Morcom Township (St Louis County) hoping for a MN broadband grant

The Timberjay reports…

Residents here, who have been without reliable Internet access for years, could soon have some of the best broadband speeds in the area, if final funding from the state’s Border-to-Border grant program is approved later this year.

The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation recently approved a $224,800 grant to the township, which means Morcom Township has now secured three-quarters of the $899,200 they’ll need to bring broadband to the 126 unserved and underserved households in the township and in an adjacent unorganized township to the north. Morcom Township is located west of Cook.

“We are just waiting to hear in December if we qualified for the state Border to Border grant,” said Morcom Town Clerk Sasha Lehto. Morcom is asking for $331,704 in border-to-border funding under a plan to utilize Paul Bunyan Communications as the township’s broadband provider. Paul Bunyan would commit $332,696 to the effort. Morcom Township has committed $10,000 in township funds for the project.

“This was out of our really small budget,” said Lehto, “but either you want it or you don’t. This is for our people.”

The need for reliable internet service in the Morcom Township area is clear.

The article demonstrates the importance of the MN grants. The hope they bring but in reality the state grants are the difference between a community getting improved broadband or not. I saw the difference it made looking at the most recent MN broadband county profiles – counties with grants saw improvement.

The article outlines a few project proposals from the area…

IRRR grants for broadband projects were also approved for:

 $579,272 to Bois Forte Band of Chippewa for the construction of a fiber network to serve 442 unserved and underserved households on the reservation. Total project cost is $2,317,090.

 $105,450 for Ash River for the construction of a broadband network for 121 unserved and underserved households in the Ash River area. Total project cost is $421,800.

 $236,050 for the Elephant and Black Duck lake areas for the construction of a fiber network to serve 124 unserved and underserved households near Elephant Lake. Total project cost is $944,200.

Both Paul Bunyan Communications (Ash River and Elephant Lake) and Consolidated Telephone Company (Bois Forte) are provider partners for these projects. All these projects are also scheduled to receive state funding from the Border to Border program (pending final approval).

Paul Bunyan annoucces The GigaZone Comes to Big Falls (Koochiching County)

Big news for Big Falls…

The GigaZone has come to Big Falls! As a result of continued upgrades to the cooperative’s all-fiber optic network, members in Big Falls now have access to GigaZone services including Internet speeds up to a Gigabit per second.

“We continue to make great progress on upgrading our network to incorporate even more members into the GigaZone. I’m very proud of all the hard work our cooperative has put in so far as we put our membership and region at the forefront of the very latest in communication networks.” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

The GigaZone is currently available to over 35,500 locations, making it one of the largest rural all-fiber optic networks in the United States! Check out our online map showing the current areas of the GigaZone as well as those that will be constructed/upgraded in the future.

GigaZone service options include unprecedented Broadband Internet speeds of up to 1000 Mbps – a Gigabit. Members who subscribe to GigaZone Broadband can also add PBTV Fusion and/or low cost unlimited long distance service. All current service options also remain available to cooperative members within the GigaZone.

Many current wireless routers cannot support blazing GigaZone Internet speeds.  To help, the cooperative is offering GigaZone Integrated Wi-Fi that uses the latest in advanced Wi-Fi technologies to maximize the in-home wireless experience. This service is free to all new GigaZone customers for the first six months, with a minimal charge thereafter.

Paul Bunyan Communications recently mailed out information to the new locations that are now in the GigaZone and the cooperative has an online map available at showing the active areas of the GigaZone as well as those areas that will be constructed/upgraded in the future.

“If you are wondering when the GigaZone will reach you, the online map of the active areas and plans for this year is a great resource.” added Brian Bissonette, Paul Bunyan Communications Marketing Supervisor.

Paul Bunyan Communications has the region’s largest and fastest all fiber optic network with over 5,500 square miles throughout most of Beltrami County and portions of Cass, Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, and St. Louis Counties. The Cooperative provides Broadband High Speed Internet Services including the GigaZone, digital and high definition television services, digital voice services, Residential and Business IT services, and is also northern Minnesota’s certified Apple Service Center.

OPPORTUNITY: Aspirations in Computing Awards for Young Women deadline Nov 5

From MN State IT Center for Excellence, and a great opportunity for the right person…

NCWIT is accepting applications for the 2020 Aspirations in Computing Awards. Young women from Minnesota’s high schools with computing related interests are highly encouraged to apply. Application opens September 1st and closes November 5th.

Award for AiC recipients are chosen for their demonstrated interest and achievements in computing, proven leadership ability, academic performance, and plans for post‑secondary education. To date, nearly 8,600 women have been honored with the Award. The NCWIT Award for AiC is sponsored by Apple, Bank of America, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions Foundation, and Symantec. MNAiC partners with over 50 businesses to support a year-round talent development program that for many students culminates in being selected as an award honoree. Since 2013, Minnesota has benefited from 313 State Honorees and 40 National Honorees.

