Kandiyohi County, Charter Communications partner on $800,000 broadband project to serve 170 customers with ARPA funds

West Central Tribune reports…

Elected officials from Kandiyohi County and representatives from Charter Communications symbolically broke ground Monday on an $800,000 project that Charter said will bring broadband internet service to more than 170 rural, unserved homes and small businesses.

The event in New London Township was also a celebration of the partnerships between local elected officials and Charter Communications that made the project possible.

The agreement between Kandiyohi County and Charter Communications includes nearly $240,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding that was secured by the county, along with more than $563,000 in private investment from Charter.

MN Legislators still working on broadband but feel it’s a point of agreement

Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

Lawmakers set the state’s two-year budget last session and there are no requirements for them to do anything this year, but Republicans remain steadfast in pushing for permanent tax cuts to give some of the surplus back to Minnesotans. Democrats have favored smaller one-time tax rebates and credits.

“While we’re open to finding common ground in public safety and education, maybe broadband and some other areas, we also remain focused on putting money back in the pockets of Minnesotans,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona.

The governor and top legislative leadership shuttled in and out of meetings all last week, tight-lipped about what they were discussing behind closed doors. Most of the public discussion took place in joint committee meetings between the House and Senate, where the two parties aired the differences in their plans.

I have been out of town but scanning the Conference Committee last Thursday and trying to catch up on the MN Leg notes, it’s looks like broadband is still in discussion. Right now the Senate has $110 million in federal funds to broadband, while the House is looking at $25 from General Funds. So it will be interesting where the common ground will be.

Bemidji’s broadband leaves them poised to succeed – says Dave Hengel

Bemidji Pioneer posts a column from Dave Hengel, executive director of Greater Bemidji Economic Development, on the importance of technology and broadband for a thriving community…

The primary driver has been technology, which has created both incredible opportunities and challenges for communities worldwide. Since technology has allowed both businesses and people to locate virtually anywhere, geography (where we are located on a map) matters less, and place (a community’s character and quality of life) matters more. …

Thanks to technological innovations, none of these matters as much. We aren’t remote — we are connected via Zoom and other technology. We have access to metropolitan markets and resources all with the click of a mouse. While logistics have not reduced in importance, our largest “interstate” is our broadband network.

And let me remind everyone, the greater Bemidji region has the best all-fiber network in the nation. Thanks to the investment over the past decade by Paul Bunyan Communications, every home and business in our region has up to 10-gigabit service while other communities (including metropolitan areas) are struggling to gain basic broadband service.

In other words, Bemidji is ahead of the game.

Today, great communities are built, not born. The assets that bring prosperity and economic growth are not inherited. Like our all-fiber broadband network, key quality of life and economic development amenities can be identified and built.

Duluth resident skeptical of provider follow through with public funds

The Duluth News Tribune posts a letter to the editor…

I read with interest the May 9 News Tribune article “ St. Louis County signs on to Rice Lake broadband project .” I hope that included in the $3,800-per-household cost is a requirement for internet providers serving the area to hook up interested homeowners. Otherwise the county will have wasted taxpayer dollars to decorate telephone poles with expensive black cable for the residents to admire from across the road.

Almost two years ago a similar project in the rural, far east end of Duluth resulted in just that. Fiber optic cable strung from telephone poles ready to connect to homes. However, two years later, the only internet provider “servicing” this part of Duluth has yet to even contact residents about connecting their internet service to this fiber optic line — tantalizingly close, yet impossibly far away. Were taxpayer dollars used for this project as well? Who knows, as our local elected politicians have shown no interest in exploring this issue. Getting fiber optic cable into rural communities is a great political talking point. However, it seems that politicians really don’t care if the cable is actually used.

Many of us living in rural areas, in frustration, have abandoned the promise of fiber optic internet and turned instead to Starlink high-speed satellite internet for a fraction of the $3,800-per-household cost our county just approved for the Rice Lake project. I hope that the county commissioners were smart enough to make sure this massive amount of money promised for this project will have the intended result of gaining high-speed internet access for our rural friends and neighbors. But from my experience, I am skeptical.

