One recurring theme was the status of broadband Internet service and expansion, an issue Ecklund has thoroughly embraced.
“That’s been one of the key things I’ve been working on since I’ve been in the Legislature,” Ecklund said. “Right now, I’ve got a bill for $120 million sitting in Ways and Means (committee) to fund the rural Border-to-Border grant program.”
The bill would allocate $60 million in each of the next two years to fund broadband expansion across the state.
Ecklund addressed the conflict created between state and federal funding options that has diced up townships and other areas of the district into smaller segments that can only be funded by one source or the other, but not both. Nevada-based LTD Broadband, a company with limited broadband experience, won a $312 million federal award under the Trump administration to develop systems for tracts throughout Minnesota. That decision has already had repercussions for Cook, where Paul Bunyan Communication’s original plan for the city had to be scaled back because its state-supported initiative overlapped places awarded to LTD Broadband by the federal government.
“One supplier got the majority of the contract,” Ecklund said, referring to LTD Broadband, “and it’s being looked at. The sad thing about it is that it’s a lot of money, but it’s spread out over a decade. To have big chunks of the state cut out of any other development just because it’s in that funding is terribly unfortunate. We’ve asked for some federal help on this to see if this is what they intended. We have not gotten an answer back.”
Ecklund acknowledged that some areas of the district have good broadband service, while there are other places “where it’s virtually impossible to get a signal.”
“District 3A has got the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds when it comes to broadband,” Ecklund said.
The financing conundrum stands to hit rural townships particularly hard, given that lower numbers of potential users and installation issues make fiber optic broadband systems more costly. Ecklund said he is encouraging counties to use some of the federal relief money coming in to help.
“If they can afford to, (they can) set up a broadband account so that when Township XYZ puts in a proposal with one of the carriers and they have to come up with some money, maybe the county could also help,” Ecklund said. “When there’s more local skin in the game it looks better on the application.”
Ecklund also said that “broadband deserts” aren’t unique to rural areas, as there are numerous service gaps in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
“It is a problem throughout the state and this pandemic has just exacerbated that,” he said.
Mankato Free Press reports…
A majority of area respondents support the Minnesota Legislature’s efforts to spend large amounts of money on broadband projects over the next two years.
Out of 255 total respondents, 202 voters — more than 79% — agree with lawmakers’ efforts to approve at least $120 million on broadband during this legislative session. Only 53 voters opposed the idea.
GOP and DFL senators presented largely similar proposals before a Senate agricultural policy committee last week that would call for $120 to $150 million spent over the next two years on broadband projects, with at least $30 million to $50 million going toward projects in unserved or underserved communities. That amount is largely in line with a House DFL broadband proposal made earlier this year.
The article goes on to mention RDOF and other factors, which have been discussed in the blog before, so I thought hearing from comments might be most interesting for readers here…
“Millions were spent a few years back and now they are asking again,” Jerry Groebner wrote. “I had signed up with one of the new systems a few years ago and after it was up and running, and the owner got his government money, he disappeared and so did the service. I went to a satellite service which costs more but it was great. It was offered by one of the same companies that offer TV satellite service so I believe the service is already available now. Why try to reinvent the wheel? Why do we have satellite service if we don’t use it?”
Sam Hovland said, “I feel like broadband companies were given a ton of money to do this years ago. That being said I am all for getting high speed internet to everyone who wants it.”
Paul Brandon wrote, “When it comes to broadband, we’re a third world country. Putting money into broadband is an investment into what should be a public service that will pay for itself in the long run with greater productivity.”
Barbara Keating wrote, “Adequate internet broadband service is a common good for all. Government assistance for broadband is similar to the ‘New Deal’ Rural Electrification Administration in1935 when 90% of farms lacked electric power. Private power companies declined to serve rural areas so the government helped the developing rural cooperatives.”
We’ve moved on from when most folks didn’t know what broadband was. People know. They see where investment is working and where it is not. They know what they don’t have.
Mankato Free Press posts in an editorial…
Agreement between Republicans and Democrats at the Minnesota Legislature for robust investment in broadband is win-win for rural and outstate Minnesota.
Now we just have to agree how big we should go. Democrats, independents and Republicans favor at least a $120 million investment in broadband projects in Minnesota for the next two years. That is double the $20 million to $30 million annual investments made in the past.
Gov. Tim Walz initially proposed $50 million for one year, but earlier this month, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said the investment would be upped should the state’s financial picture improve. That happened Friday with a new forecast showing the state would have a $1.6 billion surplus for the next two years instead of a $1.3 billion deficit.
