Tag: "minnesota"

Posted July 8, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

The lakes and forests of Aitkin County in northern Minnesota make it an ideal location for a vacation home, but poor connectivity has historically limited days spent at the cabin to weekends and holidays. However, a new partnership between Mille Lacs Energy Cooperative (MLEC) and Consolidated Telecommunications Company (CTC) is making it possible for families to extend their trips up north by connecting lakeside cabins with high-speed Internet access.

The two co-ops are working together to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, XStream Fiber, that will bring fast, reliable broadband access to homes and businesses in MLEC's service territory. MLEC hopes that the improved connectivity will benefit the local economy by encouraging seasonal residents, who make up more than 40 percent of the cooperative's membership, to stay in the region for longer.

Partnership Lands State Grant

According to Stacy Cluff, Technology and Energy Services Manager at MLEC, the electric cooperative had been exploring its options for offering high-speed broadband access for a decade. But it wasn’t until 2016 when MLEC began working with CTC, which had previously partnered with Arrowhead Electric Cooperative on a broadband project, that the XStream Fiber network became a reality.

CTC’s role in the partnership is to provide network connectivity, Internet backhaul, and backend support while MLEC manages billing, marketing, and other subscriber services. The cooperatives coordinate technical support calls, with MLEC handling basic issues itself and pushing higher level problems to CTC. The electric co-op owns all of the fiber infrastructure within its service territory.

logo-xstream-fiber.png The Xstream fiber might not have made it into the ground the $1.76 million Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grant that MLEC received in 2016. The award was the first Border to Border grant...

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Posted July 5, 2019 by lgonzalez

The Office of Broadband Development (OBD) at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) recently released a call for Border to Border Broadband grant applications. The deadline to submit your application is September 13, 2019

This year, the State Legislature has appropriated $20 million in funding for projects located in unserved or underserved communities. As a reminder, Minnesota has established the thresholds as:

Unserved area: households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds of  25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.  

Underserved area: households or businesses do receive service at or above 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps, but lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload.

The OBD has posted a map of the state which allows users to to input addresses and quickly determine if their location qualifies for grant funding. Check it out here

Who Can Apply?

As other states have shaped their broadband grant programs, they’ve looked to Minnesota for guidance. One of the shining characteristics of the Border to Border Broadband Broadband Development program has been the diverse field of eligible applicants. In some states, grants can only go to private sector companies, but Minnesota takes an “all hands on deck” approach. Eligible applicants include:

  • Incorporated businesses or partnerships
  • Political subdivisions
  • Indian tribes
  • Minnesota nonprofit organizations organized under chapter 317A
  • Minnesota cooperative associations organized under chapter 308A or 308B
  • Minnesota limited liability corporations organized under chapter 322B for the purpose of expanding broadband access

Eligible Program Costs and Matching Funds

Applicants can only receive grant funding if they provide matching funds, which can come from any public or private source. The project infrastructure must be able to support minimum symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps.

Costs associated with a project that will be eligible for consideration include those associated with acquisition and installation of middle mile or last mile infrastructure. In addition to project planning, awardees may also apply for grant funding to pay...

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Posted June 4, 2019 by lgonzalez

We regularly share stories about new fiber optic networks from local communities, cooperatives, and even local independent Internet access companies. Once in a while, we like to get an idea of what practical matters affect deployment and this week, we brought Travis Carter on the show to share his experiences. Travis, CEO of US Internet, has been working within the city of Minneapolis as the company deploys a fiber optic network to serve residents, businesses, and other premises.

Travis explains the way the company has changed and describes what it’s been like to go from an ISP that offered fixed wireless to one that also provides fiber optic in a large city. He offers some firsthand knowledge on the permitting process and shares the lessons he city staff have learned in working with a municipal structure. Travis explains how being part of the city’s long term vision for better connectivity has helped cut through some red tape that used to slow down the process.

In addition to working with the city to deploy their infrastructure, Travis and his colleagues at US Internet need to achieve a balance of revenue and investment that keeps the company growing and viable. Christopher and Travis discuss some of the types of decisions that all private firms make, including customer service, hiring practices, and taking on debt.

Learn more about US Internet in episode 194 and episode 301 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-...

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Posted May 3, 2019 by Katie Kienbaum

Last November, we reported on a change to the tax code that is deterring rural telephone and electric cooperatives from leveraging government funding to expand broadband access. We were alerted to the issue by the office of Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig requesting that they remedy the issue and announcing her intention to introduce corrective legislation.

