USDA Reconnect: Harmony Telephone gets $5.4 million (Fillmore County)

I wrote about the USDA Reconnect awards last week, this week I have more info from the Fillmore County Journal on the award in Harmony…

Harmony Telephone Company will use a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 square miles in several counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

“The award will help us build out our fiber infrastructure to rural areas, which will create endless life-changing opportunities for our subscribers,” said Harmony Telephone Company COO Jill Huffman.

Being able to build out fiber infrastructure to rural areas creates opportunities that had been only available to city subscribers.

Huffman gave a few examples of capabilities broadband brings for farmers, small business owners and rural residents in general.

“It can provide added security with real-time video monitoring of property and evaluate equipment performance off-site for farmers,” Huffman explained.

With more at-home businesses, Huffman spoke of broadband being able to level the playing field with their competitors by improving the ways they can connect with business partners, customers and suppliers. It allows telecommuting opportunities for rural residents and children to connect at similar internet speeds as their city classmates.

Ely looks to local provider for next broadband grant opportunity

The Ely Echo reports

The Town of Morse will again try to help improve internet service in the rural areas around Ely.
After the state wouldn’t fund a project involving Frontier, this time the board is looking locally for a possible solution.
The board passed a motion to pursue a grant with Treehouse Broadband, owned by Ely resident Isaac Olson.
“My customers have been very happy with the high quality of service being provided,” Olson told the board on Jan. 11.
Treehouse uses a high-speed line of sight connection to provide 100 megabit service. So far the Ely water tower has been the only location to push the signal from.
Olson said he would like to put together a grant package to put up six towers, up to 100 feet high, in the area to expand where service can be provided.
Supervisor Bob Berrini said there may be county or other public land in areas where towers could be put up.

Olson said he is also looking at private easements where a property owner could host a tower and receive a discount on the cost of broadband.
Olson said he is also going to set up a broadcast point from the Winton water tower as well.
There needs to be electricity at each tower location.
Morse’s previous proposal would have served around Hwy. 88, the Echo Trail, Van Vac Road and Wolf Lake Road.
“What’s been slowing me down is a lack of capital and time to spend on the business,” said Olson, who continues to work from home while getting Treehouse set up.
There is also the education portion to explain that a fiber only approach doesn’t always work. Olson said funding agencies are beginning to look at hybrid wireless/fiber approaches as ways to better serve areas like Ely.
Tower locations would require some planning tools to determine high points, customer locations, line of sight to other towers or the water tower.
Olson said with a clear line of sight the towers can repeat and shoot a signal out four miles.
Supervisor Terry Soderberg gave Olson a copy of the Design Nine Broadband Study that showed four potential tower locations.
The Morse board approved a motion to seek IRRRB and state funding for a joint project with Treehouse Broadband utilizing $100,000 already set aside by the Morse board.

Frontier to file for bankruptcy in March

Bloomberg reports

Frontier Communications Corp., the provider of telecom services in 29 states [including MN], is asking creditors to help craft a turnaround deal that includes filing for bankruptcy by the middle of March, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Company executives including Bernie Han, Frontier’s new chief executive officer, met with creditors and advisers Thursday and told them the company wants to negotiate a pre-packaged agreement before $356 million of debt payments come due March 15, the people said. They asked not to be identified because the meeting was private.

So what does this mean?

A representative for Frontier declined to comment. Such deals typically involve a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would allow the company to keep operating without interruption of telephone and broadband service to its customers.

Broadband Providers missing CAF Milestones in Minnesota

The Benton Institute reports on CenturyLink…

CenturyLink provided the Federal Communications Commission notice that its current year-end data shows it met or exceeded the Connect America Fund Phase II program’s interim broadband deployment milestone in ten states, but, based on preliminary year-end data, it may not have met the CAF Phase II 80 percent interim deployment milestone in 23 states. Additional information coming by March 1, 2020.

And they report on Frontier…

Frontier provided the Federal Communications Commission notice that, based on its current year-end data, it met or exceeded the FCC Connect America Fund Phase II program’s December 31, 2019 interim broadband deployment milestone in 16 states, but, based on preliminary year-end data, it may not have reached the CAF Phase II 80 percent interim deployment milestone in 13 states. More information by March 1, 2020.

And looking at the original CenturyLink and Frontier letters to the FCC Minnesota is on the list of states where they “may not have met” the milestones.

