Fed broadband funding lessons from 2010 help with funding today: Madison & Appleton MN finally getting fiber!

It feels like the before-times, out on the road talking to folks in rural Minnesota about broadband and more. Traveling with Mary Magnuson, we made a few stops this week, starting with the UMVRDC (Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission) to chat with Dawn Hegland and Kevin Ketelson.

UMVRDC supports Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in Western MN. Broadband-wise this list includes some of the best and worst served counties in Minnesota.

Communities need awareness and education

Dawn has been working with the Blandin Foundation since the early days of MIRC (2009); she knows her stuff. Yet, as I say some of their counties are well served and others aren’t. One reason is that some communities are willing to invest, and some have not been. It makes the case for continued need for awareness and education.

Communities like LqP were early into the game, getting ARRA funding back around 2010, when some communities were still asking what broadband was. Post pandemic few communities (or community leaders) need a definition for broadband but the ones who needed it before were at a serious disadvantage during the pandemic shut downs. Swaths of communities were left to try to work, study and stay healthy in communities with inadequate and unreliable Internet access. While just down the road, folks had fiber.

So, while generally people understand the need now (and it remains a top concern in the annual regional survey), people don’t understand the ins and outs of technology. People think “the government will take care of it” or don’t appreciate the difference between fiber and satellite. Decision makers are often consumers online (getting email or watching videos) not producers (uploading work files, homework videos or selling online). They think because they are happy with local connections that others will be as well. But that is often not the case, especially if they are trying to recruit new businesses or young families to the area.

Understanding the landscape helps

Understanding the technology is only half the battle for community leaders. Especially now, you need to understand the funding options because rural broadband is expensive and a lot of State and Federal money will be going to deploy broadband over the next few years. But the applications are onerous and it’s important to find the right fit to serve the whole community, which leads to a long broadband story in the area with a soon-to-be happy ending.

As I mentioned earlier, LqP was an early adopter. They got federal funding for FTTH more than 10 years ago … to most of the county. Unfortunately, Madison, the county seat, was not eligible for the upgrade because the maps showed that they were already “served.” In 2010, that meant they has access of speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 up. So for 10 years rural LqP has had fiber and the county seat has not. They have been actively looking for help to funding to support fiber deployment (because even the county seat in LqP is pretty rural) but had not been successful until now.

Last summer, UMVRDC helped Madison and Appleton apply for CARES funding from the state to build better broadband. (Appleton was in a similar position as Madison, but in Swift County.) The requirements and conditions of the grants were different than other opportunities and it turns out a good fit for both areas. There were awarded the money and Acira is working on Madison now and soon to be moving to Appleton. (Mary and I happened to run into folks from Acira in town too. They were excited to finish the jobs they started 10+ years ago!)

While I’m happy to share the good news of Madison and Appleton, I offer it also as a cautionary tale. Again, unprecedented funding is going into broadband in the next few years but most folks I’ve heard from feel that it won’t cover universal broadband and areas left unserved (or underserved) will have a difficult time catching up once the money is gone. That gets me back to the first point – communities need awareness and education.

MN Broadband Task Force Meeting May 2022: Cybersecurity

I’m afraid there’s no video of the meeting but I have handouts to share from the MN Broadband Task Force meeting:

They heard from several experts in the field about cybersecurity. They talked about the Legislature including a letter the Task Force had sent to the policymakers asking them to consider a greater investment in broadband grants than had been on the table…

While we are appreciative that the House included a $25 million investment, we are disappointed that, in this time of a record surplus, it was reduced from its initial $100 million. Any amount will help to expand broadband access, but Minnesota’s broadband expansion efforts will need more than this amount to reach the finish line.