I understand the frustration – but I think it rest more in the follow though and follow up than on the investment.

North Country’s take on the LTD Broadband predicament

LTD Broadband, the largest potential recipient of federal (RDOF) funding for broadband, has been in the news a lot because they (and the communities where they applied to provide service) are in limbo as they wait to hear if they do indeed get the funding. I’m trying not to duplicate the story too much – but did want to add the local respective from the Timbejay

LTD was a moderately-sized internet provider going into the 2020 FCC auction, with about 100 employees serving about 18,000 customers in six states, mostly in Minnesota.
But LTD walked away from that auction as the largest awardee in the nation, winning service area development bids worth $1.32 billion in federal funding to build broadband infrastructure for nearly 530,000 residents in 15 states.
That winning bid included nearly all of the federally eligible tracts in the North Country outside of already established broadband providers such as Midco and Frontier Communications. Because the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Development initiative will not give state subsidies for development in FCC-designated tracts, LTD’s FCC funding gives them a virtual lock on otherwise unprofitable development in these areas.
Paul Bunyan Communications was forced to eliminate numerous potential service locations from its broadband project for Cook because they were in FCC tracts awarded to LTD, and PBC could not use its Border-to-Border grant to pay for extending its service to those areas.
Greenwood Township is an area awarded to LTD in the FCC auction and an example of how the award can affect future development. The township has the option to wait for LTD to build its broadband network there, and the FCC monies make it a viable economic venture for LTD. Township officials have been working with another company to explore possibilities for getting service faster than they might through LTD, but cost is a serious issue. Greenwood is like all of the other tracts in the FCC auction in that companies have found the expense of serving them to be cost prohibitive without government subsidies. LTD is the only company qualified to receive subsidies for a project in Greenwood right now.
However, if the ETC designation for LTD is revoked by the PUC, they would be declared in default of their agreement with the FCC and lose access to those funds. Other companies could then step up to compete for alternative funding to build out service, according to information provided to the Timberjay on Tuesday by FCC spokesperson Anne Veigle.

Ceylon approves broadband contract with FREA (Martin County)

The Fairmont Sentinel reports

Ceylon City Council held its May meeting on Tuesday. It began with a phone message from CEDA’s Kelly Wilken which discussed the responses to the broadband project. The council had read the sealed bids that had been opened at a previous meeting. The LTD Company was one of the bidders and discussion was held about the FCC questioning their capabilities to do broadband to more than 100,000 in Minnesota. The Federated REA bid was also discussed. The council liked the fact that the FREA has been reliable in the town and that they are a more local company with a good business reputation. The council approved beginning contract negotiations with FREA concerning the broadband in Ceylon. They scheduled a meeting for negotiations for May 26th. This will give FREA a time to round out their contract proposal.

I assume the funding is coming from their Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant Program award.

EVENT May 11 (2:45pm): Conference Committee on HF4366 – Omnibus Agriculture, Housing & Broadband

A quick note for folks who want to watch in real time – the Conference Committee is meeting this afternoon and the event will be livestreamed. I will try to watch and capture the broadband discussions; the schedule is subject to change with little warning.

Here’s the info from the MN Leg site…

Location: Remote Hearing
Chair: Rep. Mike Sundin

Agenda:

I. Review of agriculture-related funding provisions that are contained in both bills
II. Review of selected House only agriculture provisions
– MDA IT
– Beginning Farmer Tax Credit
– Bioincentives language
– Hunger relief initiative
– Farm down payment initiative
III. Review of selected Senate only agriculture items (if time allows)
– ACRRA maximum reimbursement/payment increase
– Regulated animal exemptions modified
– Compensation to Certain White-tailed Deer Farmers
– Certain solar energy systems allowed in agricultural preserves
IV. Adoption of same agriculture language items (if time allows)

*House holds the gavel.

