Sen. Westrom co-authors broadband expansion legislation

The Minnesota State Republican Caucus reports…

Senator Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) is co-authoring legislation to expand broadband access in Greater Minnesota. Senator Westrom, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance, held a committee hearing on January 16 to discuss rural broadband expansion. Recently, his committee was given jurisdiction over the funding of rural broadband in Minnesota.

“Ranging from health care, education, to small businesses, broadband access is essential to our way of life in the twenty-first century,” said Senator Westrom. “I consistently hear from rural residents and small business owners that a lack of broadband limits their ability to flourish in Greater Minnesota, much like a lack of electricity did 75 years ago. We need to continue to address that problem and I look forward to spearheading that effort this upcoming session.”

Senator Westrom has long been a proponent of rural broadband expansion, authoring multiple bills that funded projects to expand broadband access in Greater Minnesota. This session, he joins a bipartisan group of senators authoring legislation to invest $70 million in broadband expansion over the next two years.

During the hearing Westrom’s committee held, experts from the broadband industry testified that the state program helps leverage private and federal broadband investments, multiplying their benefits many times over. Additionally, they stated the state program “works like a scalpel,” filling-in broadband coverage gaps where private or federal funds do not provide enough resources.

“Broadband expansion benefits everyone, from students doing homework to businesses in Greater Minnesota,” added Senator Westrom. “By working across the aisle, we can improve our state, economy, and way of life.”

Digital Divide in Tribal Communities is diverse but real

The Center for Indian Country Development reports…

The lowest category, in light yellow, shows reservations where fewer than 55 percent of households have broadband access. This access rate is well below the national average of 78 percent as well as below the average rate in completely rural counties of 65 percent,5 and is evident in several geographically large reservations in the Southwest, Northern Plains, and Intermountain West. However, other large reservations in the same areas have rates closer to national and rural county norms. It is also evident from Figure 1 that a few reservations match or exceed the national average.

Broadband access levels for many geographically small reservations are hard to discern in Figure 1 but can be analyzed statistically. Across 262 federally recognized reservations, in the typical (median) reservation, 61 percent of households have broadband access. This percentage is significantly lower than the percentage of households with broadband access in the typical U.S county which is 69 percent. In the typical county that overlaps at least one reservation, 70 percent of households have broadband access.

The Census Bureau has shown that counties’ rates of broadband access are positively correlated with income.6  We have found the correlation between income and broadband access for reservations is very similar as to counties.

They recognize that not only is lack of broadband more prevalent in lower income households, it may be a contributing factor…

However, the relatively low rates of broadband access in reservation communities may also add to their economic development challenges. Enhanced Internet access may not boost all types of reservation economic activity. For example, if reservation residents increasingly purchase consumer goods online from remote suppliers, employment at local retail outlets may fall. However, the net effects of enhanced access are generally considered positive for economic vitality, including through channels such as increased productivity at local businesses, increased sales to consumers outside the reservation, improved life-style and government services that attract residents, improved medical and educational services, and more.7 For these types of reasons, tribes and tribal organizations are taking steps to enhance Indian Country’s broadband access

Find USDA ReConnect Grant/Loan Areas and determine feasibility

Earlier this month, I wrote about the USDA’s new ReConnect Program; $600 million for better broadband (loans and grants). CNS has created a mapping tool to help potential providers determine whether the ReConnect funds make sense in their area. Their video describes it all:

Murray County Broadband Profile: current ranking 51

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year.

Murray County broadband ranking has improved from 53 to 51. It looks like all of the expansion has happened at the 100/20 speeds so while the increase in not big, it is building for the future.

Earlier this year (2018) Murray County released a feasibility study

The studies looked at the business plan for bringing fiber to the service area. The vast majority of the study area has (or will soon have) fixed wireless broadband. This technology can deliver broadband connections in the range of 25 Mbps download, and sometimes faster.

However, we know the county’s goal is to eventually have fiber everywhere and the current wireless broadband is not a permanent bandwidth solution. Broadband trends show that the amount of bandwidth needed by a typical home will keep growing, and at some time in the future these wireless networks will seem too slow and become obsolete in the same manner that has happened in the past with dial-up and DSL broadband.

Our analysis shows that it is not economically feasible to build fiber everywhere in the rural parts of the county using the existing Border-to-Border grant program—the 50% grant matching in that program is not high enough to create a sustainable network. However, it would be possible to fund fiber using these grants if the percent of the grant matching is increased above the 50% level used in awarding these grants today. It might also be feasible to build the fiber in stages over multiple years to get the needed grant funding.

