MN Rural Broadband Coalition Update: Broadband Bills at the Legislature

From the MN Rural Broadband Coalition…

We’re now two months into the 2021 legislative session. Although we have not seen official action or movement on broadband bills there have been plenty of bill introductions and a few hearings. Minnesota Management and Budget will release their February Revenue Forecast this week. We will learn what the state’s finances look like and, if there is a deficit, how big it will be. Legislators will use this information to make decisions about state’s biennial budget, which must be balanced by the end of session in May.

Broadband Hearing Alert:
Senate Agriculture Committee, February 24, 3:00pm

  • SF 946 (Westrom) Broadband Funding + Unserved Targeting
    • $120 million, biennial ongoing funding
    • $30 million, biennial targeted to unserved areas
    • Projects that must go through an underserved area to get to unserved area would qualify
    • State match may be up to 55% if 10% comes from a non-state entity.
    • Language from last session/special sessions
  • SF 1186 (Draheim) Mapping Changes + Funding
    • Annual mapping contract, must collect data from “wired and wireless” providers, make maps public by April 15, annually.
    • $50 million, biennial one-time funding
    • Unserved only
    • “Must not be used in areas scheduled to be built out through federal assistance” (This is to make sure RDOF areas do not receive state funds)

Other Broadband Bills at the Legislature:

  • HF 14/SF 22 (Ecklund/Bakk) Broadband Funding
    • $120 million, biennial ongoing funding
  • SF 945 (Westrom) Broadband Funding
    • $120 million, biennial ongoing funding
  • SF 958 (Westrom) Governor’s Agriculture Budget Proposal
    • $50 million, one-time funding 2022
    • $350k Office of Broadband Development budget, annually

Coalition’s Legislative Committee Hears Presentation from MREA, MCCA
The Minnesota Rural Electric Association and the Minnesota Cable Communications gave presentations to members of our Legislative Committee on Friday, February 19 about HF 686/SF1304 (Rep. Ecklund/Sen. Westrom), a bill that would allow Electric Cooperatives to install broadband infrastructure on existing easements. There are concerns with the bill from several groups, including MCCA. One concern is the roughly $25 million settlement that went to Missouri landowners because of a similar bill in 2018. MREA and MCCA said amendments are forthcoming and more work is needed on the bill. Those amendments were not available for us to review during the meeting. HF 686 is scheduled to be heard in the House Commerce Committee on February 24 at 3:00pm.

The Legislative Committee recognized that bringing broadband to unserved and underserved communities is the easement bill’s intention and that is, in principle, something the Coalition should support. However, we also agreed that because there is significant work to do on the bill, that the Coalition should remain neutral until the major stakeholders work out their differences on the bill.

MN House introduces two bills to expand coverage of telehealth (HF1411 and HF1412)

Minnesota Legislature website (and Revisor’s Office) report…

 

Morrison introduced:

  1. F. 1411,A bill for an act relating to health; expanding telehealth; changing telemedicine to telehealth in certain statutes; amending Minnesota Statutes 2020, sections 62A.671, subdivision 9; 147.032, subdivisions 1, 2; 147.033, subdivision 1.

The bill was read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Health Finance and Policy.

Morrison introduced:

  1. F. 1412,A bill for an act relating to health care; modifying coverage for health care services and consultation provided through telehealth; amending Minnesota Statutes 2020, sections 147.033; 151.37, subdivision 2; 245G.01, subdivisions 13, 26; 245G.05, subdivision 1; 245G.06, subdivision 1; 254A.19, subdivision 5; 254B.05, subdivision 5; 256B.0625, subdivisions 3b, 46; proposing coding for new law in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 62A; repealing Minnesota Statutes 2020, sections 62A.67; 62A.671; 62A.672.

The bill was read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Commerce Finance and Policy.