HF4366 / SF4019 Omnibus agriculture, housing and broadband bill.

House conferees: Sundin, Hausman, Howard, Vang, Theis
Senate conferees: Westrom, Draheim, Dornink, Pratt, Dziedzic

Meeting material will be posted on the House Agriculture Committee page https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/committees/home/92001

This remote hearing may be viewed via the House webcast schedule page: https://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/schedule.asp All events are closed-captioned.

To provide feedback on digital accessibility of meeting information, please submit comments through the Minnesota Legislature Accessibility & Usability Comment Form. If you require an accommodation, please contact John Howe at: John.Howe@house.mn or by leaving a message at 651-296-3208. Please do not contact him with questions about the substance of the meeting agenda. To learn more about requesting an accommodation, please visit the FAQs for Disability Access.

Written comment (PDF file format) submitted to nancy.conley@house.mn and joel.hanson@senate.mn by noon on May 11, 2022 will be posted and shared with members.

Committee Documents:
CC spreadsheet comparison.pdf
Ag appropriations articles side-by-side.pdf
Ag Articles side-by-side.pdf
MN Realtors Written Comment on Housing.pdf
HF4366 SameSimDiff (AgOnly).pdf
HOM Written Comment on Housing.pdf
AARP Written Comment on Broadband .pdf

TC Business looks at MN digital divide and support to close it – including the Blandin Foundation

Twin Cities Business looks at the digital divide in Minnesota, especially in a COVID (post-COVID?) world..

In fact, a study early in the pandemic by Common Sense Media and Kids Action showed that more than 150,000 Minnesota students lacked the devices needed to connect to remote schooling, and another 250,000 lacked access to the internet. Communities of color, rural families, and students in tribal nations are disproportionately affected because of higher poverty rates in these Minnesota populations.

The digital divide can be documented far beyond the rural parts of Minnesota. It includes many urban and suburban families, children, and adults who are not connected, nor do they have the devices to do so.

They also look at some of the efforts in Minnesota striving to close the gap and/or keep the gap shallow…

ConnectedMN is an alliance of philanthropic, business, and government organizations that distributes grant money to nonprofits to support access to devices, connectivity, and computer training in specific regions and among targeted communities. …

Standalone nonprofits, including PCs for People and Tech Dump, profiled in this issue as winners of TCB Community Impact Awards, get computers into the hands of people who need them and ensure that recipients have the connectivity and training to use them. In 2021, PCs for People provided 55,000 computers to low-income Minnesotans and helped 18,000 people with internet connectivity.

Philanthropies such as the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids have worked for years on broadband access for Minnesotans. Blandin’s early advocacy and sustained efforts began back in 2003. Its overarching goal: “Everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to survive and thrive in our communities and across the globe.”

The Blandin on Broadband blog on the foundation’s website incorporates important updates on the availability of federal funds to support access projects in rural counties, such as the new federal ReConnect program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That program aims to distribute grants and loans for eligible rural communities that want to provide broadband service to local residents.

Long-term efforts like Blandin’s, collaboratives like ConnectedMN, nonprofits like PCs for People, and government investments such as the federal infrastructure act are all helping to accelerate change for low-income, rural, and tribal communities that have long needed such help.

House and Senate working to reconcile broadband issues as part of larger Omnibus bill

I reported on this meeting yesterday, but here’s the official word from Session Daily

The committee received a walkthrough of HF4366, which includes differences of $180 million in housing appropriation changes in fiscal year 2023 and $185 million in the next biennium. Differences in agriculture and broadband appropriation changes are $76.4 million in fiscal year 2023 and $7.8 million in the following biennium.

Here’s the detail related to broadband…

The House would appropriate $25 million from the General Fund to the Border-to-Border Broadband Fund account as a one-time transfer in fiscal year 2023. The bill would increase the percentage of the grants to cover 75% of a project from the current 50% and would establish that grants to a single project cannot exceed $10 million, double the current level.

