MN Rural Broadband Coalition Update – October 1, 2019

An update from MN Rural Broadband Coalition…

$70 million Requested by Border-to-Border Grant Program Applicants

Saint Paul—The Office of Broadband Development received $70 million in applications for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program by the September 13, 2019 deadline. Last session the Legislature allocated $20 million to the grant program for each of the next two years. The disparity between funds needed and funds available shows that despite the Legislature’s substantial investment, there is still a great need across the state for world-class, affordable broadband networks.

The next step in the grant process is for incumbent providers to issue challenges to grant applications. Providers have until October 13, 2019 to challenge an application. Once all challenges have been submitted, the Department of Employment and Economic Development along with the Office of Broadband Development will review challenges and begin the process of selecting applicants to receive grant funding.

In 2018, the Governor’s Broadband Task Force recommended that the state would need to invest $70 million in each of the next two biennia to meet the 2022 state speed goal of 25mbps download and 3mbps upload. The Rural Broadband Coalition used this information to push legislators and the governor’s office for full funding of the broadband grant program. When the final budget bill was passed in May 2019 with $40 million for the biennium, we knew we would need to come back in 2020 and ask for an additional $30 million in ongoing funding to close the gap.  The Coalition has already sent a letter to Governor Walz and administration officials indicating that additional funding will be necessary to fully connect every Minnesotan.

Revenue Forecasts Remain Strong
Minnesota Management and Budget releases monthly revenue reports and so far, the state has collected more in revenue than it expected. This indicates the economy is healthy and that a budget surplus for 2020 may be possible. Additional funding for the grant program would likely need to come from surplus funds available to the Legislature in 2020. The Coalition will be at the Legislature advocating for broadband funding, but a budget surplus would make a positive outcome more likely. We will continue to monitor these forecasts as we move closer to the 2020 legislative session.

Governor’s Broadband Task Force
Governor Walz has not appointed a new Broadband Task Force, but we anticipate an announcement in the coming weeks. The Task Force will have to work quickly once it is appointed, since a report on recommendations for funding and broadband expansion in Minnesota is due to the Legislature by year’s end. We plan to monitor Task Force meetings and determine how the Coalition might provide input to the Task Force, especially regarding any broadband policy discussions.

Government Relations Transition
As some of you already know, our principal lobbyist Judy Erickson is stepping back from her work representing the Coalition at the Capitol and the Coalition is transitioning to having Nathan Zacharias fill that role. Judy successfully represented the Coalition for two legislative sessions, helping secure multi-year funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program for the first time. During those two sessions, Nathan Zacharias worked alongside her—meeting with legislators, developing strategy, and organizing Broadband Day on the Hill. Nathan is looking forward to building on the successful work of the Coalition and will become the principal lobbyist starting in November 2019.

Notes from the Klobuchar meeting in Aitkin on broadband

Last week I followed Senator Klobuchar’s staff around to listen to communities talk about broadband, infrastructure and housing in Aitkin and other places. Aitkin Age recently wrote about the local meeting, highlighting some of the broadband conversation…

Outreach director with Klobuchar’s office, Kurt Johnson, led the conversation on broadband. Currently, the office is working on mapping to identify broadband needs in communities throughout the state and supporting funding or other solutions.

Aitkin County Economic Development Coordinator Ross Wagner said the county has supplemented funds toward increasing broadband availability in the area, adding, “We need outside help to get broadband throughout our county.”

Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative is a member-owned organization that has also invested into expanding broadband services in the area. Stacy Cluff said MLEC has applied for additional grants. However, in 2017 a new tax law passed which limits the amount of income generated from non members. If awarded grants next year, it would affect their tax-exempt status.

The lack of broadband and low-speed standards are barriers to attracting businesses to the area, Wagner said. When the internet is down, some businesses still have the ability to store credit card charges, but if they aren’t accepted when they go through owners lose revenue.

The larger populated areas of the county are served, but outlying areas struggle to connect. “Local restaurant owners find 10-12 cars in their lot each morning with people parked there to use their broadband,” Wagner said. “The schools have high speed, but the kids who live 2 miles out of town can’t connect to do their homework because they don’t have broadband.”

Rep Neu talks to North Brank about Broadband

County News Review reports about a meeting in Chisago County…

Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch, attended the North Branch Chamber of Commerce Luncheon Sept. 10 to share highlights of the last Minnesota legislative session.

“It’s so fun to be here, especially since there are so many friendly faces,” Neu said. “I’d like to give you an idea of maybe some things on what you should be watching for and looking ahead to the next session.”

Neu said one issue the Legislature worked on is broadband funding.

“I think some things that are really critical for our area is that we put $40 million into broadband funding. It’s not enough yet, but we are continuing down that path to fund broadband,” Neu said. “Obviously, everyone out here knows it’s a huge issue.”