It is likely to be a challenge for a service provider to building fiber today since almost all of the rural area is served with newly-built fixed wireless technology that is capable of delivering speeds of at least 25 Mbps download. Any potential fiber provider is going to worry that many households will be satisfied with that level of broadband speed.

And a subsequent article in the local paper says even more about their plans…

“The county does not plan to build a broadband network but is open to talking with providers who are interested in extending service to our citizens and may need financial assistance to do so,” Rucker said. “Murray County had the feasibility study completed so that any provider who wants to extend broadband service to our unserved and underserved areas could use the study as background to apply for state or federal grants to do so.”

The county has seen significant broadband investment from Woodstock since 2015, when it installed two wireless broadband towers around Lake Shetek. It continued over the last two years, installing eight internet coverage sites in the area, including towers in Lake Wilson, Slayton and Edgerton. The company plans to add another tower south of Chandler this year.

The towers, which are fed with fiber, provide 50Mbps download speeds at a range of six miles, according to Terry Nelson, Woodstock general manager. The speeds and service can vary, however, as wireless internet can be disrupted by geographical features such as hills, trees and windmills.

“We’ve done wireless in a lot of these areas, but there’s still little pockets that we can’t hit with some of our wireless,” Nelson said. “I would definitely never say the county is 100 percent covered, because it’s not.”

There’s a push for use in the schools

Through a partnership between SDN Communications and the Southwest West Central (SWWC) Service Cooperative, a fiber-based internet service will come to more than 30 school districts in southwest Minnesota, including every public school district in Nobles, Murray, Rock, Cottonwood and Pipestone counties.

Also, AT&T has announced improvements in the area. And Mediacom has announced planned improvement to Gig access in the county, specifically Fulda, Hadley, Slayton, Nicollet County, Lafayette and Saint Peter.

Info on Access:

Speeds % served 2017 % served 2018
25/3 50.47 51.00
100/20 41.65 50.78

The speeds reflect the Minnesota speed goals:

  • 25 Mbps down and 3 up by 2022
  • 100 Mbps down and 20 up by 2026

Current ranking for 100/20 access: 51

Brown County Broadband Profile: Current ranking – 27

I am doing the annual look at broadband in each county – based on maps from the Office of Broadband Development and news gathered from the last year.

Brown County ranking has slipped from 24 to 27 but that is probably more reflective of accelerated growth in other counties than any problem in Brown County. While the growth has been modest, they have seen some increase in coverage of 100/20 access.

They sought state funding in 2017 but didn’t get it; so they are working on improvements.

Info on Access:

Speeds % served 2017 % served 2018
25/3 95.92 96.31
100/20 72.89 73.76

The speeds reflect the Minnesota speed goals:

  • 25 Mbps down and 3 up by 2022
  • 100 Mbps down and 20 up by 2026

Current ranking for 100/20 access: 27

MN Broadband Task Force September meeting: final report is finalized

The Task Force met today. There are some good notes – and discussion on the CAF II auction. Mostly they went over their final report. Here are the recommendations:

Policy Recommendations:

  1. Fund the Office of Broadband Development through the base budget at levels sufficient for it to meet its statutory mandates and create an OBD operating fund to advance and promote programs and projects to promote broadband adoption and use.
  2. Provide on-going biennial funding of the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grants Program at $69.7 million per biennia until the state achieve its broadband speeds goals
  3. Continue to understand the advances in the technology that will drive both the demand for better broadband access and that will enable the delivery if the broadband access to its citizens
  4. Provide direct funding to the DEED for broadband mapping.
  5. Establish a legislative cybersecurity commission, whose scope of work includes: information -sharing between policy-makers, state agencies, and private industry related to Minnesota’s cybersecurity infrastructure, cybersecurity workforce issues and emerging technology to: (a) develop legislative to support and strengthen Minnesota’s cybersecurity infrastructure, and (b) provide input or recommendations related to developing a multi-year strategic plan to secure Minnesota’s IT Environments.
  6. Adequately fund the Telecommunications Access Equity Aid and Regional Library Telecommunications Aid.
  7. Continue a MN Broadband Task Force as a resource to the Governor and the Legislature on the broadband policy with a broad representation of perspectives and experiences, including provider, community business and labor interests.


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Catching up with broadband projects in Mountain Iron/Buhl MN: Cool forest education program, new school equipment and feasibility study

Today we’re in Mountain Iron talking with people about their broadband projects.  They have been part of a project (IRBC) with the Blandin Foundation and IRRRB focused on increasing use of broadband in the area. It was especially fun to hear about a cool project in the school, They have a school forest. Through this program, high school students set up cameras and learned how to develop some programming for younger kids (5th grade) to learn more about forestry. They had some other fun things too – you can read more and see the video below. Continue reading