shows that in 25 states there would be more than 100,000 locations that would be eligible for Phase I of the Fund, and the benefits would be felt from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains, and from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is critical to bridging the digital divide. I hope that my colleagues will join me in voting for it on January 30.”

Comcast agrees to pay MN customers $1.14 million in refunds

Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday that it has settled a deceptive advertising practices lawsuit against Comcast/Xfinity that will lead to several million dollars in relief to over 30,000 customers.

The settlement includes $1.14 million in refunds for a 15,600 Minnesota customers and “debt relief” worth “millions of dollars” for another roughly 16,000 former Comcast patrons, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The debt involves early termination fees that Comcast charged customers after they downgraded or canceled services. …

In a statement, Comcast said that the settlement “reflects our ongoing efforts to improve the customer experience. While we disagree with the allegations initially made in the lawsuit — which do not reflect our policies and practices — we agreed to settle because we are committed to partnering with Attorney General Ellison and others who share our commitment to improving the experience of our customers in all respects.”

Rural Opportunity Maps include broadband layer

The Center on Rural Innovation has released some cool, interactive maps. They overlay a number of datasets to help create snapshots of rural communities – by county, town and census tract. One of the datasets is access to broadband, which they get from FCC – Form 477 via Broadband Now.

It’s been a while since I checked out Broadband Now. They do provide access to broadband info (by county, city, zip) including:

  • Providers in the area including speeds (and types of broadband available) and coverage by percentage
  • Mapping areas with access to 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 5+ providers
  • General info on broadband in given area
  • Publicly funded internet access

The information is useful from community to community. I think the local maps of overlapping provider coverage are particularly interesting.

There are also a number of info layers that might be of interest: investment opportunities, trends in healthcare, hospital closures, local breweries. Being honest, I didn’t find an easy way to combine layers. But I feel like if I were looking for a specific community (smaller than statewide) that I could figure out what I was doing and/or use the raw info and local knowledge to help build a pictures of the local assets and needs.