Neu commended the work the city of North Branch is doing regarding the broadband issue.

Bicameral Bill Introduces to Increase Access To Broadband Service For Low-Income Americans

From Senator Durbin’s press release (Sen Klobuchar is co-signer)…

U.S. Senator 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 of, and enrollment in, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program, which aims to help low-income households pay for their telephone and broadband service charges by providing a monthly subsidy of $9.25.  Enrollment in the Lifeline program remains extremely low nationwide. …

Along with Durbin and Maloney, the Promoting Access to Broadband Act is also cosponsored by Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 50 percent of non-broadband users cite cost as a reason that they do not have broadband at home, with 21 percent citing cost as the most important reason they do not have broadband.  In 2017, the Lifeline program had just a 28 percent participation rate nationwide.

The Promoting Access to Broadband Act would do the following:

  • 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 or SNAP participants of 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.

The bill is supported by the National Consumer Law Center, on behalf of its low-income clients; the United Church of Christ, OC Inc.; the National Digital Inclusion Alliance; Third Way; and Public Knowledge.

Senator Klobuchar supports rural broadband with Dig Once and better mapping

Faribault Daily News posts a letter from Senator Amy Klobuchar. She talks about the benefits of broadband, especially for rural areas based on recent visits from her staff to Bemidji, Walker, Wadena, Aitkin, Brainerd and Mora

I’ve heard from people across our state about how access to broadband is changing their lives and making their jobs easier. For example, farmers have told me they are excited about how advances in precision agriculture—like technology that can detect the level of moisture in the soil— can help them save money, increase yields, and protect the environment. And tractors can now use wireless broadband to send data directly back to the farm, allowing farmers to better manage their operations.

We have also seen advancements in telehealth technology that can help connect rural communities around the state to health care providers hundreds of miles away. Doctors can monitor the fetal heart rate and the weight and blood pressure of low-risk expectant moms remotely without having them drive to a clinic. Remote monitoring can also link specialists to patients and doctors in rural areas to provide real time consultations from the other side of the state.

And talks about plans to help make that happen…

I’ve always believed that when we invest in our infrastructure, including improved access to broadband, we invest in opportunity for every American. If we do this right, we can bridge the rural and urban divide that’s damaging our country and hurting our economy. That’s why I sponsored legislation to make broadband deployment easier by requiring coordination between states and federal agencies when highway projects are built so that broadband infrastructure is installed at the same time. In other words, agencies only “dig once” and lay the groundwork for broadband when building or expanding roads. A provision based on my bill was signed into law last year. “Dig once” policies help streamline broadband deployment and reduce the costs of building new broadband infrastructure while also helping expand wireless coverage in our rural areas.

As we work to bring high-speed internet to communities across the country, it’s critical that we have a clear and accurate understanding of where broadband is available and where it is not. While the Federal Communication Commission collects this information and provides maps that display broadband availability, these maps significantly overstate coverage in many rural areas. That’s why I introduced bipartisan legislation – the Broadband DATA Act — with Senators Wicker, Thune, and Peters, to collect more precise data so that broadband deployment funds will go where they are needed most. This bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee in July, and I am working to quickly get it signed into law.

Rep. Angie Craig awarded National Farmers Union Golden Triangle Award

Sun this Week reports…

U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Eagan, recently received the National Farmers Union Golden Triangle Award for her work to support Minnesota’s family farmers. The award, which was presented by the Minnesota Farmers Union, is given to members of Congress who have dedicated their time in Congress to supporting family farmers.

And the connection to broadband…

She has also secured additional funding for rural broadband and the Rural Energy For America Program and the ReConnect Rural Broadband Program to improve the quality of life in Greater Minnesota.

Senator Smith checks out broadband in Madelia (Watonwan County)

The Madelia Times Messenger reports on a recent visit from Senator Tina Smith…

Brent Christensen from Christensen Communications Company and Karla Angus, Madelia Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, were Smith’s hosts for the afternoon and brought the senator through Madelia’s downtown. They filled her in on the town’s history, talked about the many thriving businesses in Madelia’s downtown – as well as throughout the community – and explained what is being done here to expand broadband high-speed internet access and to bring people and businesses to town.

Smith met with Krystal Hernandez and toured her two businesses: F!esta Market and La Plaza F!esta. The group stopped by Hope & Faith Floral & Gifts, and Smith spoke with owner Ryan Visher about his downtown store as well as his online business. Smith toured Christensen Communications Company and learned about the efforts to get broadband to everyone, not just in Madelia, but all the surrounding communities and to those who live in the outlying areas. Then, Smith spent some time at the Madelia Theater, learning about the fascinating history of the theater. Smith loved that people here have an historic theater where they can watch a first rate movie at a more-than-affordable price. The tour ended at the Chamber of Commerce office, where the group sat down and talked about the day, Smith’s mission and Madelia.