We’re inviting high school educators across the state to advocate for young women in computing by generating awareness of the program within their classrooms and schools. The awards program and complementary MNAiC offerings provide an ecosystem of support for young women with computing interests.  In 2019, 82 Minnesota students and 2 educators were selected as honorees.

Prairie Island Indian Community now enjoys Gig access through HBC

HBC reports

Members of the Prairie Island Indian Community now have access to the fasted Internet service available with the completion of a new Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network constructed by Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC) of Winona, MN.

According to HBC President Dan Pecarina, every residence now has access to symmetrical Gigabit (1,000 megabits) broadband. He said that having access to that level of high-speed broadband will be life-changing for the community members.

“Having access to symmetrical Gigabit Internet will enhance the lives of the residents of the Prairie Island community exponentially by allowing an array of advantages. These super-fast speeds will have a dramatic impact on everything from economic development and education, to the delivery of healthcare, and other community services.”

The struggle for broadband connectivity is real for rural America, but even more so in rural Indian communities. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about 8 percent of Americans, an estimated 24 million people, still have no access to in-home high-speed internet service. That percentage is even higher for rural Indian communities. According to an FCC report, roughly 35 percent of Americans living in tribal lands lack access to any broadband services.

The burden of bringing high-speed broadband to rural areas has fallen on smaller providers, like HBC. Large broadband companies prefer densely populated areas where their return on investment is greater. The HBC high-speed broadband network provides Internet, Video, and Phone services to over 30 rural communities in Minnesota and west-central Wisconsin.

But bringing the high-speed network to the tribal community required communication, coordination, special permitting, and a little patience.

“HBC has been working with tribal leaders for the past few years to build a network to serve the community,” Pecarina explained. “The process to build on tribal land was fairly lengthy and, at times, frustrating. While there were significant delays due to the federal government approval process, once the project received the necessary approvals, things came together rather quickly.”

Construction on the Prairie Island FTTH network began in June with the first community member homes being connected to the network in September.

This is the third fiber-optic network project that HBC has brought to the Prairie Island. In 2017, HBC worked with Dakota County and Dakota Electric Association to build a fiber optic connection to the Prairie Island area for County and Electric Association purposes. HBC turned their portion of the fiber build into fiber to the home service along the route and to install High Density WiFi Technology at the Treasure Island Resort, Pow Wow grounds, and the Casino’s outdoor amphitheater. HBC also offers Video service to Treasure Island Resort properties along with a variety of additional data services.

“This is a prime example of what public, private, and co-operative entities can accomplish when they work together.” Pecarina stated. “The Prairie Island Tribal Council’s broadband vision and the cooperative work with HBC to build this network for its community, is proof that fiber based broadband services can reach even some of the most remote areas.”

Meeker Coop deploys Vibrant Broadband Meeker and parts of McLeod, Kandiyohi, Stearns, Wright and Renville counties

The Hutchinson Leader reports…

Meeker Cooperative’s big move to making its Vibrant Broadband internet service available to its customers throughout the county received praise Thursday from Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

The governor attended a “ribbon cutting” ceremony at the cooperative’s headquarters in Litchfield during which he and other speakers said that internet connectivity today is as important as electricity was 80-some years ago when rural electric cooperatives began supplying that service.

“To the entire board of Meeker Cooperative, you embody what community means,” Walz said. “This harkens back to a time when running that final mile of power line was a big undertaking. There wasn’t an economy of scale that made sense, but what did make sense was the understanding of the economic engine that we could turn loose.”

There was a nod to the Coop’s board…

Meeker Cooperative CEO Tim Mergen said the cooperative began looking at the broadband project back in 2016, and credited the board of directors for backing it.

“They’re the ones that took the big risk to go ahead and say, ‘yeah, let’s go ahead and move this project forward,’” Mergen said. “They did what the board of directors did 84 years ago when the co-op was formed to bring electricity out to the area we now serve electricity to. it was a great big leap of faith then, it was a leap of faith now.”

And some info on the network…

Meeker Cooperative looked to change that in its service area, which includes Meeker and parts of McLeod, Kandiyohi, Stearns, Wright and Renville counties, when it announced in November that it had begun installing a fiber optic backbone, connecting its 14 substations throughout the county to provide Vibrant Broadband.

Darwin and Dassel were the first towns in the service area to receive the new technology on July 1. Mergen wrote in a column for the Meeker Pioneer — the cooperative’s monthly newsletter — that it would take about two years to complete countywide connections.

But it’s the start that many have been looking for – not just in Meeker County, but throughout the state, and even the nation.

In an earlier article the Hutchinson Leader reported on speeds they had seen with Vibrant…

In a test it conducted earlier this year, Meeker Cooperative found download speed with Vibrant Broadband is approximately 50 megabytes per second with an upload speed of about 8 megabytes per second, about double the speed provided by a competitor in the test.