The first bill seems to mostly be a change from telemedicine to telehealth. Here’s an excerpt of the changes that I think get to the point – where the crossed out portion is replaces by the underlined…

…with respect to providing medical services to state residents.

(e) For the purposes of this section, telemedicine means the practice of medicine as
defined in section 147.081, subdivision 3, when the physician is not in the physical presence
of the patient.

(f) A physician providing medical services through interstate telehealth under this section
is engaged in the practice of medicine as defined in section 147.081, subdivision 3.

And here’s full text of HF1412… Continue reading

MN Senate introduces SF1253 a bill to prohibit social media bans

Senators Chamberlain, Mathews, Ruud, Kiffmeyer and Gazelka introduce:

SF1253 – Online content discrimination prohibition and civil action authorization

Here’s the full text…

A bill for an act relating to civil law; prohibiting online content discrimination; authorizing civil action; proposing coding for new law as Minnesota Statutes, chapter 363B.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

Section 1. [363B.001] ONLINE CONTENT DISCRIMINATION PROHIBITED.

Continue reading

MN Broadband Task Force Feb 2021 Mtg Notes: Leg updated, Electric Coops and American Connection

The Minnesota Broadband Task Force met online today. I have recorded the session below. It requires quite a MacGuvyer setup, which means the sound quality can be less than perfect but here it is. (I’ll post a picture for your amusement.)

They got an update on various bills that have been introduced in Minnesota:

  • HF686/SF1304 – Existing easements held by rural electric cooperatives to be used to provide broadband service authorization
  • HF14/SF22 – Broadband grant program money transfer deposit authorization ($120M from Senate & House)
  • SF945 – Broadband grant program funds transfer- to be heard in Senate on Wed at 3pm
  • SF946 – Broadband grant program funds transfer ($120M plus $50M for unserved areas and requiring less match)
  • SF1186 – Broadband grant program appropriation

Task Force member Brian Krambeer talked about his work at MiEnergy and how and why a electric cooperative might get into proving service. At a high level the answer is twofold: the infrastructure makes providing services easier and their customers want/need it. As he pointed out, providing broadband is a treat; they are bringing services to people who thought they might have to move to get the broadband they need.

The Task Force heard about the work of American Connection a collaboration of 143 organizations (including Land o’Lakes) committed to promoting:

  • Robust investment in broadband at a federal level
  • Federal coordination of that investment working with state and local resources
  • Better mapping

The have done a lot as corporate citizens to get broadband to rural areas, especially during the pandemic. There membership is responsible for 2,900 free hotspots in 49 states. That night look like Land o’Lakes installing a wifi spot in their parking lot for neighbors to access. One of the things that has surprised them is the lack of rural readiness to react to federal opportunities.

Finally the Task Force talked about how they would work in 2021 and the subcommittees that they would form. Many members were interested in being involved in multiple subcommittees – but learned that when too many join any one committee it triggers the need to adhere to open meeting regulations, which means they would have to invite the public in and at least share notes after the fact. The image below outlines their proposed committees and topics based on response form the last meeting.

House Republicans introduce legislation to ban on municipal broadband in the US

The Register reports

House Republicans this week proposed legislation that would ban the creation of municipal broadband networks at a federal level, and shutter networks in areas where some private competition exists – purportedly to improve internet access across the US.

Dubbed the CONNECT Act (Communities Overregulating Networks Need Economic Competition Today), the bill [PDF] says: “A State or political subdivision thereof may not provide or offer for sale to the public, a telecommunications provider, or to a commercial provider of broadband internet access service, retail or wholesale broadband internet access service.”

The CONNECT Act would also ban states from operating municipal broadband networks in areas where two or more private operators exist. The language here is fairly vague, and it doesn’t state how affected operators should dispose of their existing infrastructure. It’s also fairly limited about what constitutes a “private operator”, deferring only to the barebones definition in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

The CFR doesn’t define any particular infrastructure technology, other than saying dial-up does not constitute broadband. Plausibly, satellite connections (like those offered by ViaSat and HughesNet, as well as newcomer Starlink) would be included in this catch-all, despite coming with higher costs and lower data caps than traditional fixed-line networks.

