The following stories have been tagged grant ← Back to All Tags

Get Your Applications Ready For Minnesota's $35 Million

The Land of 10,000 Lakes wants to become The Land of 10,000 Lakes With High-Speed Internet Access. 

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) will begin taking applications for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program on July 22, 2016. The program offers a total of $35 million in funding for projects in unserved and underserved areas. The application submission period closes on October 3, 2016.

The Grant Program

The Border-to-Border program will pay for up to 50 percent of project development costs, awarding a maximum of $5 million per grant. This round of funding sets aside $5 million specifically for underserved areas, and $500,000 will be set aside for areas that contain a significant proportion of low-income households. Officials estimate this year's $35 million in funding will impact an additional 2,000 Minnesotans.

Since May 2014, the Border-to-Border program has provided over $30 million in assistance to over 30 projects throughout Minnesota. This latest funding opportunity brings the total funding up to $65.4 million. It is the largest funding appropriation for the program to date.

Still Not Enough

The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband estimated that Minnesota needs $900 million to $3.2 billion of investment to bring high-speed Internet access to all in the state. The latest funding for the Border-to-Border program, although more than past years, is still not enough. Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith stated:

“Broadband isn’t nice, it’s necessary if we want Minnesota’s economy to work for everyone, everywhere in the state. This new investment will connect businesses to customers, students to learning opportunities, and patients to their doctors. This is an important investment but we have a long way to go...”

Learn more about the Border-to-Border program and our suggestions for how to improve it by downloading our May 2016 policy brief Minnesota's Broadband Grant Program: Getting the Rules Right

To learn more about the program or to apply visit the DEED website here. Applications will be accepted from July 22nd through October 3rd.

Minnesota Broadband Grant Program Gets Funded, Issues Remain

The Minnesota Legislature has just approved $35 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program for fiscal year 2017, the largest annual appropriation in the initiative’s two-year-old history.

But the Legislature’s action still falls short of dramatically helping bring universal, high-speed Internet connectivity to all non-metro Minnesotans. Try to find a Representative or Senator that doesn’t talk about how important rural Internet access is, but compare that list to those who are actually voting for solutions. The Blandin on Broadband website captured a glimpse of this dynamic in a recent post

Nice Gains And Noticeable Failures

The Legislature headed in the right direction this year to increase overall funding for broadband development. But we believe the Legislature’s action, which is moving at a snail’s pace, won’t help thousands of residents and businesses in Minnesota’s non-metro communities hurdle over the connectivity chasm. 

The state’s elected leaders also made changes to the program – some good and some bad – in the way projects are selected and the challenge process. 

Funding Fizzle? 

First, the funding fizzle. In its first two years, the state awarded about $30 million to 31 Border-to-Border projects. But that has been a miniscule appropriation compared with the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband’s estimate that Minnesota’s unmet broadband need is $900 million to $3.2 billion.

And the Legislature’s $35 million funding for the broadband grant program for the upcoming fiscal year seems particularly paltry given that the state has a projected $900 million budget surplus. 

“We are disappointed with the [broadband funding] number and the incredibly restrictive language” on eligibility for grants, said Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, (GMNP), a non-metro economic development group established in 2013 that successfully lobbied for the creation of the Broadband Development Grant program. 

logo-GMNP.png

During the 2016 legislative session, the GMNP supported Gov. Mark Dayton’s recommendation that the broadband program receive $100 million. The DFL-led state Senate favored $85 million for 2016-17 while the Republican controlled House supported spending $15 million. The House wanted to invest far less and argued for keeping most Greater Minnesota Cities ineligible for grant funds. GMNP’s support was contingent on language changes in the statute that would make grant eligibility easier for non-metro cities. 

“Without major reforms to the eligibility for funding we assumed it would be difficult to get to the $100 million that Gov. Dayton and Lt. Gov. [Tina] Smith wanted,” Dorman said in an end-of-the session update website post to his members. 

Language Issues

Second, the ongoing language challenges with the Border-to-Border Program. “With 85 percent of people living in cities not eligible for [Broadband Development Grant] funding, it’s hard to get people excited [about the program],” Dorman told us. The Partnership; a 90 member group of economic development authorities, foundations, cities, nonprofits, businesses, and Chambers of Commerce; maintains the broadband program’s rules and criteria inadvertently harm the very cities that conceived the program. 

Established in 2014, the Broadband Development Grant program was designed to “bring high-speed Internet access to unserved or underserved areas of the state” and help provide opportunities to help existing businesses and attract new ones. The Legislature, in its 2016 legislation, reaffirmed that an unserved area is one where households or businesses lack access to wireline broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC definition of broadband which is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

Because the grant program has focused heavily on unserved areas, it has largely ignored the majority of cities that are “underserved,” those that have some Internet service, albeit poor, Dorman said.

This has created what the Institute for Local Self-Reliance described in our policy paper “Minnesota’s Broadband Program: Getting The Rules Right” as “donut holes,” where a city has much poorer service than its surrounding rural areas.

Our fear is that towns with a moderate level of current business investment could lose that as businesses flock to more rural areas where the Internet infrastructure is better. Other investment would follow and the small cities in Greater Minnesota would find themselves at a disadvantage. It’s an unintended consequence that policy makers need to consider. 

Fortunately, lawmakers listened to the GMNP, the Star Tribune, and us as they established rules for funding this session.

donut.png

In our policy paper, we recommended that the Border-to-Border fund should set some portion – less than half – of its funds aside for applications that would target the underserved population centers and blend them in with nearby unserved areas. Those business and industry centers are the economic heart of many regions and they need modern connectivity for Minnesota to thrive. 

Dorman said one significant victory in the newly-passed state broadband grant law is that $5 million of the $35 million appropriation will be set aside for areas that currently have speeds greater than 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up but less than 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. That $5 million will be available to communities that need better broadband service to boost economic development.  

In a statement to MuniNetworks.org, officials from state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) said:

“Given the increased interest in the [grant] program, we expect to see a very competitive pool of applications this round, and using the results of previous rounds, expect to see over 12,000 homes and businesses served with wired service as well as increased wireless coverage in some areas of the state.” 

"Still," DEED officials admitted, “It is difficult to estimate how many will be left unserved after this round, given that there is private and federal investments also being made across the state. DEED continues to gather data from the providers and federal sources and will have an updated estimate of the gap in July, 2016.”

The federal “investments” are largely from the Connect America Fund, which has is effectively wasting billions of dollars on antiquated DSL service.

Disappointing “Challenge Process”

On the downside, the Partnership was disappointed in a provision in the broadband law pertaining to a “challenge process” that allows a telecom company to stop a project from receiving a grant if that company currently provides or even promises to provide service at the low state speed goals, Dorman said. This legislative language is a slight reform of the previous “right of first refusal” language, which had been included in the House broadband bill.

“This [challenge language] provision in the bill could make it difficult, if not impossible, for projects seeking to upgrade existing broadband service to receive a grant,” Dorman said. “We will have to see how this all plays out.”

Dorman sees the “challenge process” language as a tool protecting telecom companies “that don’t want to invest” in their Internet networks. 

“Any broadband provider in the area can object” to an applicant’s request for grant funding, Dorman said. This is potentially more open-ended than the old language that gave this challenge authority only to incumbent providers in an area, he said.

minnesota-loon_2.png

In a statement, DEED officials told us: 

“The current challenge language was introduced to more accurately reflect the process that is already part of the program and to clarify that it is the state that will determine whether or not a challenge to an application is valid, not a provider.  This process was modeled after a federal system that was used in the distribution of the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] broadband stimulus funds to address the desire to avoid making public investments where private investments are already being made that meet or exceed the goals of the program. The new aspect that has been added to the process is the allowance of near-term construction plans that meet state standards as a valid basis for a challenge. This is to account for the added presence of CAF (Connect America Fund) II investments. Added protections were also introduced so that if construction commitments aren't met as outlined in the challenge, the provider may be barred from issuing future challenges. DEED retains the authority to determine the validity of any challenge.”

Whatever the reasons for the legislative changes, Dorman decried the lack of opportunity for public comment on the “challenge” language.  

“It is a major change from current law and people had very little time to react interpret and comment on the House bill and no opportunity to comment on the agreed-upon language that made it into the final bill.” 

Meanwhile, Dorman blamed industry telecom lobbyists for convincing state lawmakers not to support the language changes sought by Partnership. “This [new Broadband Development Grant law] was written with the help of the [telecommunications] industry," he said. 

Speed Goals Lagging 

In another area, GMNP leaders also believe the state’s connectivity speeds goals are not aggressive enough. Under the law, the state’s goal is that “no later than 2022,” all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to minimum speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up and the minimum service goals in 2026 should be 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

“To say 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps is an acceptable standard is ridiculous,” Dorman told us. “This is equivalent of 1990s dial up service.  We need to step this up.”

That position resonates with us. In our policy paper we said:

“When it comes to its goal, Minnesota should recall the danger of aiming low: you might hit the target. Minnesota should establish a stronger goal and then actually fund the program to achieve it. 100 Mbps symmetrical by 2022 would be both ambitious and worthwhile.”

Moving forward, Dorman said his organization may have to re-evaluate if there is a better and faster way to get high-speed Internet connectivity to greater Minnesota if dramatic improvements don’t come soon to the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program.

Minnesota's Broadband Grant Program: Getting the Rules Right

Publication Date: 
May 12, 2016
Author(s): 
Scott Carlson
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

In its first two years of implementation, the Minnesota Border-to-Border program distributed $30 million to 31 rural Minnesota communities. But the state has not put enough money into the program and needs to put more focus on getting investment in Greater Minnesota cities to spur economic development.

“This funding is essential to greater Minnesota communities that are being left behind,” says Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “The current disbursement is only meeting a fraction of the state’s high-speed Internet needs as it is. The program’s rules must be reconsidered to meet economic development goals for the state.”

"Getting the Rules Right" is a policy brief on the Border-to-Border Broadband program. It covers what the program is, how it works, and why funding must be expanded in order to serve more greater Minnesota communities.

Download the Report here [pdf]

Local Media Covers The MN "Donut Hole" Phenomenon: Video, Editorial

As Minnesota's Legislature decides on funding for the state's Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, local media is calling on state leaders to prioritize local connectivity in the Capitol Chambers. This year, Governor Dayton's office is recommending allocating $100 million to the program.

Blended Is Better

In the past, the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program has granted funding to areas of only the greatest need, which has resulted in Internet infrastructure deployment in very rural areas. That's great for municipalities, businesses, and residents in those areas who certainly need and deserve better connectivity. Towns where there is some coverage, such as old DSL networks, have typically not qualified. As a result, rural areas of the state are developing "donut holes" of inadequate connectivity. In the long term, this could spell disaster for these towns because businesses have no reason to locate in places where they can't get the Internet access they need for operations. A blended approach will allow investment in both unserved areas and areas where some networks already exist so centers of economic activity can still compete with their neighbors.

Chris provides more information on the blended approach, and on one possible solution for rural communities, in this nicely produced video created by Capitol Almanac:

Minnesota Broadband, 2016

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are saying broadband expansion, especially to greater Minnesota, is a priority this session, but there are competing perspectives on how to use any funding the legislature sets aside. In this segment from "Almanac at the Capitol," we hear two takes on how best to get all Minnesota online.

Posted by Almanac on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Star Tribune Agrees

The Minneapolis Star Tribune's Editorial Board recently published their thoughts in Broadband grants deserve priority in Minnesota. Editors at the Strib recognized the necessity of high-quality Internet access for rural Minnesota, suggesting state funding for rural Internet networks be separated into stand-alone legislation rather than lumped into a large omnibus bill. A separate bill would allow constituents to monitor how their elected officials vote on the issue. This is important to Minnesotans and their future.

The Strib Editorial Board also noted that the debate on how the funds are distributed is a critical policy question:

Should state funds be directed at providing connections where they are lacking or boosting service in places where speeds meet the 2010 state standards but are insufficient for today’s commercial, medical and educational needs?

We hope the answer is “both.” Both situations represent a failure of the private marketplace, which justifies state action.(emphasis ours)

Investing in unserved areas and also in areas where there is service but that service is inadequate to meet the needs of local government, businesses, and residents is the blended approach Minnesotans need.

Rural Broadband Expansion Ignores Economic Development Potential in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 190

For years, many rural communities suffered from a broadband donut hole problem - the investment in better-than-dial-up was in the population center, leaving a donut of poor access around it. Now policy to reverse that in places like Minnesota is perversely creating the opposite problem, to the detriment of the entire community.

This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast we welcome back Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former legislator and current small business owner in Greater Minnesota.

We discuss how this problem developed and where we see it happening before our very eyes. Though we focus on Minnesota, this issue is broadly applicable to all states. We also talk about how Comcast lobbyists have cynically manipulated the program to prevent economic development or possible competition, despite the fact that Comcast serves practically no one outside of the metro region.

Lisa Gonzalez and I predicted this problem in our paper from 2014, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Listen to Dan Dorman's last appearance, episode 136.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Steamboat Springs Gets a Grant for Fiber for the Future

Last we checked in with Steamboat Springs they had just finished a connectivity project. Now the community is taking another step to improve local connectivity in this northwest Colorado ski resort town.

The goal is to connect large community anchor institutions throughout town with a fiber backbone which could become the basis for a larger network. Several community anchor institutions have pooled their resources and pledged $748,000 while also securing a matching grant to install 9 miles of fiber across the small town of 12,000. Funding is in place, but the agreement between the institutions must be finalized before sending out an official request for proposals to find a company to install the fiber.

Matching Grants & Community Connectivity

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) intends to match the community’s contributions towards the project. DOLA will provide $748,000 in grant money for the fiber backbone. According to Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan in Steamboat Today, the fiber design will have splice points to allow a private providers to provide last-mile connectivity to residents’ homes and businesses from the fiber backbone.

So far, the large institutions pitching in for the 9 miles of fiber are: Routt County’s public safety complex, Yampa Valley Electric Association, the city of Steamboat Springs Mountain Fire Station, Yampa Valley Medical Center, Colorado Mountain College, and the Steamboat Springs School District. Several of these institutions had previously collaborated with the Northwest Colorado Broadband group and the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association on the community's first connectivity project.

The Carrier Neutral Location

The first publicly owned project in Steamboat Springs was a Carrier Neutral Location (CNL). It's a space owned and maintained by a neutral party where providers can connect to each other to provide redundancy. It's especially useful for middle- and last-mile providers to connect to one another. The facility drives down the cost of bandwidth for community anchor institutions and service providers because they no longer require a separate facility for connections. Put another way, it aggregates the demand for bandwidth and leads to cost-savings.

In Steamboat Springs, the CNL is a room in a school district building. The CNL has allowed local anchor institutions to negotiate tenfold savings. For more information on CNLs, check out our podcast with Tim Miles, the Technology Director at Steamboat Springs and South Routt School Districts.

Voting Matters

In November 2015, citizens opted out of SB152, a state law prohibiting local governments from developing municipal network to improve Internet connectivity. Without that vote, the latest project would not have become a reality due to the state barrier. Now Steamboat Springs has the option to continue developing its infrastructure for high-speed Internet for the whole community, including residents’ homes.

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.

Reedsburg Utility Commission Receives State Grant for Expansion

In April 2015, Wisconsin's Brett Schuppner from the Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) had a conversation with Chris about the utility's plan to expand the municipal fiber network. Funding is one of the biggest challenges but in December, the RUC learned that it a state grant will help move those plans forward.

WisNews recently reported that the RUC applied for $110,000 to bring the triple-play fiber network to Buckhorn Lake in Sauk County. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced on December 11th that the RUC will instead receive $69,300 which will allow the network to extend to an additional 105 homes and 40 properties. From the article:

Schuppner said an informal survey of members of the Buckhorn Property Owners’ Association suggests the utility commission will likely recover its out-of-pocket costs for the project not covered by the grant of about $40,000 from new users in the first year.

RUC began serving the community in 2003, expanding in 2011, and offering gigabit service in 2014. The community is located about 55 miles northwest of Madison and home to approximately 10,000 people.

Ten other entities across the state also received grants. RUC anticipates construction to begin on this expansion early this year.

Maine House Representative Pushes for Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 180

Eleven months ago, we noted the incredible energy in the Maine Legislature around improving Internet access. Maine State Representative Norm Higgins joins us this week for Community Broadband Bits Podcast episode 180.

Rep. Norm Higgins, a newcomer to the Legislature, pushed hard for legislation to encourage municipal open access networks as well as removing barriers to increased investment including a tax on the Three-Ring Binder project. He was part of a large majority that moved some key bills forward despite fierce opposition from Time Warner Cable and others.

We talk with Rep. Higgins about the various bills, including LD 1185, which would have created planning grants for community owned open access networks but passed without any funding.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Self-Financed EC Fiber Continues to Grow - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 177

Carole Monroe is back on Community Broadband Bits for Episode 177 this week, to discuss the East Central Vermont Fiber network and its unique financing model. Carole is now the General Manager for EC Fiber. She previously joined us for episode 36 to discuss Fast Roads in New Hampshire. And we previously discussed EC Fiber with Leslie Nulty in episode 9.

Years later, EC Fiber is approaching 1,200 subscribers in rural Vermont and is growing much more rapidly with some open access dark fiber connections created by the state in a specific effort to enable last mile connectivity.

We discuss the impact on the community, how much people in rural regions desire high quality Internet access rather than slow DSL, and also a brief mention of some progress in New Hampshire to expand the Fast Roads network.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 21 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."