That will help them get to the 2022 MN state speed goals, but not the 2026. However the fiber deployed to the towers helps bring fiber closer to the homes and that will help them reach the 2026 goals.

New Broadband Availability Map Pilot for Policymakers includes MN

NTIA announces…

Last year, Congress asked NTIA to develop a National Broadband Availability Map to address this problem. Working with an initial group of eight states, we’ve released a pilot version of the map, a geographic information system platform that allows for the visualization of federal, state, and commercially available data sets. The map will be made available exclusively to state and federal partners, as it includes non-public data that may be business sensitive or have licensing restrictions.

The eight partner states include California, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Utah. These states participate in NTIA’s State Broadband Leaders Network, and have active broadband plans or programs. As the pilot moves forward, NTIA will test the map’s functionality and expand it to other states, and add data from additional partners, federal agencies, industry and accessible commercial datasets.

I’m glad this resource is available. BUT I wish it were open to more people.  We’re to a point where public private partnerships are needed to make deployment possible in unserved areas. That partnership often includes a provider, the possibility of state (or federal) funding and community support through some form of local tax. I’ve seen successful efforts start from the providers but also from community leaders – it might be helpful for them to see the maps too.

Pushing for a Tax Change To Keep Rural Communities Thriving

A column from Senator Smith…

Pushing for a Tax Change To Keep Rural Communities Thriving

By U.S. Senator Tina Smith, October 2019

Earlier this year, when I met with leaders from several southern Minnesota rural electric cooperatives, their communities were still reeling from the devastating blizzards and high winds that knocked out hundreds of power lines across the region and left thousands of families and businesses without electricity.

Because the storms did millions of dollars in damage, their cooperatives would likely be eligible for federal emergency grants to reimburse them for repairing downed lines, cleaning up storm debris, and restoring power to their customers.

But, I learned that by accepting those grants to help pay their clean-up expenses, they could be putting their cooperative’s tax-exempt status at risk.  This would seriously damage their ability to deliver affordable electricity to their customers and to make future investments that enhance their communities.

Member Cooperatives Hit by Mistake in the 2017 Tax Law

Since farmers, ranchers and rural leaders first banded together more than 75 years ago to bring electricity to their communities, electric cooperatives have been an important driver of economic development in rural America.  Today in Minnesota, 50 member-owned cooperatives supply almost one-quarter of our state’s electricity, serving more than 1.7 million residents who live on farms, in small towns and on tribal lands across the state.

Because cooperatives have powered rural areas for decades—often when no other entities would—they are exempt from federal taxes as long as at least 85 percent of their income comes from their members, who are also their customers.  Only 15 percent can come from other non-member sources.  For many decades, this tax-exempt business model has ensured that hundreds of Minnesota rural communities—and thousands across the country—have affordable, reliable power and the significant economic benefits that come with it.

However, a mistake in the tax law enacted in late 2017 reclassified most government grants  – including grants for disaster relief – received by a cooperative as “non-member income.” Accepting these grants could push many over the 15-percent threshold and eliminate their tax exemption.  The resulting costs to the cooperatives—especially those on tight budgets—could force up electricity rates for customers and make cooperatives think twice about accepting grants that could help their communities.

Rural Broadband Expansion at Risk

For Minnesota’s cooperatives, it’s not just disaster assistance grants that have been impacted by the 2017 tax changes.  Cooperatives often receive grants to help them undertake economic development, energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts in their communities.  Perhaps most importantly, federal and state broadband grants are helping cooperatives expand badly-needed broadband internet services to the rural communities they serve.

Last year, as part of the bipartisan Farm Bill, I authored the provision to authorize and modernize the Community Connect Grant Program to build out broadband in rural areas.  So far, the program has sent millions of dollars in federal grants to electric cooperatives in Minnesota and across the country to help expand rural broadband.

Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century.  It isn’t just nice, it’s a necessity for communities working to attract families, businesses, and the jobs and economic development that come with it.  It also is important to connect students to a top-notch education, and for modern health facilities that utilize telehealth services.  Much like decades ago, when cooperatives led the movement to electrify rural communities, they now are leading in the deployment of broadband.  I’m working to support that effort.

Pushing for a Bipartisan Tax Law Fix

Because of the mistake in the 2017 tax law, many cooperatives in Minnesota and across the country are in danger of being forced to choose between keeping their tax exemptions and accepting an important grant to clean up a disaster, or to expand much needed broadband services in a rural community.  That uncertainty is making it difficult for them to effectively plan for the future—and it’s unnecessary.

That’s why I’ve introduced a bipartisan bill with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio that would end that uncertainty by allowing cooperatives to receive government grants without endangering their tax-exempt status.  A similar bipartisan measure has been introduced in the U.S. House.

As we come to the end of the tax year, I plan to make it clear to my colleagues that we can’t continue to allow our tax laws to hinder our nation’s electric cooperatives from doing the important work of powering our rural communities and supporting jobs and economic development.


Tina Smith represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate