Minnesota House Ag bill invests $30 million in broadband

International Fall Journal reports

The Minnesota House this week passed its Agriculture budget bill to strengthen farming and food production in Minnesota. The legislation funds the operations of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Board of Animal Health, and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

Additionally, the bill makes new investments in high-speed broadband across the state, which were originally introduced by Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls.

“Robust investments in high-speed broadband are some of the most urgent steps we can make to protect rural communities and economies. In addition to the funding for our state’s farmers and food production industries, this bill contains important funding to help Minnesotans get online,” Ecklund said. “Over the last year, students, families, and businesses have come to depend on internet access more than ever. In this legislation, House DFLers are continuing our strong track record of investments to ensure all Minnesotans have the fast, reliable internet access they deserve.”

And they get into the details…

The bill also invests $30 million over the next two years in the state Border to Border Broadband Grant Program. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesotans have had an unprecedented reliance on broadband for distance learning, working from home, and accessing telehealth services. The funding would be used to meet state speed and connectivity goals in unserved and underserved parts of the state. In 2019, lawmakers put into law the goal of every household and business having access to broadband internet of at least 25mbs/3mbs by 2022. As of January 2021, 83 percent of households in rural areas have access meeting this benchmark.

The $30 million investment would supplement funding Minnesota will receive under the American Rescue Plan eligible toward broadband expansion which Congress recently passed and President Biden signed into law. State officials are still determining how much money could be available, including investments from the Economic Development Administration under the U.S. Commerce Department, Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, and the Local Assistance and Tribal Consistency Fund.

US Rep Angie Craig supports corporate taxes for broadband

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on the differing opinions on Biden’s proposed tax hike for businesses…

But many Democrats say infrastructure repairs can’t wait.

“Due to years of neglect and underinvestment, America’s infrastructure has fallen behind — leading to crumbling roads and bridges, outdated water systems, a vulnerable electric grid and inconsistent access to affordable, high-speed broadband internet,” said Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, a former Minnesota corporate executive. “I am supportive of efforts to make sure that corporations and the wealthiest among us are paying their fair share.”

Economists and tax experts don’t dispute that a 28% corporate rate would be the developed world’s highest. What they disagree on is the degree to which it would hinder the U.S. recovery from the COVID-driven downturn.

The pandemic distorted how much job growth the 2017 tax reform generated. The Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank, estimates that the new tax law will create more than 1.44 million full-time-equivalent jobs by 2025.

EVENT Apr 23: MN Small Cities Coronavirus Funding Info Session

From the Mn Department of Employment and Economic Development

As part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Minnesota received a $37.6M special allocation to address community needs to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. After an open community input process on how to use the money, and an approval from the Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD), we’ve received clearance to open up this grant program and are excited to receive applications.

DEED is administering this Small Cities Coronavirus Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, and we encourage cities and counties across Minnesota to consider applying. Cities and counties of all sizes in Minnesota – including both entitlement and non-entitlement jurisdictions – are eligible for funding.

Eligible activities include $5M for COVID-19 emergency assistance, $4.5M in rehabilitation of buildings critical to pandemic response, and $25.5M in broadband infrastructure.

Grant applications are now being accepted and the deadline to apply is 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 1, 2021. DEED is hosting a webinar at 1:00 p.m. this Friday, April 23 to provide potential applicants with an overview of the process and program and to answer any questions.

Applications in this competitive grant process will be rated according to need, impact and cost effectiveness. Funds are intended for projects that are focused on the locality and that will be used primarily for low-and-moderate income residents.

Here’s more on the program:

In the public service category, funding is earmarked for projects that provide a new or increased level of public service in specific areas:

  • $3M will be available for subsistence assistance to income-eligible residents economically impacted by the pandemic for rent payments, mortgage assistance, or utility payments.
  • $1M will be available for testing kits, personal protective equipment and other related items to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
  • $1M will be available to support food shelves/pantries that provide increased access to food and delivery support to those impacted by COVID-19.

In the retrofitting buildings and commercial rehabilitation category, $4.5M has been allocated for projects that would address a wide range of improvements and rehabilitation activities related to food shelves, social distancing requirements, HVAC systems, patient treatment centers, existing shelters or other facilities used for emergency shelters.

The state has earmarked about $25.5 million for broadband infrastructure to support increased connectivity for telework, telemedicine, telelearning and televisits. See the program page for more about what broadband projects would qualify.

Call for Applications and Webinar

  • Here is information on the Call for Applications.
  • DEED will host a webinar to provide potential applicants with an overview of the program and to answer any questions. This Microsoft Teams meeting will be held at 1:00 p.m. Friday, April 23.
  • You can Join on your computer or mobile app or call in (audio only): 1- 651-395-7448 (Phone Conference ID: 687 187 744#).

