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.”

CenturyLink will pay nearly $9M in MN overcharge case

MPR News reports…

CenturyLink has agreed to pay nearly $9 million to settle allegations the company overbilled Minnesota customers, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Wednesday.

Ellison said the settlement requires CenturyLink to pay more than $844,000 in refunds to more than 12,000 Minnesota customers who were promised a discount they did not receive. The company will pay an additional $8 million that Ellison’s office will use to distribute refunds to other customers. The settlement also requires the Louisiana-based company to change its billing practices and to disclose the true price of its services at time of sale and in its advertisements.

USTelecom advocates for slower upload broadband speeds for rural subsidies

The Benton Institute reports…

US Telecom — a lobbying group with members including AT&T, Verizon, and Frontier — is fighting against higher Internet speeds in a US subsidy program for rural areas without good broadband access. The Federal Communications Commission’s plan for the next version of its rural-broadband fund sets 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload as the “baseline” tier. Internet service providers seem to be onboard with that baseline level for the planned Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. But the FCC also plans to distribute funding for two higher-speed tiers: namely an “above-baseline” level of 100Mbps down and 20Mbps up, and a “gigabit performance” tier of 1Gbps down and 500Mbps up. It’s the above-baseline tier of 100Mbps/20Mbps that providers object to—they either want the FCC to lower that tier’s upload speeds or create an additional tier that would be faster than baseline but slower than above-baseline. The above-baseline tier’s upload target should be 10Mbps instead of 20Mbps, according to an FCC filing on Dec 23 by USTelecom.

Two groups that represent smaller ISPs urged the FCC to reject calls for slower speeds. NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association and ACA Connects (formerly the American Cable Association) pointed out in a filing that the Connect America Fund Phase II auction already included a 100Mbps/20Mbps tier. “It would be remarkable ‘backsliding’ indeed from the CAF Phase II auction to adopt lesser standards—such as lower upstream speeds or entirely new, lower speed tiers—for an auction that will be conducted at least two years later and will distribute funds into the early 2030s,” NCTA and the ACA wrote. “Rather than closing the digital divide, USTelecom’s proposal will only widen it.”

To put this in Minnesota perspective, the state speeds goals are to get to ubiquitous coverage at speeds of 25/3 by 2022 and to speeds of 100/20 by 2026. And in the first meeting of the latest iteration of the MN Broadband Task Force, members talked about reviewing those speeds goals.

Paul Bunyan Introduces GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 Technology

Fun news from Paul Bunyan Communications

The world’s most powerful Wi-Fi is now available locally, Paul Bunyan Communications announced today.  GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 technology is now available to all locations within the GigaZone.

GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi leverages the all-fiber optic network of the GigaZone to deliver gigabit speeds wirelessly throughout a home or business with coverage up to 3x greater than Wi-Fi 5.  The GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi 6 router also provides increased data capacity and significant improvements in latency – up to 75% lower for gaming and video streaming.

“Our cooperative leads the way when bringing the latest in communication technology to the region and we are proud to be the first to offer Wi-Fi 6 technology to our customers.  We can all see that the number of internet connected devices in our homes is increasing and it’s important that our membership has the very best broadband experience possible.  GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi is faster, stronger, and includes more security features than ever before,” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

In addition to the increased speed, security, and coverage, GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi also provides peace of mind.  The cooperative installs and maintains the GigaZone Blast router and our local technical support team is right here to help keep it working worry free throughout the year.

As the Internet provider with the largest and fastest all-fiber optic network in the region, our cooperative is providing wired Internet service at very high speed.  That speed, however, can be dramatically impacted by a wireless router. Older routers may not be able to handle the higher speed Internet you are receiving.  GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi ensures you are getting the best possible wireless connections in your home or business.

“Wi-Fi technology has evolved rapidly and not only will Wi-Fi 6 technology provide more speed and reach farther but it also improves performance when there are multiple devices connected to the network” said Leo Anderson Jr., Paul Bunyan Communications Technology Experience Manager. “Even better for our membership, it’s low cost.  You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a router to get the best Wi-Fi available!”

GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi with Wi-Fi 6 can be added to GigaZone Internet service for only $5 per month and all new GigaZone customers can get GigaZone Blast Wi-Fi free for the first 6 months.

I wanted to add a quick note that WiFi 6 is unrelated to 5G. WiFi 6 relates to the network you might have in your house stemming from the broadband connection to your home (or business). 5G is a cellular network; it is the network your phone might automatically pick up to work, as opposed to times when you might sign into a WiFi network – like on a plane or at a conference.

Probably you knew that – but sometimes it gets confusing.

CenturyLink upgrades broadband services around Pipestone County MN

Pipestone Star reports…

CenturyLink has been installing fiber-optic cable around the city of Pipestone as part of a broadband upgrade that includes the installation of 25 fiber nodes throughout the community.

Some of those nodes have already been turned up.

The company currently offers DSL internet service with maximum advertised speed of 40 megabits per second (Mbps) downloading, and 2 Mbps uploading.

With the upgrades, fiber-optic service will be offered at 100 Mbps downloading, 10 Mbps uploading. State statutory goals are that all Minnesota businesses and homes will have access to high-speed broadband that provides minimum download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps by 2022. No later than 2026, those speeds increase to 100 Mbps downloading and 20 Mbps uploading.

CenturyLink is advertising prices of $49 per month for up to 100 Mbps. The fiber-optic speeds are believed to extend about a mile from a node, with lower speeds beyond that up to 2.5 miles.

They report that speeds are different throughout the county…

All of these options are available in varying degrees throughout Pipestone County. The fastest of these is fiber-optic but it’s also the most expensive to install. Woodstock Communications recently completed a fiber-optic upgrade that offers speeds in parts of Pipestone County of 1,000 Mbps up and down (or 1 gigabit per second up and down).

Companies like Woodstock Communications and CenturyLink have used the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program to help build broadband infrastructure into unserved and underserved areas of the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. In this year’s 2019 legislative session, $20 million was appropriated for each of the next two years and is accessed by companies through competitive grant rounds that provide up to 50 percent of a project’s infrastructure costs to a maximum of $5 million.