MRBC Update: Senate Passes Broadband Funding, Coalition Elects New Chair

From the MN Broadband Coalition

The Minnesota Senate passed the Agriculture Omnibus Bill SF 958 Wednesday evening 48-19. The bill includes $40 million for the Border-to-Border grant program with the possibility of up to $120 million if federal funds become available. Changes to the definition of broadband in statute (including the term fixed wireless), annual mapping changes, an increase in the state match to 55%, and $10 million set aside in the first year of the biennium for unserved areas are included in the bill. The bill is authored by Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake).

The House has moved their Agriculture Omnibus Bill HF 1524 to the floor of the House. It contains $30 million in the first year of the biennium for the grant program. We expect a debate and vote on the bill very soon. The bill was passed from the Ways and Means Committee to the floor earlier this week.
The rural electric cooperative broadband easements bill has been included as a provision in the House Commerce Omnibus Bill HF 1031. The bill is currently awaiting debate and passage on the House floor. The Senate did not include this provision in its omnibus bill.
The next step for all omnibus bills is for the House and Senate to appoint conferees to each bill. The conferees will debate and eventually resolve their differences. The final product will then be passed by the House and Senate and sent to the Governor for his signature. We will be asking the conferees to remove policy provisions and maximize the funding for the grant program.

Coalition Elects New Chair

Jay Trusty, Executive Director of the Southwest Regional Development Commission, was elected as the new Coalition Chair during our meeting on April 15. He takes over from Vince Robinson who served as chair for the past two years. We want to thank Vince for his hard work leading the Coalition. Please join us in welcoming Jay to our leadership team!

A Community Guide to Current Broadband Funding

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has posted a directory of federal broadband funding…

In the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress and the Biden Administration included a multi-billion dollar appropriation to help expand high-speed Internet access. This guide offers an overview of the different funding opportunities for communities interested in expanding broadband services. As application deadlines vary in some cases and other money must be spent within certain time frames, it is critical for states, municipalities, community organizations, and Tribal governments to start planning initiatives now.

It’s too large to summarize, which is really the beauty. The resources is complete. They have done a good job highlighting and organizing what people need to know.

Koochiching joins MN Broadband Coalition

The International Falls Journal reports…

Meeting as the Koochiching Development Authority Board Tuesday, the board heard a presentation by Nathan Zacharias, of Zacharias Government Relations, who has provided lobbying services supporting the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition since 2018.

The coalition asked the KDA Board for an additional $2,500 funding for continued advocacy for broadband funding from the state.

Jaci Nagle, county information systems director and Koochiching Technology Initiative chairperson, told the county the past advocacy by Zacharias helped ensure that grant programs continue to exist until all Minnesotans have access to quality, reliable broadband.

She told the board Koochiching has benefited from the past works of the coalition

“Multiple broadband projects to occur in our county were awarded grant funding through the Border to Border Broadband grant program; funding that the coalition worked hard to support through the legislative process that resulted in $40 million being approved for 2020 and 2021 projects,” she said in a brief to the board.

US legislators introduce bill to increase promotion of affordable broadband

Senator Durbin reports

U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY-18) today introduced a bicameral bill that would increase access to broadband service for low-income urban and rural Americans.  The Promoting Access to Broadband Act would help states increase awareness and enrollment in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline Program. The Lifeline Program helps low-income households pay for their telephone and broadband service charges by providing a monthly subsidy of $9.25, yet enrollment numbers in the program remain extremely low nationwide.

Here are the details…

  • Award grants to at least five states;
  • Direct the FCC to consider several factors in evaluating the applications, including: states that have a higher number of covered individuals, states with plans with the potential to reach a higher percentage of eligible-but-not-enrolled households, and the geographic diversity of the applicants;
  • Allow states to use the funds for a variety of Lifeline enrollment efforts, including:
    • Informing Medicaid enrollees, SNAP participants, and low-income individuals of their potential eligibility in the Lifeline program,
    • Providing these individuals with information about how to apply for the Lifeline program,
    • Partnering with non-profit and community-based organizations to provide individuals with assistance applying for Lifeline and information about product and technology choices; and
  • Require the FCC to issue a report to Congress within a year of establishing the grant program evaluating the program’s effectiveness.

MN Senate passed comprehensive budget bills with $40 million for broadband

Minnesota State Republican Caucus reports…

On bipartisan votes today, the Minnesota Senate passed comprehensive budget bills related to agriculturehigher education, and commerce and energy.

“The Senate’s budget strengthens our commitment to core priorities in agriculture, higher education, energy, and commerce,” said Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester). “The reason these bills gained bipartisan support is that we made an attempt to strike a broad balance and work across the aisle. These aren’t partisan issues; it’s about doing what is best for Minnesotans.”

Agriculture

The Senate’s agriculture budget helps our agricultural community recover from the pandemic by strengthening our Ag sector supply chains and invests in helping more meat processing facilities expand and grow. It provides historic funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years to develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Additionally, the budget includes grants for farm safety equipment and allows the creation of a grain storage facility safety curriculum, as well as mental health outreach on farms and additional mental health services, like the state’s 24-hour crisis hotline.