MN Legislature can pass telehealth bills to make permanent telehealth expansion experienced during the pandemic

Albert Lea Tribune reports on regulatory changes that supported successful expansion of telehealth during the pandemic and permanent changes required to make sure access and expansion continue…

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.

Some details about the bills…

Rep. Kelly Morrison, DFL-Deephaven, and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont are commendably leading the efforts to pass the telehealth bills (HF 1412 and SF 1160) this session. Morrison is a physician, and Rosen has an admirable record of forging compromise and muscling legislation through.

That latter experience will be crucial. The telehealth legislation faces some headwinds. A key challenge is resolving differences between large health care lobbies over payment. The dispute involves “payment parity,” meaning providers are paid the same for a telehealth visit as they are for one in a traditional clinic. Before the pandemic, Minnesota was one of six states requiring comprehensive telehealth parity, said Lucas Nesse, president and CEO of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. Since the pandemic, 14 more states have established parity during the pandemic, with requirements often in effect only for the COVID emergency, he added, citing a National Conference of State Legislatures report.

And a compromise…

A February telemedicine report points out one potential compromise: “setting payment parity as the baseline while expressly allowing providers and plans to voluntarily negotiate alternate payment rates and depart from the baseline.” This solution, or other innovative approaches, are needed to ensure that Minnesota moves forward on telehealth, not backward.

Judge, Jury and Facebook?

Yesterday former police officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of third degree murder of George Floyd. The deliberation was quick, but many, especially in Minneapolis had been planning for months. Planning for any outcome. Apparently Facebook was planning too. The Los Angeles Times reports…

As lawyers for both sides offered their closing statements in the trial of Derek Chauvin on Monday, a thousand miles away, executives at Facebook were preparing for the verdict to drop. …

As precautions, Facebook said it would “remove Pages, groups, Events and Instagram accounts that violate our violence and incitement policy,” and would also “remove events organized in temporary, high-risk locations that contain calls to bring arms.” It also promised to take down content violating prohibitions on “hate speech, bullying and harassment, graphic violence, and violence and incitement,” as well as “limit the spread” of posts its system predicts are likely to later be removed for violations.

This led to people asking why they don’t patrol the platform all of the time…

“Hate is an ongoing problem on Facebook, and the fact that Facebook, in response to this incident, is saying that it can apply specific controls to emergency situations means that there is more that they can do to address hate, and that … for the most part, Facebook is choosing not to do so,” said Daniel Kelley, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Technology and Society.

“It’s really disheartening to imagine that there are controls that they can put in place around so-called ‘emergency situations’ that would increase the sensitivity of their tools, their products, around hate and harassment [generally].”

Facebook seems conflicted. Turns out content that skates around safety norms gets attention and clicks, which is beneficial to Facebook. And they don’t want to interfere with legitimate discussion. They also say they are trying to get ahead of outbreaks of violence. Also…

Another incentive for Facebook to handle the Chauvin verdict with extreme caution is to avoid feeding into the inevitable criticism of its impending decision about whether former President Trump will remain banned from the platform. Trump was kicked off earlier this year for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots; the case is now being decided by Facebook’s third-party oversight committee.

Facebook isn’t the only platform doing this. It highlights the importance of social media platforms and the broadband and skills to use them.

The George Floyd conviction was made possible with the video taken by Darnell Frazier and shared all over the world. Supporters have been mobilized by social media from day one, we got word of protests and rallies from social media. We watched rallies we couldn’t attend via social media, citizen journalism and organizations such as Unicorn Riot, who livestream events via social media. Standing outside of the courtroom yesterday, we heard the verdict, in small groups huddled over cell phones from video streaming from the courtroom.

Social media is here to stay in one form or another.

Electric cooperatives want to use easements for broadband as well as electricity

Minnesota legislature is looking at a bill that would extend electric cooperative easements to include use broadband and electricity. The Albert Lea Tribune posts a guest post from Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association about easements….

With a primary mission of serving the needs of the communities they serve, not-for-profit electric cooperatives came to the rescue for rural America by stringing power lines in smaller, less populated areas. Today, electric co-ops can be an asset in making broadband accessible to all Minnesotans.

Unlike any for-profit business or governmental entity, electric cooperatives already have the critical infrastructure in place that is needed to bring broadband to every corner of the state. Minnesota’s 44 distribution cooperatives serve 1.7 million Minnesotans in all 87 counties and operate the largest distribution network in the state with more than 135,000 miles of electric lines.

