Two crucial rural broadband projects backed by the Rice County Board of Commissioners were among those funded last week through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Border to Border broadband grant program.

In total, 39 projects were funded across the state and will expand internet access to 6,922 businesses, homes, and community anchor institutions statewide. More than $20 million in state investment will be matched by more than $30 million in private dollars.

The investment is much needed, given the state’s goal of achieving universal access to high speed internet by next year, with download speeds of at least 25mbps per second and upload speeds of at least 3mbps per second. According to DEED’s own figures, Minnesota remained well short of its universal broadband goal, at least as of October. According to numbers from Connected Nation, a tech nonprofit, about 7.5% of households do not have internet that meets the state’s 2022 standards.

While meeting even the 2022 standards would be a major achievement, DEED Commissioner Steve Grove emphasized that for many, download speeds of at least 25 mbps per second and upload speeds of at least 3mbps per second are deeply inadequate. However, the state remains more than 12% short of its more robust 2026 goal, which seeks to bring internet with download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second to every household and business.

The larger of two local projects funded is spearheaded by Nuvera, a Prior Lake-based service provider. It will serve 103 unserved and 178 underserved locations in Wheatland and Webster townships in Rice County, as well as portions of Dakota and Scott counties.

One hundred and six of those homes will be in Rice County, which extended $200,000 in CARES Act dollars to the project in October. In total, the $1.2 million project will be funded about on third by DEED and two thirds by local match dollars.

Blue Earth-based service provider BEVCOMM received a bit over $200,000 for its roughly $525,000 project, which will serve approximately 14 unserved and 94 underserved locations in portions of Rice, Waseca, and Steele counties. That project is backed by Rice County’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which extended a $15,000 zero interest loan to the company in September. In addition, the county sent a letter of support for the project to DEED.

County Administrator Sara Folsted said she was surprised to see both projects funded. While both were certainly worthy, she noted that only about half of all project applications are approved — and Rice County has often been overlooked in favor of even more “needy” areas.

“We’ve tried over a number of years to get access to funding, and it hasn’t always been that successful,” she said. “To have two projects get funded this year is really amazing, and shows the momentum we’ve had in achieving access.”

As Grove noted, one factor helping projects like Rice County’s may have been that proposals covering areas already included under the federal government’s recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grants were not eligible for consideration. That’s a point of frustration for Nathan Zacharias and other members of the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition. Zacharias, a lobbyist with the MRBC, noted that it could take until 2027 for some projects to pan out.

“It’s exciting that the federal government is investing this much, and exciting that this company could bring fiber to home, but it will take up to six years,” he said. “That’s incredible to the coalition, that we would make somebody wait that long to get internet.”

Zacharias noted that in many cases, areas included in the RDOF grant already had “shovel ready” projects ready to go through the state grant process. Those projects are on hold as the Federal Communications Commission completes the process of finalizing RDOF grants.

Achieving the goal

While the state may be 85% of the way toward the more robust goal, Grove noted that completing the last portion will be the most difficult and most expensive. However, he said that the commitment is there to achieve that goal.

““This is very much a partnership of the public and private sectors wanting to get this done,” Grove said. “The demand for this program is huge. We are by no means done with this journey.”

The pandemic has only made it more crucial for the state to meet its broadband goals. From telecommuting to telemedicine to online learning, people are utilizing the internet to access services and opportunities at an unprecedented rate.

Before the pandemic hit, only about one in six Americans worked remotely even part of the time. At the pandemic’s peak, that exploded to about half of all Americans according to the Brookings Institute, though that has gone down since. Similarly, schools have relied heavily over the last year on online learning to keep students learning. However, the model has disadvantaged both rural students unable to access the internet and students from families too poor to afford it.

Perhaps the most dramatic shifts took place in the field of healthcare. For years, care providers had resisted any shift away from in-person appointments — but many of those same providers abruptly began providing much of their care through telemedicine.

“The pandemic this past year has made it crystal clear that fast, reliable broadband access is critical for people living in greater Minnesota – for everything from education and health care to business operations and telecommuting,” noted Gov. Tim Walz in a press release.

In Minnesota, nearly all of the RDOF grants were awarded to one company, LTD Broadband. If LTD is able to complete the awarded projects, it would net 100,000 new customers in Minnesota alone and enter into a dizzying array of new markets.

LTD’s long form application, where it will provide much more detailed plans, isn’t even due to the FCC until Feb. 15. However, some advocates are already raising questions as to whether the company will be able to achieve its huge promises.

While LTD currently provides broadband service throughout much of the upper Midwest, it does so through fixed wireless through the air, not fiber optic. It brings limited experience completing fiber-optic installations, which has proven challenging even for experienced providers like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications.

“The reason why rural Minnesota are skeptical of this is they’ve seen several rounds that didn’t bring them real service,” Zacharias said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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