Senator Klobuchar thinks there may be more federal funding for broadband – even beyond pandemic

The Alexandria Echo Press reports…

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, held a Zoom call with superintendents from west central Minnesota to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their students and school systems Tuesday, Feb. 16.

Klobuchar said that Minnesota will receive around $30 billion, which will be distributed across the state. The Senate will be processing the bill more in depth next week with the goal of implementing it by mid-March.

This funding package will help schools take the next steps in improving classroom safety and COVID-19 response efforts, so she wanted to hear how local education leaders around the state believe the dollars should be spent.

The funding is designed to help in a number of ways but Klobuchar mentioned that there may be more coming for broadband…

Klobuchar said she’s finding the silver lining in the possibility of more federal funding for broadband internet access and support for teachers, even beyond the pandemic.

“I just feel more hope about this than I have in the past,” she said.

EVENT Feb 22: MN Broadband Task Force meeting

From the Office of Broadband Development

Governor’s Task Force on Broadband
February 22, 2021
10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Join on your computer or mobile app

Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)

+1 763-317-4323,,399295103#   United States, Plymouth

Phone Conference ID: 399 295 103#

10:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. Welcome, Task Force Introductions, Attendee Introductions and Approval of Minutes from January 29, 2021 Meeting

10:15 a.m. – 10:25 a.m. Update on 2021 Legislation

  • Deven Bowdry, DEED

10:25 a.m. – 10:50 a.m. Rural Electric Coops and Broadband

  • Brian Krambeer, MiEnergy

10:50 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Land O’Lakes: American Connection Project

  • Tina May, V.P., Rural Services

11:30 a.m. – 11:40 a.m. Break

11:40 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Task Force Organization

  • Discuss subgroups and assigned topics
  • Selection of chairs for subgroups

12:15 p.m. – 12:30 p.m.  Public Comment, Other Business, March Meeting Plans, Wrap-up

 

Minnesota customer (and Communications Workers of America Local 7270) ask PUC to hold Frontier accountable

MinnPost publishes a letter to the editor from Mark Doffing, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 7270 asking the PUC to hold Frontier accountable; Minnesota PUC is scheduled to reconsider its approval of Frontier’s bankruptcy plan today (Feb. 18, 2021).

He describes the situation for customers in rural areas…

We are now approaching a full year of living with the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and it has become clear that high quality phone and internet service are a necessity for all of us to continue any semblance of a normal life. People across the country rely on these services for their jobs, education, health care, and to maintain contact with family and friends in this difficult and isolating time. Here in Minnesota, many of us rely on Frontier Communications to provide those services, and as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) considers approving Frontier’s emergence from bankruptcy, we have an opportunity to ensure that Minnesota residents receive the improved service they deserve.

Frontier, Minnesota’s second-largest phone service provider covering 250,000 households in the state, filed for bankruptcy on April 14 of last year after taking on billions of dollars in debt and driving away customers by refusing to invest in their network or their workforce.

He adds that Minnesota does not appear to be on Frontier’s priority list…

In its December quarterly update to Wall Street, Frontier reported on its post-bankruptcy “Modernization Plan,” which includes nearly 3 million customers who will receive high-speed, fiber optic internet service over the next 10 years. Frontier’s plan identified 10 states in line for new fiber deployment, not one of which was Minnesota.

In addition, Frontier recently bid to receive federal grants under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction to provide high-speed broadband in rural areas and won more than $37 million in federal funding to support more than 125,000 customers in eight states. Not one of those customers is in Minnesota. This is very concerning because significant investment is required from Frontier to bring Minnesota residents the quality of telecommunication services they deserve.