Federal elected officials have introduced such a measure, called the Revitalizing Underdeveloped Rural Areas and Lands (RURAL) Act. Senator Smith together with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1032, in early April, followed by Representatives Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Adrian Smith (R-NE), who introduced a companion bill, H.R. 2147, in the House a few days later. The RURAL Act would ensure that co-ops, which are many rural communities’ only hope for better connectivity, could take full advantage of federal and state funding for broadband networks.

Addressing Legal Ambiguity

As we explained last year, a tax policy change included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act carelessly put rural co-ops at risk of losing their tax-exempt status if they accepted government funding for broadband projects or disaster relief, among other things. Traditionally, these government grants were excluded from the requirement that electric and telephone cooperatives obtain at least 85 percent of their income from members (often referred to as the member income test) to maintain their tax exemption. The 2017 law threatened this precedent by changing the tax code so that “any contribution by any governmental entity or civic group” is now included in a corporation’s gross income. This has made some co-ops hesitant to apply for programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Pilot Program for fear of jeopardizing their...

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Posted March 5, 2019 by lgonzalez

Brent Christensen, Chief Operating Officer of Christensen Communications, came into our Minneapolis office to sit down and have a chat with Christopher this week for podcast 346. Their interview comes a short time after Christopher and several other Institute for Local Self-Reliance staff took a tour of the Christensen Communications facilities.

Brent has an additional role as President and CEO of the Minnesota Telecom Alliance (MTA) a group that advances...

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Posted February 13, 2019 by lgonzalez

 

Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development is currently seeking a Director of their Broadband Office. The closing date to apply for the position is February 22, 2019.

Learn more about the position at the State of Maine’s online posting

According to the announcement on the search, the position will: 

[P]rovide leadership and guidance for Statewide broadband deployment in Maine. This position provides direction to the ConnectME Authority Board, manages staff, provides oversight and coordination of grant funding programs, interacts with public and private sector leaders and management, engineers, attorneys, accountants, construction and financial experts, and the public relating to the mission and implementation of ConnectME initiatives.

Some of the Director’s tasks will be:

  • Monitor emerging technologies on national and industry initiatives and trends in broadband; prepare recommendations and position papers; conduct research and analysis to identify best practices toward broadband adoption and improvements.
  • Research new and existing technologies to ensure that all areas of the State have access to optimum service.
  • Through dedicated website and social media channels, explore all opportunities to engage service providers and existing and potential subscribers on the benefits of broadband.
  • Provide guidance and direction to the Office of Broadband Staff and ConnectME Authority Board.

Read more about the role of the Director of Broadband Office and the qualifications for the position on the state posting.

Work in Minnesota

The Dakota Broadband Board is also seeking to fill a leadership role as they look for an Executive Director. The Board asks that interested individuals submit their application materials by 4 p.m. CST on February 28th.

Read the job announcement.

As part of their position:

Duties include Board administration, budgeting & financial administration, marketing of commercial dark fiber, legal & compliance oversight, contracting and contractor management. The position reports...

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Posted January 4, 2019 by lgonzalez

Ever since the term “5G” came on the scene, the big ISPs have dedicated themselves to expanding hype about what the technology will accomplish, especially in rural areas. In a recent NBC News Signal segment, Dasha Burns took a look at rural and urban connectivity, the digital divide, and considered the demands and limitations of 5G.

She provides a simple explanation for why 5G can only have a limited impact in rural areas. She also touches on some of the issues that create parallels between the situation for people in urban areas who might not have access to 5G when it finally arrives. To address the urban component of digital equity, Burns went to Newark, New Jersey, and met with students who, due to economic limitations, rely on public access to the Internet.

Burns visits rural Minnesota to check out RS Fiber and talks with one of the many local people in the agriculture industry, a crop consultant, that needs high-quality connectivity from the broadband co-op. We get a peek inside the RS Fiber headquarters. For more on the rural Minnesota cooperative, download our 2016 report, RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative.

Check out the 5:25 minute video:

Posted December 20, 2018 by Katie Kienbaum

Even if a local government isn’t ready or able to build its own broadband network, there are still ways they can help bring the benefits of better connectivity to their community. Over the past few years, several counties in Minnesota have partnered with local electric and telephone cooperatives to expand high-quality Internet access as an economic development strategy. In many instances, county governments have offered financial support to the local co-ops, in the form of grants and loans, to connect their rural residents with high-quality fiber networks, often supplementing federal subsidies or statewide Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Development grants.

