People who live out of urban areas enjoy beautiful scenery, quiet solitude, and fresh air. Traditionally, those qualities have come with sacrifice, which includes high-quality Internet access. Now that rural cooperatives are taking the initiative to develop networks, however, rural areas such as northern Minnesota are better served.
In this short video by the PBS and TPT Almanac team, Kaomi Goetz travels “up north” to visit with folks who live beyond the Twin Cities to see how things are changing and how we still need to make improvements.
Minnesota Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, alongside Republican State Representative Pete Stauber recently announced a $1.9 Million grant for broadband deployment in Aitkin County. Two local cooperatives will use the Community Connect grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to deploy fiber optic infrastructure in order to spur economic development, business, telehealth, and educational improvements.
In a press release, Sen. Klobuchar said, "This crucial funding will connect these communities - bringing high speed Internet to even more Minnesotans. We must continue working to expand broadband access in our rural areas, a necessity for our families and businesses.” Sen. Smith commented, "I’m glad to see USDA investing in Aitkin County—including Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe—to ensure rural Minnesotans aren’t left behind in our work to provide affordable and reliable service to everyone.”
The Community Connect grant will allow the partners to expand XStream Fiber to 235 more homes and businesses in Rice River Township, Spaulding Township, and tribal lands in Aitkin County, Minnesota.
MLEC will be in charge of managing billing, marketing, and other subscriber services and CTC will manage network connectivity, Internet backhaul, and backend support. MLEC will also be in charge of handling basic inquiries from...
The Blandin Foundation will be holding its 2019 Broadband Conference in October at Grand View Lodge, Nisswa, Minnesota. This year, the title of the event is “Innovation - Putting Broadband to Work.” The event will start on October 8th and will end on the 10th.
Broadband access today is as varied as communities across Minnesota. Some enjoy a gig, others are working hard for any service, and the rest are somewhere in between. This conference is for all communities, regardless of where they are on the spectrum – because we’ve learned that having broadband isn’t enough. It takes inspiration, encouragement and guidance to reap the full benefits. We’ll be talking about how to make the most of what you’ve got and/or get more.
Join us, along with presenters from local governments, cooperatives, and the private sector such as:
Intelligent Community Forum
Telecommunications and Information Applications, National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA)
PCs for People
The conference will start with a presentation from the Co-founder and Board President of Intelligent Community Forum, John Jung. Jung will discuss examples of effective intelligent community approaches and review best practices.
The event will be filled with panels and presenters that offer the latest in research and practical applications. Panel discussions will include:
Fiber and wireless technologies as complements
Establishing benchmarks to measure progress
Cooperatives' growing role in local deployment
Education, healthcare, and the last mile
Closing the digital divide and panels on cultural awareness training
Join our very own Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative Christopher Mitchell, in his panel "Local Solutions for Globally Competitive Connectivity."
As we wait, destined for disappointment, for the next infrastructure week with hopes of new federal money to expand broadband access, we should reflect on the solutions that have led to communities in the upper Midwest being some of the...
Farming has gone high tech with feathers, high-speed Internet access, and cutting-edge robots. Jack Kilian a University of Minnesota engineering master’s graduate is behind the Poultry Patrol, a robot for managing turkeys and chickens.
Poultry Patrol, Sign of the Future
The Northfield News covered the story on how Kilian designed the autonomous robot to help farmers with both mundane tasks, such as turning bedding, and important jobs, including detecting diseases. The idea for this handy farm robot came out of a Digi Lab project called the Wild Goose Chaser, a robot used to chase geese off of lawns.
Kilian, however, is far more interested in farming and technology. The Red Wing Ignite center awarded the recent engineering grad $12,500 from the Ag Tech Challenge to fund the Poultry Patrol
Better Tech, Better Internet Access
Agriculture is growing and needs sophisticated technology to manage crops and animals, but that tech works more effectively with better communication, such as high-speed Internet access. Kilian told the Northfield News that the next task is figuring out how to improve Internet access in rural Minnesota.
While some areas of the state are seeing better connectivity, the pace of deployment isn't rapid enough to allow many farmers to take advantage of the innovations in agriculture. Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development in the Department of Employment and Economic Development is offering $20 million in funding this fall to help close the rural-urban digital divide.
When utilities, including broadband providers, need to cross railroad rights-of-way to serve customers, some railroad operators have been known to press their advantage. Several states have addressed utility complaints by establishing standardized rates and setting up processes to create a more reasonable and predictable system. Eliminating this obstacle to deployment is another step in bringing broadband to the communities that need it the most.
Often railroads obtained title to real property during 19th century acquisitions as the infrastructure was being built. They want to preserve as much of their authority and title rights as possible and to ensure that they can receive the maximum value for their interest in the land.
For utilities, cost of deployment is a primary concern. When railroads demand unreasonable fees at crossings or drag out negotiations as a delay tactic, they also impinge on a utility’s ability to meet operational deadlines. Safety and engineering integrity can be negatively impacted by difficult negotiations, unreasonable demands, or exorbitant costs.
Different States, Different Stories
Few states have addressed the problem with statutes establishing standard utility fees for railroad right-of-way crossings. David L. Thomas, Managing Member of the strategic utility planning firm Eagle 1 Resources (E1R) has worked with telecommunications companies and other utilities to negotiate railroad crossing arrangements. He's seen that standard crossing fees set down in statute benefit deployment by ending delay and reducing costs and would like to see the trend pass to every state.
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.
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.
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
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...
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.
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...
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.