MRBC Legislative Update: Money for broadband through Drought Relief, Agriculture, and Broadband Omnibus Bill (HF3420)

From the Minnesota Broadband Coalition…

Broadband Update
The Legislature approved $210 million for broadband expansion as part of the Drought Relief, Agriculture, and Broadband Omnibus Bill (HF3420). Members of the House and Senate appointed to the conference committee negotiated a compromise on a mix of state and federal funds, with most funding allocated to the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program.

  • $50 million general fund for Border-to-Border ($25 million in FY23 and $25 million in FY24).
  • $60.7 million ARPA Capital Projects Fund (must be spent by 2026).
    • Up to $30 million for a low-density pilot program:
      • Increased state match to 75% and grant cap to $10 million.
      • Report back to the Legislature by 12/31/2023 on impact of match and cap changes.
    • Up to $15 million for state broadband mapping.
    • Up to $15 million for a line extension pilot program.
    • Any unused funds for the above three categories revert to the Border-to-Border fund.
  • $50 million ARPA Capital Projects Fund left unallocated by the Legislature for Governor Walz to spend within the bounds of Treasury guidelines.
  • Ensures all funds the state receives from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act ($100m+) will be deposited in the Border-to-Border Grant Program for future infrastructure grants.

The conference committee wrapped up their report on Saturday, May 21, and the House promptly passed the legislation a few hours later, 69-64. The Senate took up the bill on Sunday, May 22, and passed it 66-1. The bill heads to Governor Walz for his signature. The general fund appropriation means the Office of Broadband Development will issue an RFP for infrastructure grants as soon as possible, with the intention of getting some projects completed during the 2022 construction season. The additional general fund and federal money brings long-term stability to a popular program that has been hampered by intermittent funding since its inception.

Minnesota Legislature approves bill to fund broadband infrastructure

MinnPost reports

The impasse over broadband infrastructure wasn’t as lengthy but it was at times heated.

Minnesota is expecting a windfall of federal money for broadband, but little of it has materialized yet. The Legislature in 2021 approved $70 million for the state’s border-to-border program that subsidizes developers to build in rural areas, where it would otherwise be too costly.

That money came from a $180 million “capital projects” fund within Minnesota’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan, however, and it has been so slow to be finalized by the federal government that the state missed a construction season.

For that reason, and others, the Walz administration pushed for $170 million in state, not federal, spending this year on broadband infrastructure. The Senate GOP proposed using $110 million left in the capital projects fund from the ARP for broadband infrastructure. There has been debate over how to use that $110 million because it can also be used for a few other purposes, like buying devices and equipment to facilitate internet access or certain building projects such as upgrading a library or community health center.

The House DFL, much to the chagrin of the Walz administration and some rural Democrats, officially proposed just $25 million in general fund cash and didn’t release a plan for the capital projects fund.

In the end, lawmakers agreed to spend $50 million in state money over the next three years on broadband grants and approved $60.7 million from the capital projects fund to build or support broadband infrastructure. Walz will decide how to use the remaining ARP capital projects money within the bounds of federal guidelines.

The Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus is doing the math a little differently…

The legislation directs over $210 million, the bulk of which comes from federal funds, to improve Minnesota broadband access across the state. This is in addition to the $70 million in federal funds that the legislature directed last session. This includes up to $30 million for the Lower Population Density Pilot Program to connect hard to reach unserved areas, up to $15 million for the Line Extension Program to connect difficult to reach individual homes, up to $15 million for updated broadband mapping, and the remaining funds to the successful Border-to-Border Broadband grant program.

I’ve seen that number ($210 million) used in other places too; but I’m not sure where it comes from – especially if, as the article from MSRC says, this is in addition to other funding. But I do know a lot of people worked a lot of long hours over the weekend to get it done.