Minnesota’s electric cooperatives can be part of the solution to bridge the digital divide. The cooperative business model, existing infrastructure and proven history make electric co-ops natural champions for deploying broadband to rural America. However, there is a legal challenge that must be addressed first.

Currently, if an electric co-op wants to deploy broadband or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband, they must first get a newly signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal challenge, the Minnesota Rural Electric Association has worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current electric service easements to also deploy broadband, providing they give easement holders six months’ notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value.

This legislative bill supports Governor Walz’s initiatives to develop strategies to unlock the benefits of universal access to broadband for all communities in Minnesota while supporting inclusion, equity and children’s initiatives. High-speed internet services are essential to community development, economic growth and prosperity, and educational attainment across the state.

Senator Weber supports $40M for broadband in MN

Windom News reports…

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Senate passed its Agriculture budget bill to support agriculture, rural development and rural COVID-19 recovery. The comprehensive legislation is focused on helping Minnesota farmers while spurring innovation in the agriculture industry and provides resources for broadband expansion throughout the state.

“This is a bipartisan compromise that focuses on our shared agricultural and rural priorities,” Senator Bill Weber (R-Luverne) said. “We’re helping Minnesotan farmers and our rural communities by prioritizing innovative investment, mental health and broadband infrastructure to drive development across our state.”

They go into the details…

The Senate agriculture budget also gives historic funding to the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program at $40 million over the next two fiscal years. This funding will develop permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. This funding from the legislature matches the critical need that has become apparent in the wake of COVID-19.

Rep Stauber supports broadband funding in infrastructure plan

Duluth News Tribune reports

For decades, Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District has been represented by a member of Congress serving on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. When I was named to this committee upon my arrival to Congress two years ago, I was thrilled for the chance to follow in the footsteps of transportation giants like Reps. John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar and work in the same collegial manner to get things done for Northeastern Minnesota.

From the get-go, I have fought to ensure our roads and bridges are safe, our airports are up to date, and our waterways and ports are in good condition to facilitate commerce and trade. And, because Northeastern Minnesota is largely rural, I have strongly advocated for increased investment in broadband, which is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity for success in the 21st century.

These are all true infrastructure needs, and ones I know can earn strong bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

Rep Fischbach supports broadband funding in infrastructure plan

The Bemidji Pioneer reports

The White House infrastructure plan has a price tag of about $2 trillion that includes traditional and nontraditional infrastructure spending. Rep. Michelle Fischbach said she supports efforts to expand broadband and fixing roads but draws the line at government expenditures regarding electric vehicle charging stations.

She adds…

“I’ve been a big proponent of broadband,” said Fischbach, a Republican who represents Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District. She said the pandemic has shown the need for broadband infrastructure.

State Revenue by Source? MN tops list for taxes

Pew Research reports

Taxes and federal funds together account for 80.5% of revenue for the 50 states. Taxes are the largest revenue source in 46 states, while federal funds are greatest in four: Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, and Wyoming.

This infographic displays a breakdown of each state’s revenue by major categories.

You can check out Pew for the full list (hard to copy and format here). Conveniently, We only need to see the top of the list to see how Minnesota ranks…

EVENT April 27: Emergency Broadband Benefit Webinar for Consumers and Outreach Partners

From the FCC

On Tuesday, April 27 starting at 3:00 p.m. EDT, the FCC will host a public webinar to provide information on the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). The EBB is a temporary program that provides a discount of up to $50 per month ($75 on Tribal lands) off a qualifying households’ internet bill. For eligible households there is the potential for a discount of up to $100 towards the purchase of a tablet, laptop or desktop computer from a participating provider so long as the eligible purchaser contributes more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.

Date – Tuesday, April 27
3 p.m. EDT
Watch Live – fcc.gov/live

The webinar will provide consumers and outreach partners with an overview of the EBB program, eligibility information, and enrollment procedures. During the event, the FCC will provide an overview of the outreach tool kit materials that have been developed for partners and the public to use to create awareness about the temporary program.

Registration is not required for the webinar.

During, or in advance of this event, questions can be emailed to broadbandbenefit@fcc.gov.

Open captioning will be provided for this event. Other reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities are available upon request. Requests for such accommodations should be submitted via e-mail to fcc504@fcc.gov or by calling the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau at (202) 418-0530 (voice). Such requests should include a detailed description of the accommodation needed. In addition, please include a way for the FCC to contact the requester if more information is needed to fill the request.  Last minute requests will be accepted but may not be possible to accommodate.

For additional information about the webinar, please contact Deandrea Wilson at deandrea.wilson@fcc.gov.


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.