Projects Across the State

Minnesota counties have taken a variety of approaches when it comes to helping cooperatives finance broadband deployment projects.

Some, such as Cook County in the far northeastern corner of the state, provided grants to local co-ops. Cook County began its partnership with Arrowhead Electric Cooperative back in 2008 when both entities contributed to a broadband feasibility study. At the time, the county suffered from the worst connectivity in the state, and many people still relied on dial-up. In 2010, Arrowhead was awarded a $16.1 million combined grant and loan from the stimulus-funded Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) to build a fiber network in Cook County. The county government offered Arrowhead a $4 million grant for the project, funded by the voters’ reauthorization of a 1 percent sales tax that was due to expire. In return, Arrowhead agreed to provide services such as Internet access to county buildings at no cost.

Yet more local governments have opted to loan money to co-ops to expand broadband access in their county. Both Big Stone County and Swift County chose this route after Federated Telephone Cooperative received a $3.92 million...

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Posted November 9, 2018 by Katie Kienbaum

For many rural Americans, the local electric or telephone cooperative is their best hope for finally obtaining modern-day connectivity. With the support of government funding, rural cooperatives have brought electricity, telephone service, and more recently broadband access to some of the most rugged and sparsely populated places in the country.

However, recent tax code changes might prevent co-ops from connecting more rural communities. Cooperatives could potentially lose their tax exempt status if they accept government grants for broadband expansion and disaster recovery — an unintended yet foreseeable consequence of the Republican “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” passed late last year. In a press release, Senator Tina Smith called attention to the oversight, noting, “This uncertainty has caused cooperatives significant concern and frozen some of their grant applications.”

Who’s Ready for Some Tax Policy?

As nonprofit membership corporations, rural electric and telephone cooperatives are exempted from paying taxes under section 501(c)(12) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). To maintain this tax exempt status, cooperatives must derive at least 85 percent of their income from members (e.g., from selling electricity). This is sometimes referred to as the the member income test or the income source test.

Not all sources of non-member income are included when calculating this percentage. Revenue from utility pole rentals, for instance, is exempted. In the past, rural cooperatives also excluded federal and state grants from the member income test, based on assorted rulings from the Internal Revenue Service (one example is Rev. Rul. 93-16, 1993–1 C.B. 26, which held that a federal grant given to an airport should not be considered income for tax purposes). As long as co-ops treated the government funding as a source of capital, not income, they could accept as much grant money as they wanted without the...

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Posted October 4, 2018 by Katie Kienbaum

A few weeks ago, we wrote about one of the community meetings held by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to address mounting frustrations over poor service from Frontier Communications. Subscribers at the meeting in Wyoming, Minnesota, complained of download speeds as slow as 0.05 Megabits per second (Mbps), outages that lasted for weeks, and unhelpful customer service representatives.

According to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), the small town of Ceylon, Minnesota, has had to deal with even more insulting mistreatment at the hands of the company. Residents of Ceylon say that Frontier never actually finished installing its lines in the town. Instead, Frontier has left them lying in people’s yards and dangling from trees — for as long as three years, by one account.

Frontier’s “Corporate Indifference”

Internet access and telephone providers like Frontier usually bury cables underground or suspend them on utility poles to keep the infrastructure safe. In Ceylon, it appears that Frontier has taken a more lackadaisical approach, resulting in lines snaking through the grass, tied to trees, and even crossing over a propane tank. MPR notes that some people in the town have taken it upon themselves to move Frontier’s cables out of the way of harm, attaching them to posts and fences for fear of accidentally severing the connection.

Ceylon officials had previously requested that Frontier fix the problem, to no effect. At the PUC hearing in Slayton, Minnesota, City Councilmember John Gibeau said that the incomplete network installation represented Frontier’s “corporate indifference” to serving rural subscribers, MPR reports.

A representative from Frontier said the company would visit Ceylon to verify that the lines belong to them and to remedy the situation. But for now, Gibeau has a warning for Frontier: "You don't do that to my town and think you're going to get away with it."

Whatever the reason for the slipshod work, Frontier can’t blame it on lack of funding. As Bill Coleman and his team from the Blandin Foundation...

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