Two Rural Broadband Projects Get Grant Support in Minnesota

Combined, the projects will receive more than $500,000 to expand rural Internet access from a $20 million bucket of state broadband grants.

by Trey Mewes, The Free Press / November 22, 2017

(TNS) –– Two area broadband projects will receive more than $500,000 combined to expand rural internet access.

The funding is a part of $20 million in state broadband grants announced Tuesday.

NU-Telecom will receive about $325,000 to install fiber optics lines south of Hanska. The fiber network will provide internet access for up to nine households and 38 businesses.

BEVCOMM will get about $220,000 for a broadband project near Delavan in Faribault County. That project provides better internet access for up 25 households and 30 businesses.

In both cases, download and upload speeds will run up to 1 GB per second, exceeding state data speed goals over the next decade.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith emphasized the need for broadband access across rural Minnesota as a "basic utility" necessary for state businesses to globally compete.

"It's not something that's nice to have, it's something that is really necessary to participate in the economy of the 21st century," Smith said during a conference call Tuesday.

In total, 39 projects around the state received grant money from the state's Office of Broadband Development. The annual grants address rural broadband access needs across Minnesota, though state officials acknowledged more work needs to be done to help residents in the northern part of the state.

Because there's little to no federal support for rural broadband projects, providers say the state's annual Border-to-Border Broadband Grant program is necessary to offset the high costs of putting broadband in areas with little population density.

"Without this, it would be very very difficult to reach some of these customers," NU-Telecom President and CEO Bill Otis said.

NU-Telecom's latest grant will help finish a yearslong project to connect rural Hanska to a fiber data network. This project will cost more than $700,000 to complete, though NU-Telecom already has secured almost $400,000 to pay for it.

The new network will connect to another broadband project NU-Telecom already completed using similar state funding.

"It pretty well fills out the rural area in that part of Hanska," Otis said.

Minnesota has given out almost $85 million in broadband grants since 2014. This year, 70 projects totaling $50 million in requests were submitted to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Broadband funding has been subject to partisan fighting in recent years. Democrats and Gov. Mark Dayton's administration are advocating for more dollars and expensive technology than what Republicans think is reasonable for the state. The GOP-controlled Legislature approved $20 million in 2017 broadband funding earlier this year — less than a third of the $66 million Dayton requested.

Smith said Dayton's administration will review the state's finances heading into the 2018 legislative session before the governor decides how much to request for broadband next year.

A state broadband task force has advocated for $200 million in broadband funding to jumpstart rural projects across the state, though state officials say it could take $2 billion to $3 billion to fully connect Minnesota households and businesses based on previous estimates.

About 4 out of 5 homes in Greater Minnesota have access to some form of broadband internet, which leaves about 144,000 people without good access. State officials say less than half the population in about 13 out of Minnesota's 87 counties has broadband access that meets state data goals of 25 mbps download speeds and 3 mbps upload speeds.

None of those counties is in south-central Minnesota, though this region has plenty of broadband concerns. Only 53 percent of households in Renville and Sibley counties have access to internet that meets state data goals, according to data from DEED.

About 55 percent of households in Martin County have that kind of access, followed by 65 percent in Watonwan, 71 percent in Le Sueuer, 73 percent in Waseca and 77 percent in Faribault and Blue Earth counties. About 83 percent of Nicollet County households have good broadband access, as does 96 percent of households in Brown County.

©2017 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.