Original bills for broadband recommended $120 million for broadband.

Minneapolis Star Tribune promotes legislation to expand telehealth

The Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial Board posts…

The COVID-19 pandemic forced sweeping changes in how we work, with many workers doing their jobs remotely for much of the past year.

A swift though lesser-remarked-on transformation happened as well in medical care. As lockdowns loomed, state and federal regulators eased restrictions on “telehealth.” That led to more virtual visits in Minnesota and elsewhere, with doctors and patients communicating via video or a phone call in lieu of a clinic appointment. A year later, there’s a timely debate at the Minnesota Capitol over whether to maintain telehealth expansion measures, which are set to expire 60 days after the end of the peacetime COVID emergency. The answer should be yes, let’s keep going. A dispute between two key health care stakeholders — providers and insurers — over payment levels for telehealth care shouldn’t derail the legislation to do so.

Telehealth changes during the pandemic have provided convenient new options for patients. Previously, Minnesota patients may have had to drive to a clinic or hospital to use their telemedicine facilities. Now, they can connect from home using a personal device. Including mental health practitioners also is an advance.

Legislation to extend telehealth changes is enthusiastically backed by respected medical providers and organizations, including the Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) and the Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA). If this yearlong experiment wasn’t going well, these organizations would be the first to sound the alarm.

Telehealth is becoming more common for good reasons…

In 2019, just 3% of patient visits used telehealth. In 2020, that rose to 28%, according to data released last August. In addition, 83% of physicians surveyed reported that telehealth met patients’ needs “acceptably, well or very well.”

EVENT April 15: Roundtable on Current, Ongoing Broadband Legislation

An invitation from the Fiber Broadband Association…

The Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) today announced a roundtable discussion planned for this Thursday, April 15 covering the ongoing legislative action aimed at expanding broadband across the United States. FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton will be joined by fiber broadband policy and industry experts to discuss recent activities within the current Administration including President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, the Accessible, Affordable Internet For All Act and more.

The webinar, scheduled for 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, April 15, is free and available to the public after registering at this link.

Panelists include:

Gary Bolton, President and CEO, Fiber Broadband Association

Kim Bayliss, Principal, Perry Bayliss

Steve Perry, Principal, Perry Bayliss

Tom Cohan, Corporate Counsel, Partner, Kelley Drye & Warren LLP

Joanne Hovis, President, CTC Technology & Energy

Ben Moncrief, Managing Director, C Spire

Stan Fendley, Director, Legislative & Regulatory Policy, Corning

MN Border to Border grants do not require wired solutions – but do require 100/100 scalability

After watching two legislative meetings today on broadband funding I realized it might be helpful to say – that the Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is technology neutral. Here’s what they say about wireless solutions in their Grant FAQs

In order to qualify for Border-to-Border Broadband development dollars, does a project need to be wired access only or would a high speed wireless provider qualify if it met the speed goals defined by the grant?
The statute that created the grant fund defines eligible expenditures as “the acquisition and installation of middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure that support broadband service scalable to speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 100 megabits per second upload.” To meet this requirement, the grant application (at question 4.7) asks for a demonstration that the installed infrastructure is scalable to speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload and that the information must be certified by the manufacturer or a professional engineer. Any technology that meets this standard will be considered eligible.

Technology is not important – what is important is that the project be scalable to 100/100 – in other words the project must be forward looking. They don’t want projects that will not be able to meet the needs of the users in the near future. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of what that might look like. As students and workforce were shifted to remote work, many households realized that their broadband was not sufficient.

What I heard today was legislators who want to offer the constituents a solution immediately. They are talking to people who have nothing – so they’ll take anything. Unfortunately that’s a short lived satisfaction. If you have 10/1 access today, 25/3 is an upgrade, but it is still not enough if you have several people who will be engaging online (multiple Zooms, uploading homework, getting into the office VPN network) the constituents will still experience difficulties, they will still want more. If the network that is built is scalable, more improvements may be possible. If the network is not scalable improvements would require new building, new investment.

An immediate solution is nice. A solution that meets the needs of constituents now and in the future may be even nicer.

Proposals that strive for higher broadband speeds score higher on application criteria but that is not the only criteria.

MN House Ways and Means Committee: moves broadband funding to

Representative Ecklund’s bill (HF14) is moved into HF1524 as a separate article and then HF1524 is placed on general register…

High level notes…

  • Originally recommended $120 million for broadband over two years
  • Now asking for $30 million for one year and $350,000 per year for operating funds for the Office of Broadband Development

Questions/concerns

  • Do we have enough work to spend $30 million?
  • Does the Office of Broadband Development allow for non-fiber solutions? [yes! But I’m going to say more in another post]
  • Can’t we have the federal funding pay for our broadband?
  • Can we use public funding to give end customers money to get satellite connections?