He offers a way that the MN PUC could hold them accountable…

Other states — including California, West Virginia, and Connecticut — have reviewed Frontier’s bankruptcy plan and have secured settlements or have ordered Frontier to comply with commitments that include new investment in fiber, capital expenditures to improve their ailing network, and workforce commitments to ensure that the job gets done right. These states have taken the critical step in holding  Frontier accountable.

Rep Fischbach visits Thief River Falls – talks about importance of broadband (Pennington County)

The Grand Forks Herald reports on Representative Fischbach’s recent visit to Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls…

Making sure northwest Minnesota residents have good broadband that will give them access to things like telemedicine and education is another issue on which Fischbach is working. Without good internet access, people will lose out on the benefits they provide.

“We have to make sure that individuals have the opportunity to get that to their doors,” she said.

In Pennington County, almost 97 percent of households have access to 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. Unrelated to broadband but potentially of interest…

Arctic Cat needs to hire more employees to meet production demands, said Troy Halvorson, Arctic Cat vice president. The company has openings for upwards of 100 to 150 employees to add its team of 613 at the Thief River Falls manufacturing plant, he said.

LTD Broadband partners with Aviat for wireless platform system

PRNewswire reports

Aviat Networks, Inc. (NASDAQ: AVNW), the leading expert in wireless transport solutions, today announced that LTD Broadband, an internet service provider (ISP) and top recipient in the US government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction with a total of $1.3 billion in funding, will deploy Aviat’s WTM 4000 microwave and multi-band platform systems in its network middle mile and for fiber redundancy. The company has already deployed these Aviat systems in its current network, which delivers high-speed connectivity to commercial and residential subscribers in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, with other states in planning as part of the company’s RDOF expansion.

“Our experience with Aviat has been exceptional,” said Corey Hauer, Chief Executive Officer, LTD Broadband. “The company’s WTM systems deliver the multi-gigabit fixed wireless performance we need, and Aviat Design enables solid link planning with no surprises. We are able to order the systems from the Aviat Store and take delivery within a couple of weeks, something no other radio manufacturer can offer us, accelerating our time to market. These capabilities will become even more critical as we roll out our RDOF plans.”

LTD Broadband was selected to submit a long form RDOF proposal to build FTTH; they were the biggest winner of potential funding in Minnesota. There is some concern that they are better versed in building wireless network than the fiber they are committed to building in Minnesota.

R Street gives Minnesota a B for broadband

R Street releases their latest Broadband Scorecard. It looks at the role and decision of government to support better broadband…

This scorecard examines laws that govern broadband infrastructure deployment in all 50 states and compiles these data into categories. In some categories, states were given points based on whether they had a law governing a specific aspect of broadband deployment. In categories that included costs or timelines, states were given points based on whether the cost or timeline provided in their law met a certain threshold. For example, a state may get one point for imposing a fee cap on permit applications, and a second point if the cap is $100 or less.

Specifically they look at:

  • Access to public rights of way
  • Franchise agreements
  • Construction permits
  • Miscellaneous (such as zoning)

Here is how they scored Minnesota:

MINNESOTA RAW SCORE: 21 FINAL SCORE: 86 No changes in 2020.
Minnesota scored similarly to Michigan, but for different reasons. With restrictions on in-kind contributions, a dig-once law and a ban on moratoria, Minnesota received a perfect score in the miscellaneous category. However, there is no uniform statewide franchising nor a limitation on the fees that a franchising authority can charge a provider. Improvements can also be made to the length of the shot clocks, but the fact that shot clocks exist at all is a positive for the state.

How LTD Broadband plans to meet RDOF requirements

Fierce Telecom takes a look at how LTD Broadband did so well with the RDOF process…

The RDOF auction was a “reverse auction.” This is different than typical auctions where multiple buyers bid up the price for an item from the seller. In its reverse auction, the FCC drove down the price of its item — awards to deploy broadband — by having multiple bidders compete against each other to provide the best technology at the lowest price. The FCC has used reverse auctions before.