That’s good news, and Walz and his team should immediately up their broadband investment to at least the $120 million proposed by Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Tom Bakk, who was once Senate DFL Majority leader and who now is an independent, co-sponsored a bill with the Republican majority in the Senate to fund broadband at $120 million. That was the figure recommended by the Governor’s Broadband Task Force and that’s the reason they proposed that figure, Bakk told MinnPost.
Minnesota also will receive $408 million over six years in federal funding for broadband.
Rural areas have been left behind, and the state now has the funds and political will to greatly expand broadband. It’s not only good political strategy, it’s a good economic strategy.
Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus reports…
On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee heard three bills that provide funding to expand broadband access in underserved and unserved areas of Minnesota through the Border-to-Border Broadband program.
“In 2021, it is hard to imagine there are still places that can’t even get high-speed internet access,” said Sen. Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing). “But unfortunately that is too often the case in Greater Minnesota, and it caused many of those communities to feel additional pain and hardship during the Covid pandemic. This funding will bring this crucial technology to a lot of families and businesses who desperately need it.”
The Border to Border Broadband Fund targets the development of permanent broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas. Minnesota contains large areas of land that fall into the unserved and underserved categories, which shows that this infrastructure is a critical need in our state.
Senate District 21 broadband connectivity by school district:
The Pine Journal posts a letter from Senator Rarick…
On Wednesday, Feb. 24, the Minnesota Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee heard three bills that provide funds for the rural broadband grant program and appropriation for the programs.
I co-authored one of the bills, SF 22, which appropriates $60 million in 2022 and 2023 for the border-to-border broadband fund.
Rural Minnesota has taken the economic and educational brunt of COVID and Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency. Over the last year, we’ve learned of the growing importance of reliable internet as it continues to expand and dominate every facet of life.
The legislation allows us to close some gaps, help unserved areas and ensure more Minnesotans have access to the quality broadband they need to succeed.
Broadband has kept us connected and has kept our economy and lives at least limping along until the pandemic can give way to a return to something resembling normalcy.
So Minnesotans can greet this news from St. Paul during these first days of legislative session with optimism: Lawmakers are working on continued funding to keep pushing internet access deeper into the state’s rural reaches and to keep improving connection speeds everywhere.
They get into the numbers…
Last year, lawmakers allocated $40 million, one of the largest investments in internet access in state history, a reflection of the urgency posed by the pandemic.
“We found out it wasn’t nearly enough,” Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, the broadband bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview last fall with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “There were $79 million worth of requests for projects. So we know there’s more work to do.”
With funding requests only growing, Ecklund this session has introduced a $120 million state investment over two years — $60 million annually. The state’s broadband matching grants program would receive the money and use it to leverage private dollars to reach speed and connectivity goals set statewide. This week, Gov. Tim Walz’s budget proposal included $50 million a year for the biennium for broadband.
Unfortunately, Walz’s budget is for $50 million for one year. That’s an important distinct first because of the obvious difference in amount but also because the MN Broadband Task Force has recommended $60 million per year ($120 million per biennium) on an ongoing basis so that communities and providers have time to plan to invest and build.
Even if Ecklund’s $60 million per year or Walz’s $50 million per year aren’t what wind up approved and allocated this session for broadband, an appropriate dollar figure can be negotiated. Minnesotans can be encouraged that a commitment in St. Paul to improving internet access and connection speeds remains strong on both sides of the aisle. We also can be encouraged that $7 billion has been earmarked for broadband efforts nationwide from federal COVID-19 relief funds. Minneosota certainly stands to receive its share.
“We can’t leave people behind,” Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said in a story in the Mankato, Minnesota, Free Press this week about broadband funding.
Brainerd Dispatch quotes from a recent Duluth New Tribune Editorial to make the case that ubiquitous broadband is more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic and we need legislators to fund better broadband in rural areas…
As the News Tribune has opined, this pandemic is forcing all of us to focus on basics. And if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: Reliable internet is as basic today as indoor plumbing and electricity were a century ago. So, St. Louis County, RAMS, the Minnesota Legislature and other governmental entities can be held accountable for rising above politics and for following through on bolstering broadband.
The Austin Daily Herald posts an editorial from Minnesota Rural Counties’ Dan Larson about the need for better broadband in rural Minnesota. InForum posts a similar letter from Paul Gerde, a Pope County commissioner and chairman of Minnesota Rural Counties …
But that system only works if you have access, and without any clear pandemic end in sight, hundreds of thousands of primarily rural Minnesotans are stuck in digital darkness while the gigabyte world streams by.