The FCC asks you to take their Speed Test

From the FCC

As part of the Commission’s Broadband Data Collection effort to collect comprehensive data on broadband availability across the United States, the FCC is encouraging the public to download the FCC’s Speed Test app, which is currently used to collect speed test data as part of the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America program.  The app provides a way for consumers to test the performance of their mobile and in-home broadband networks.  In addition to showing network performance test results to the user, the app provides the test results to the FCC while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of program volunteers.

“To close the gap between digital haves and have nots, we are working to build a comprehensive, user-friendly dataset on broadband availability.  Expanding the base of consumers who use the FCC Speed Test app will enable us to provide improved coverage information to the public and add to the measurement tools we’re developing to show where broadband is truly available throughout the United States,” said Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel.

The network coverage and performance information gathered from the Speed Test data will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to collect more accurate and granular broadband deployment data. The app will also be used in the future for consumers to challenge provider-submitted maps when the Broadband Data Collection systems become available.  More information about the app is available on the FCC website.  The FCC Speed Test App is available in the Google Play Store for Android devices, and in the Apple App Store for iOS devices.

MN Senate SF958: $40 million in state funding for broadband

The MN Senate Committee on Finance met to discuss SF958 (Westrom) Omnibus agriculture and broadband finance and policy bill.

Here are the barebones highlights:

  • The Senate recommends $40 million for broadband grants; $10 million is dedicated to unserved areas and grants need only match 45 percent of project (as opposed to the usual 50 percent). They recommend that if federal funding is available, then that funding be used first up to $80 million for broadband. And they want state funding to extend over two years.
  • They have added fixed wireless into the definition of served/ unserved/ underserved and asked the Office of Broadband Development to map wireline and fixed wireless access.
  • There was quite a bit of discussion around how to track the federal CVOID money as it impacts state appropriations.

EVENT April 13: House and Senate Committees Hear Broadband Bills Tomorrow

From the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition…

House and Senate Committees Hear Broadband Bills Tomorrow
A brief reminder that the Senate Finance Committee will hear the broadband provisions within SF 958 tomorrow (Tuesday, April 13) at 8:30am. The House Ways and Means Committee will hear similar provisions at 9:00am. There are several bills on the agenda for each committee. The broadband provisions may not be up immediately after the committee starts.
Both committee hearings will be live streaming from the following websites:

Rural Broadband Association asks policymakers to invest in symmetrical broadband for the future

In a recent post from Shirley Bloomfield at the NTCA Rural Broadband Association, she asks policymakers and industry to think about investing in the future rather than short term fixes…

An infrastructure package is a chance to be bold and build something for a generation – not to fill potholes with patches.

I was particularly disappointed to read an industry posting recently that argued against the need for rural symmetrical fiber broadband and instead set a standard that is clearly aimed at little more than making sure fixed wireless can “play in the game” too. Does fixed wireless have a role to play in terms of closing the service gaps? Of course, but watching large national providers making this pitch so aggressively – and asking taxpayers to back their short-term network deployment plans – also clearly shows the intention of serving any of their remaining rural service territories with an inferior product instead of technology that will meet the needs of consumers not only today but well into the future. It’s all the more telling that some play loosely with discussions of broadband speeds, confusing what speeds will define unserved areas on the one hand with the very separate and distinct issue of what speeds will be required of new networks to be built in the areas that are currently unserved – those are two different questions, and conflating them does nothing other than cloud a meaningful debate over how to best address our infrastructure challenges.

Congressman Stauber and Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach hear that broadband is a workforce need

The Bemidji Pioneer reports

With representatives from agriculture, construction, education, mining, hospitality, trucking and timber, there was no shortage of concern over the need for workers right now during a gathering Thursday, April 8, in central Minnesota.

The pathways to bring people into these industries came as one of the top focuses of panelists when sharing with 8th District Congressman Pete Stauber and 7th District Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach at Central Lakes College in Staples, Minn. In related concerns, the communities noted the need for housing, child care, broadband and health care for those hired and to expand operations locally.

Others mentioned broadband as well…

Schornack is also part of an initiative called Grow Perham, which has added apartments in Perham, Minn., over the past half-decade. The goal is to bring people to the area, and bring their commitment to the local community. Otter Tail County also formed the Community Development Agency to continue building relationships for support in child care, housing and broadband about two and half years ago.

Rural Minnesota lags behind the rest of the state, grants help close the gap

The Alexandria Echo reports

About 92% of Minnesota homes and businesses have internet service of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

But that percentage drops to 83% in rural Minnesota, the agency said. And time is running out to meet the state’s goal of ensuring those speeds for all Minnesotans by 2022.

And they give the local details…

In Douglas County, Alexandria, Osakis, Holmes City and much of the southwestern part of the county are considered to have good internet service, according to the state’s 2020 map of internet access. Most of the unserved areas are in the eastern third of the county, and along the Douglas-Otter Tail County line. Most of the underserved areas, meaning those that only reach the 2022 state goal, are along I-94 and in the northwestern part of the county.

To provide incentives to extend broadband to Minnesota’s hard-to-reach places, the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program has provided $126 million to fund more than 179 projects connecting more than 57,000 homes, businesses and farms, said Office of Broadband Development Executive Director Angie Dickison.