USDA Invests $11 Million in Broadband for Rural Minnesota and Iowa Communities

I already posted details on the CTC project, but here’s the general info on the USDA money coming into Minnesota (and Iowa)…

Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky announced USDA has invested $11 million in three, high-speed broadband infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,395 rural households and nearly 120 businesses throughout several counties in Minnesota and northern Iowa. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “This task of providing rural Americans with broadband is of the highest importance for President Trump and his Administration. We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.”

Harmony Telephone Company will use a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 square miles in several counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

Osage Municipal Utilities (OMU) in northern Iowa will use a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant to provide broadband service to underserved households, farms and businesses in Mitchell County. This will be accomplished by directly accessing a fiber trunk line that runs through the heart of Mitchell, Iowa, and up to the border of Minnesota, allowing OMU to increase its service area bandwidth. The funded service area includes 151 households spread over 20 square miles.

Consolidated Telephone Company (CTC) will use a $5.2 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of up to one gigabit of symmetrical high-speed internet to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in portions of Cherry and Great Scott townships in Minnesota’s famed ‘Iron Range.’ CTC will leverage existing middle-mile infrastructure, in partnership with Northeast Service Cooperative, and require only an additional 157.1 miles of new FTTP construction. The funded service area includes 667 households, two educational facilities and two critical community facilities in St. Louis County.

Background:

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks.

These grants, loans and combination funds enable the federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.

In December 2019, Agriculture Secretary Perdue announced USDA will be making available an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding in 2020. USDA will make available up to $200 million for grants, up to $200 million for 50/50 grant/loan combinations, and up to $200 million for low-interest loans. The application window for this round of funding will open Jan. 31, 2020. Applications for all funding products will be accepted in the same application window, which will close no later than March 16, 2020.

A full description of 2020 ReConnect Pilot Program funding is available on page 67913 of the Dec. 12, 2019, Federal Register (PDF, 336 KB). To learn more about eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force. To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

CTC Receives $5.2 million from USDA to serve Cherry and Great Scott townships on the Iron Range

Big news from CTC for parts of the Iron Range…

Today, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky announced that USDA has invested $11 million in three, high-speed broadband infrastructure projects that will create or improve rural e-Connectivity for more than 1,395 rural households and nearly 120 businesses throughout several counties in Minnesota and northern Iowa. This is one of many funding announcements in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments. CTC was awarded a $5.2 million ReConnect Program grant to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network of up to one gigabit of symmetrical high-speed internet to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in portions of Cherry and Great Scott townships in northeastern Minnesota’s Iron Range area. CTC will leverage existing middle-mile infrastructure, in partnership with Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC), and require only an additional 157.1 miles of new FTTP construction. The funded service area includes 667 households, two educational facilities and two critical community facilities in St. Louis County. CTC will invest $1,743,169 in the project; a 25% match. “We’re thrilled to receive this award,” said Kristi Westbrock, CEO and General Manager at CTC. “Residents and business owners in the Cherry Township area have made it very clear that they need high-speed internet in order to thrive. We look forward to partnering with NESC and to serving this area for years to come.”

As part of this round of funding, Harmony Telephone Company was also awarded a $2.7 million ReConnect Program loan and a $2.7 million ReConnect Program grant, while Osage Municipal Utilities in northern Iowa was awarded a $397,749 ReConnect Program grant. “When Americans are connected to high-speed internet, productivity and prosperity skyrocket,” Censky said. “This task of providing rural Americans with broadband is of the highest importance for President Trump and his Administration. We cannot leave millions of Americans out of the successes of this booming economy simply because they do not have access to the internet.” In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks. More information about the ReConnect Pilot Program is available at http://www.usda.gov/reconnect. CTC is a technology advisor and full service telecommunications company based in Brainerd, MN. Formed in 1952, CTC has grown into a complete communications provider offering telephone, high-speed internet, digital television, and IT services to businesses and individuals throughout central and northern Minnesota. More information about CTC can be found at http://www.goctc.com.

Comcast agrees to pay MN customers $1.14 million in refunds

Minneapolis Star Tribune reports…

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday that it has settled a deceptive advertising practices lawsuit against Comcast/Xfinity that will lead to several million dollars in relief to over 30,000 customers.

The settlement includes $1.14 million in refunds for a 15,600 Minnesota customers and “debt relief” worth “millions of dollars” for another roughly 16,000 former Comcast patrons, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The debt involves early termination fees that Comcast charged customers after they downgraded or canceled services. …

In a statement, Comcast said that the settlement “reflects our ongoing efforts to improve the customer experience. While we disagree with the allegations initially made in the lawsuit — which do not reflect our policies and practices — we agreed to settle because we are committed to partnering with Attorney General Ellison and others who share our commitment to improving the experience of our customers in all respects.”