OPPORTUNITY: Job opening Office of Broadband Dev – Digital Equity Program Lead

From the Office of Broadband Development

Job Class: State Program Administrator, Coordinator

Working Title: Digital Equity Program Lead

  • Who May Apply: This vacancy is open for all qualified job seekers
  • Date Posted: 05/20/2022
  • Closing Date: 06/02/2022
  • Hiring Agency/Seniority Unit: Employ & Econ Development Dept / Employ & Economic Dev-MAPE
  • Division/Unit: Business & Community Devlp Div / 0359 Broadband Development
  • Work Shift/Work Hours: Daytime
  • Days of Work: Monday – Friday
  • Telework: May be eligible to telework up to 5 days per week
  • Travel Required: Yes – Up to 25% of the time; including local, regional, statewide, and occasional overnights
  • Salary Range: $32.49 – $48.32/hourly; $67,839 – $100,892/annually
  • Classified Status: Unclassified
  • Bargaining Unit/Union: 214 – MN Assoc of Professional Empl/MAPE
  • End Date: This position is expected to last up to two (2) years.
  • FLSA Status: Exempt – Professional
  • Connect 700 Program Eligible: No

Job Summary

We are looking for an energetic individual to lead the state’s efforts to close the digital divide and encourage broadband adoption and use among underserved populations across Minnesota. The incumbent will work with state agencies, local governments, nonprofits and providers to engage with communities and populations to identify and address the barriers that exist to ensuring broadband access is affordable, that devices are available that meet the users’ needs, that digital literacy training and quality technical support are available, and that users have a basic awareness of how to protect their online privacy and safety. The goal is to achieve digital equity to ensure all who live in Minnesota can fully engage in civic and cultural opportunities, employment, lifelong learning, healthcare and other essential services.

The Digital Equity Program Director will report directly to the Executive Director and support the development of new broadband digital equity programming and tools statewide. This position is a temporary, federal grant funded position.

The purpose of this position is to develop, promote, implement, provide technical assistance for, evaluate and report on state and/or federally funded financing programs of the Office of Broadband Development. The Office develops and administers programs designed to achieve high quality broadband access for all Minnesotans and to support and promote the skills necessary to adopt and use broadband tools for economic, educational, health, and institutional benefits.

This position is expected to last up to two (2) years.

MN Conference Committee comes up with $25M in state and $60M in federal request for broadband

The Session Daily (from May 21) reports…

With time to work dwindling, a conference committee working to reconcile agriculture bills came to an agreement on several appropriations and policy changes Saturday.

The conference committee report to HF3420 combines the omnibus agriculture and broadband supplemental finance and policy bill with one that would provide relief to farmers from the 2021 drought.

It was passed 69-64 by the House a few hours later. It now awaits Senate action.

“We’ve got a very strong, solid bill for the state of Minnesota on all the fronts for farmers, for agriculture, for rural broadband and the connectivity that’s become so important in our lives,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), who sponsors the bill with Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko). “We can be, I think, proud as a conference committee to be a big piece of this policy and financing that will be moving forward.”

“It’s been somewhat of a longer journey than probably necessary, but I think we hit on all the points,” Sundin said. “Had we had more money, it would have been a little better bill.”

The combined total in new appropriations for agriculture, drought relief and broadband would be $50.9 million from the General Fund in the current biennium and $32.5 million in the next biennium.

More detail…

Improving broadband access throughout the state would get a big boost. An appropriation of $25 million from the General Fund in fiscal year 2023 would be transferred to the Border-to-Border Broadband Fund.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development must also prepare a grant application to the U.S. Treasury Department, requesting that $60.7 million of Minnesota’s capital projects fund be allocated for broadband projects.

The total would fund a lower population density pilot program to provide broadband to unserved and underserved areas, as well as a broadband line extension program.

It’s a little bit of the best from the House and the Senate. The Senate had recommended $110 million in federal funds to broadband, while the House is recommended $25 million from General Funds. It’s less money than the Senate recommended but having money coming from the general funds means the Border to Border grants can happen without the red tape of the federal government.

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.

[Thanks to PC for People for a correction: they distributed over 57,000 computers and did connect over 18,000 households, but that was national, not just Minnesota. Added June 18.]

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]