Establishment of a pilot program to provide broadband service to unserved and underserved areas of the state is included in the Senate bill. So is seeking to use federal funding, with a grant application program to the U.S. Department of the Treasury requesting that $110.7 million of Minnesota’s capital projects fund be allocated for grants.

[MORE: View a side-by-side comparison of the broadband portion]

MinnPost looks at PUC petition from MN Telecom folks focused on LTD Broadband

I mentioned this over the weekend and I suspect there will be more article but this has the potential to be a big deal so I’ll likely post them all.

MinnPost reports

Two trade groups have filed a petition with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission saying LTD Broadband will waste taxpayer time — and money — in the company’s bid to provide high speed broadband to roughly 160,000 people in the state.

The trade groups (MTA and MREA) say…

“Public funding is essential to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas of rural Minnesota,” says the filing submitted by the Minnesota Telecom Alliance and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association. “But public dollars are limited, making it essential that those who obtain public funding can be counted on to deliver broadband to those areas as intended. The record will show that LTD cannot.”

LTD says…

Corey Hauer, the CEO of LTD Broadband, described the petition as a nuisance given the PUC has already approved the company. He said LTD can grow rapidly to meet the challenge of deploying a massive network of fiber-optic cable, despite having little experience building fiber, and will disrupt the industry like Elon Musk did with SpaceX and Tesla.

“The truth LTD Broadband is exposing is that deploying rural fiber is easier, faster and cheaper than the party line touted by some of our rural … competitors,” Hauer said.

What could happen…

If the PUC sides with the coalition of telecom providers and electric cooperatives, it would be the latest in a string of defeats for LTD Broadband across the country — and another reversal for a company that shocked the broadband industry by winning $1.32 billion in subsidies in 15 states from one of the country’s largest efforts to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.

MN Omnibus that includes Broadband comparison Conference Committee – now each side deliberates

Today the following was held:

Conference Committee on HF4366

HF4366 (Sundin/Westrom) Omnibus agriculture, broadband and housing supplemental finance and policy bill.

Items included:
– Introductory comments.
– Walk through of side-by-sides and spreadsheet by nonpartisan House and Senate staff.
– Agency comments.

I have captured the moments related to broadband. Nothing surprising. And now the plan is for House and Senate to meet separately to decide what they can agree on easily and what will require more discussion. Then they will meet to try to come to an agreement.

Aurora Fiber Optic Networks Celebrates 20 years with expanded network partnership and new LLC

A press release from Aurora Fiber Optic Networks

After 20 years doing business under the brand, Aurora Fiber Optic
Networks, 702 Communications has formalized its partnership with Fiber Minnesota by creating Aurora
Fiber Optic Networks, LLC.
The partnership creates the largest and most robust statewide fiber network in Minnesota.
“For 20 years, 702 Communications has been the sales and marketing arm of the combined members of
Fiber Minnesota under the Aurora Fiber Optic Networks brand,” explains Brian Crommett, CEO of 702
Communications and now President of Aurora. “Formalizing the partnership and creating this amazing
statewide network really provides clarity to our Enterprise and Wholesale Carrier customers and opens
up huge opportunity for growth.”
Jason Dale, the CEO of Fiber Minnesota and Vice-President of Aurora agrees. “The Fiber Minnesota core
and partner networks stretch over 10,000 miles and interconnect our 30+ ISP members who have spent
decades building and upgrading their last-mile fiber networks. With 99% of the homes and businesses in
our markets enjoying fiber-optic access, we’ve brought opportunity to our local customers and created a
cohesive brand for carrier transport business in Minnesota. We cannot wait for the next 20 years to
unfold for Aurora.”
Aurora Fiber Optic Networks
Headquartered at 702 Main Avenue in downtown Moorhead, Aurora Fiber Optic Networks, LLC provides
a single point of contact for fiber optic connectivity to carrier, wholesale, ISPs and large enterprise
businesses. With member-owners based in five states in and around Minnesota complementing national
partner interconnections, Aurora can provide access to virtually anywhere in the nation. For more
information, visit www.aurorafonet.com

St. Louis County says yes to Rice Lake broadband project

Duluth News Tribune reports

The city of Rice Lake will bring broadband internet to its City Hall and connect more than 200 households and businesses, following a decision by the St. Louis County Board last week.

The board voted unanimously to support $400,000 to go with a city of Rice Lake match to make the $835,835 deal a reality.

Consolidated Telephone Co., headquartered in Brainerd, has committed $35,835 toward the project, and is contracted to install the fiber-optic network.

“We’re looking at 267 connections with this project,” Rice Lake City Councilor Suzanne Herstad told the board May 3 in Duluth. “Hopefully, this will still be a good building block to start doing a piece here and there, setting up loops wherever we can.”

Herstad noted the failure of a larger federal application, and still wanting to partner on continued efforts at improved rural broadband connectivity with Gnesen Township to the north, and Lakewood, Grand Lake and Normanna townships in surrounding directions.

They are using ARP funding…

“This is a much-scaled-down project,” Herstad said, explaining how Rice Lake City Hall, 4107 W. Beyer Road, had been using satellite internet, but is required to hold a static internet protocol address in order to conduct election business.

MN Senator Goggin gives a legislative update on broadband

Senator Goggin gives a legislative update including info on broadband in the Kenyon Leader

Our Agriculture, Broadband, and Housing bill expands broadband funding, addresses urgent concerns in our agriculture sector, and improves access to affordable housing. …

We are also investing heavily in improving Minnesota broadband connectivity. The legislation directs a historic level of up to $210 million of federal money to improve Minnesota broadband which is on top of the $70 million the legislature passed last session.

The pandemic has confirmed just how important it is to have access to high-speed internet in 2022. It’s no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. We’ve closed a lot of the gaps in our broadband coverage in recent years, but there is still more to do. This bill will get us even closer to our goal.

MTA and MREA ask PUC to revoke LTD Broadband’s ETC designation – could impact RDOF eligibility

Minnesota Telecom Alliance and Minnesota Rural Electric Association filed a petition with the Minnesota PUC to revoke LTD Broadband’s expanded eligible telecommunications carrier (“ETC”) designation and deny LTD’s funding certification for 2023. This would impact their eligibility for federal RDOF money. Regular readers will know that LTD qualified to apply for large amounts of federal funding deployment in Minnesota (and other states) and many are wary of their ability to successfully deploy a FTTH network.

Here is the start of the petition

The Minnesota Telecom Alliance (“MTA”)1 and Minnesota Rural Electric Association (“MREA”)2 hereby jointly submit this petition under Minn. Stat. § 216A.05, subd. 5 to initiate a proceeding to revoke the expanded eligible telecommunications carrier (“ETC”) designation of LTD Broadband LLC (“LTD”) and deny LTD’s funding certification for 2023.

On June 3, 2021, the Commission issued an Order that expanded LTD’s ETC designation to include approximately 102,000 additional locations in Minnesota (“LTD Expansion Order”).3 LTD sought that designation to qualify for $311 million in support under the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (“RDOF”) to build and operate a fiber-to-the-premise (“FTTP”) broadband network in Minnesota. 4 That funding was part of LTD’s bid to obtain approximately $1.3 billion in RDOF funding for 528,088 locations in 15 states. 5 Since the LTD Expansion Order in June of last year, LTD has failed to obtain ETC designations for RDOF funding in seven of those 15 states. Most recently, the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (“SD PUC”) denied LTD’s request for an expanded ETC designation related to RDOF support for 7,481 locations in South Dakota.6 The SD PUC’s decision was based on findings that LTD lacked the ability to build and operate the South Dakota broadband network contemplated in its RDOF bid.