But there was a provision in the FCC’s auction rules (paragraph 20, page 9) for RDOF that created a “clearing round.” The bidding system took into account the performance and latency promises of bidders in a census block and eliminated the inferior bidder from proceeding.

The electric co-ops may not have bid at the highest speed tier — the 1 Gbps/500 Mbps — if they weren’t confident they could deliver those speeds. But it turned out they were often eliminated from the auction if another bidder in a particular census block did bid at that speed tier.

Sounds like LTD was able to use this to their advantage; they did bid at the higher tiers.

Fierce Telecom also look at how LTD plans to deliver on their fiber plan…

Hauer said LTD plans to deliver on its promise of fiber to rural areas, and he doesn’t seem daunted by the cost, even though the expense of fiber has humbled large companies in the past, such as Verizon.

He said it’s hard for providers to lay fiber in urban and suburban areas because there is a lot of existing infrastructure to contend with such as natural gas lines, sewer pipes, water systems and buildings. “Our theory is that it’s going to be easier to do in rural areas,” he said. “Fiber is primarily a labor proposition.” He said his company will be able to deploy fiber faster and cost-effectively in rural because there are less obstacles.

He said LTD will probably lay fiber using both methods: in-the-ground and aerial on existing infrastructure such as telephone wires. He said, “With a fiber plow that puts fiber in the ground, you can go at walking speed.”

Even though there’s a shortage of skilled fiber layers, Hauer said he has a plan for securing workers, which he’s not willing to share publicly.

In areas where it’s simply impossible to lay fiber, LTD will use other methods such as microwave hops. “Fiber is the source of the river,” said Hauer. “And in many cases, we also will use fiber at the end. For RDOF, where we would consider FWA would be the middle mile…. It might be mountain top to mountain top where we could do multi-gigabit microwave links as part of this. In most cases we’ll be able to run fiber.”

MN House: Bill introduced to limit screen time for young kids HF570 – during a pandemic?

From the Minnesota Revisor

H.F. No. 570, A bill for an act relating to education; limiting the use of individual-use screens in preschool and kindergarten; appropriating money; proposing coding for new law in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 124D.
The bill was read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Education Policy.

Full bill…

A bill for an act relating to education; limiting the use of individual-use screens in preschool and kindergarten; appropriating money; proposing coding for new law in Minnesota Statutes, chapter 124D.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

Section 1.

[124D.166] LIMIT ON SCREEN TIME FOR CHILDREN IN PRESCHOOL
AND KINDERGARTEN.

Subdivision 1.

Limit on use. 

A child in a publicly funded preschool or kindergarten
program may not use an individual-use screen, such as a tablet, smartphone, or other digital media, without engagement from a teacher or other students.

Subd. 2.

Parent education. 

The Department of Education must contract for the production and implementation of a statewide public educational campaign to educate parents on the effects of screen use on children. The campaign must inform parents of the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen use for children ages zero to five, research on screen use and effects on early childhood brain development, the potential risks of excessive screen time impacting mental and physical
development, and the effects of parental overuse of screens when interacting with children under age five.

Sec. 2. APPROPRIATION.

$……. is appropriated in fiscal year 2022 from the general fund to the commissioner of education for a statewide public educational campaign to educate parents on the effects of screen use on children. The contractor producing and implementing the campaign must provide a private match of $1 for every $1 received.

I have mixed views on this as I have worked from home for many years and used to do it with three little kids at home. In a perfect world parents could juggle parenting and working a job at the same time. But it was hard enough before the pandemic. I can only imagine how hard it would be now – then add making parents feel badly about using technology. It feels like the message is pointed at the folks who juggle working and parenting. By folks, I mean moms. A census report last summer found that moms were 68.8 percent more likely to take leave from jobs during the pandemic than fathers. (Although I feel for the fathers who do take this on too!)