We all feel the isolation brought about by social distancing and sheltering in place orders, but those orders hit people harder who are cut-off from work, school and loved ones due to lack of adequate broadband access. With the rural economy already lagging, this is not good news.
Our member counties are on the front-line of the public health, public safety and economic security battle to get a grip on this unprecedented outbreak, and we stand in unified support of the shelter in place directives from the state and federal government. But those directives turned a spotlight on the farms, businesses and homesteads, primarily in rural areas, being left-behind through no fault of their own due to lack of access to high-speed broadband.
He asks the Minnesota Legislature to fund better broadband…
There is a $30 million bipartisan broadband bill waiting for passage at the Legislature, and $50 million in unfunded projects sitting on the sidelines that could work as a much-needed kick-start for the rural economy.
Without taking anything away from the need to mitigate the immediate health and economic impacts of COVID-19, while also recognizing nearly one-in-five rural residents are being asked to shelter in place until further notice with virtually no access to adequate internet service, we urge Governor Walz and state legislative leaders to consider broadband funding as a priority this session and sustain that funding until state speed goals are met.
The Timberjay reports…
We see the headlines all the time. A new broadband initiative, funded by the state or the feds, is investing more taxpayer dollars to lay fiber optic cable to small towns out across rural America. We’ve certainly seen our share of fiber optic cable buried across northeastern Minnesota in recent years— indeed, well over $100 million has been invested in bringing fiber to area communities in just the last few years.
And, still, most residents of our region continue to suffer with the same poor-quality Internet access they’ve had for years.
They look specifically at Orr, Minnesota, where middle mile fiber has been installed but residents are not able to access it. The Timberjay asks how this is possible..
Here’s how: There’s a fundamental disconnect between the promises we hear with each new broadband investment, and the service that actually gets delivered to the end users, whether they’re residential or business customers. The publicly-funded projects that we hear about are enhancing the capacity of what’s known as “the middle mile.” Essentially, these projects provide a solid infrastructure with the “potential” to bring advanced broadband capacity to our communities, but they stop short of actually connecting with the businesses and homes they’re supposed to serve. The final mile of these projects is supposed to be completed by the private sector, companies like Frontier and CenturyLink, who are ostensibly partners on these projects.
These fiber installations are massive public subsidies that we provide to these telecommunications companies, with the supposed understanding that they will then provide a matching private contribution to enhance their switching capacities and upgrade their connections to the end users.
But as we’ve seen, these companies simply aren’t interested in making such investments in our communities. Which means we lay a lot of fiber in the ground that, essentially, serves no purpose.
We see this all the time when government interfaces with the private sector. Unfortunately, the politicians are more than happy to throw money at the problem du jour, but there’s little to no follow-up to make sure that the promises made at the press conference, when the money is approved, are converted to promises delivered six months or a year down the road.
The Citizen Tribune reports that Representative Sandy Layman is optimistic …
The 2018 Minnesota Legislature opens at noon Tuesday, Feb. 20, and Rep. Sandy Layman (R-Cohasset) is optimistic that work between now and session end on May 21 will be off to a good start building off what she believes were big wins last year.
And thinking about broadband…
Personally, Layman wants to put together a bipartisan coalition to leverage more broadband dollars.
“Legislative leaders are hopeful for a budget surplus, but we won’t know with certainty until the forecast comes out later this month. If there is a surplus, broadband expansion in Greater Minnesota is near the top of my list.”
Although the Legislature passed a large bonding bill last year, Layman says 2018 could also be a bonding year. A number of projects from Deer River to Cohasset to Grand Rapids are looking for bonding support.
“I anticipate a good deal of discussion about the size and scope of such a bill,” she added.
Layman expects to be spending most of her weekdays in St. Paul until adjournment in May. For constituents to stay informed of what the Legislature is working on, Layman suggests signing up for weekly session updates at http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/5b.
It’s not a big mention but The Worthington Globe reports…
The Chamber also reiterated its support for more and better workforce housing, child care, early childhood education and broadband.
The Voice of Alexandria (KXRA) recently published an article on the rural take on the legislature…
Last year, the Republican-led Legislature, buoyed by GOP gains in rural areas in the 2016 election, passed some favorable legislation for Greater Minnesota, such as a bonding bill that will pay for public works projects and an increase in funding for the Local Government Aid program. This year, lawmakers will meet for just three months – Feb. 20 to May 21 – with a projected $188 million deficit (based on a November economic forecast) serving as a backdrop.
That hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for legislation that could help the rural economy – at least for organizations that represent rural interests.
They spoke to a few associations and organizations representing rural interests. Growth & Justice listed broadband as a priority…
Meanwhile, a think tank that’s been focused on issues related to the rural economy, Growth & Justice, hopes to build on a list of a dozen priorities it released during last year’s session. Besides a bonding package and child care needs, among other issues, the organization would like to see more broadband expansion and investment in a program that helps to equip workers with enhanced skills for technical jobs.
“We’ve got to be able to hold all of these issues up at the same time and understand how they all interrelate,” said Growth & Justice President Jane Leonard, who joined the organization in January.
And the article notes broadband as a topic to watch…
Broadband expansion: High-speed broadband has expanded into many remote regions, with 87 percent of Minnesotans now having access to high-speed internet, according to state estimates. But the work to connect everyone continues. Last year, the Legislature set aside $20 million for the Border to Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which provides grants to providers for the infrastructure they need to expand their reach. This year, the Greater Minnesota Partnership would like to see at least $50 million for the Border to Border program, with at least half of the money made available to areas that lack access to 2026 state speed goals — 100 megabits down, 20 megabits up. The current federal standard is 25 megabits down, 3 megabits up.
The Post Bulletin outlined broadband grants awarded in Southeast Minnesota. They also got reaction to the grant program from Senator Jeremy Miller…
One of the big questions looking ahead is whether lawmakers will invest more in the state’s Border-to-Border fund during next year’s legislative session. The Legislature approved $20 million for broadband funding this year. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband has recommended $100 million be invested over two years. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton called for a $66 million investment last session.
Demand for the grants is outpacing funding. The state received a total of 70 applications seeking $50 million during the most recent grant cycle.
Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, authored the jobs budget bill that included the $20 million for broadband funding. He said he is a strong supporter of the state’s Border-to-Border broadband program. However, he said lawmakers first need to see the updated budget forecasts to see if there will be extra money available to invest in broadband. Those forecasts project whether the state will have a budget surplus or budget deficit in the coming year.
Miller added, It’s important for folks in rural areas to have high-speed internet access. Times are changing and internet access is more important than ever. So think it’s critically important that we are investing in getting folks that access.”
Former Senator, Matt Schmit asks Minnesota to look to history with the Greater Minnesota Corporation in 1987 and Blandin Foundation in 2003 (to present) for lessons on how to invest in rural area to invest in Minnesota’s future. His editorial was recently posted in MinnPost.
Here’s a brief excerpt…
Whether serving the urban core or rural reaches, through state agency, philanthropy, or public-private partnership, a critical component of the 1987 approach involved the idea of statewide “One Minnesota” capacity building – for local communities, organizations, and collaborations to better understand problems, pursue solutions, and make meaningful change.
As a modern example of model capacity building, consider the decade-plus investment the Blandin Foundation has made through its Broadband Communities Program. Since 2003, over 70 communities and 110 organizations have benefited from focused work establishing local technology goals, measuring broadband access and use, and leveraging technical assistance and resources to drive progress.
Without this planning, preparation, and investment in local capacity, Minnesota’s nation-leading Border-to-Border Broadband competitive grant fund – which was established in 2014 and has since extended the reach of high-speed internet access to approximately 30,000 hard-to-reach homes and businesses – never could have inspired the 150-plus applications the program received through its first three competitive rounds or the high quality of its nearly 75 funded proposals.
And her reminds us to look forward…
While Minnesota faces pronounced but nonetheless familiar geographic differences in culture, politics, and socioeconomic conditions – as well as mounting challenges in access and affordability for such essentials as health care, college and career advancement, broadband utilization, child care and early learning, and workforce and affordable housing — we all have a part to play in promoting constructive dialogue and actionable solutions.
As we embark upon a critical year ahead, in which candidates for governor and Legislature will share their respective ideas for guiding Minnesota’s future, here’s hoping history will inspire a redoubled effort toward investment in a vision for One Minnesota built to succeed for the next 30 years – and beyond.
The New Ulm Journal reports that First Congressional District candidate Vicki Jensen talked up the need for better broadband on a recent visit to New Ulm and surrounding area…
Jensen also spoke on the need for rural economic development, which includes infrastructure improvements like broadband.
“Broadband is the best economic tool we can have for our rural economy,” she said. “We did it with electric and we can do it with broadband. We just need the will to do it.”