The bill targets parents who can’t afford a nanny, tutor or babysitter. Parents who can’t afford to put the kids into various afterschool activities to get an extra hour or two of work done themselves. Parents who don’t have grandparents able to step in to help. And it’s happening at a time when many of those options aren’t event available.

Even the school portion of the bill is unrealistic as teachers juggle in-class and remote learning at the same time. Instead of unfunded mandates and public services announcements designed to demoralize the people on the frontlines, perhaps there are ways to help support working parents and teachers to recognize that during the pandemic, and even to a lesser degree post-pandemic, technology is a tool. Or we could lower teacher-student ratios and change the economics that encourage two parents to work full time.

Sen Westrom introduces MN Broadband grant bills: $120M for biennium (SF945 & SF946)

As reported in the Journal of the Senate for Feb 11

S.F. No. 945: A bill for an act relating to telecommunications; transferring money for the broadband grant program. Referred to the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy. Senator Westrom introduced—

S.F. No. 946: A bill for an act relating to telecommunications; transferring money for the broadband grant program. Referred to the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development Finance and Policy.

Details for SF945

A bill for an act relating to telecommunications; transferring money for the broadband grant program.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

Section 1. BROADBAND GRANT PROGRAM; TRANSFER.

$60,000,000 in fiscal year 2022 and $60,000,000 in fiscal year 2023 are transferred from the general fund to the commissioner of employment and economic development for deposit in the border-to-border broadband fund account established in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396, subdivision 1, for the purposes specified in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396,
subdivision 2.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Details for SF946…

A bill for an act relating to telecommunications; transferring money for the broadband grant program.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

Section 1. BROADBAND GRANT PROGRAM; TRANSFER.

(a) $60,000,000 in fiscal year 2022 and $60,000,000 in fiscal year 2023 are transferred from the general fund to the commissioner of employment and economic development for deposit in the border-to-border broadband fund account established in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396, subdivision 1, for the purposes specified in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396, subdivision 2.

(b) $15,000,000 in fiscal year 2022 and $15,000,000 in fiscal year 2023 are transferred from the general fund to the commissioner of employment and economic development for deposit in the border-to-border broadband fund account established in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396, subdivision 1. This transfer must be used only to provide broadband service in unserved areas, except that money from the transfer may be used to place broadband infrastructure, as defined in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.394, in underserved areas. Notwithstanding the limitation in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.395, subdivision
7, paragraph (a), the grants are available for 55 percent of total project cost if the grant is matched by ten percent or more from a nonstate entity. The nonstate entity providing the match may include but is not limited to organized townships, cities, counties, foundations, nonprofits, school districts, or higher education institutions.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Senator Mark Koran Applauds Broadband Expansion in Chisago County

From the Minnesota State Republican Caucus

1,001 homes, farms, and businesses in Chisago County will soon have access to high-speed broadband access. That is thanks to a partnership between the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and Midco after the company won a $1.1 million auction to expand service.

Senator Mark Koran (R-North Branch) applauded the partnership and issued the following statement:

There is no denying high-speed internet is now a utility that communities must look to expand and make available for their residents,” said Senator Koran. “The COVID pandemic has only made that reality more clear as Minnesotans have become reliant on an internet connection for work, school, medicine, socialization, and entertainment.  In Greater Minnesota, far too many folks still don’t have access to high-speed internet, but with programs like the RDOF and an increased emphasis at the Capitol ending that disparity is within reach.”

Construction in Lindstrom and Chisago Lake Township will begin this year and some locations covered by the RDOF award will begin receiving broadband by the end of the year. Midco will serve most of Chisago County’s new service areas with fiber broadband services capable of delivering 5 Gbps of download and upload speeds. Additionally, the regional communications company to serve thousands of additional new homes and businesses in the County in the coming years.

High-speed internet access is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education, and civic engagement. RDOF will direct up to $20.4 billion to expand broadband in unserved rural areas.