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State Grants Provide Broadband to Minnesotans

Southeast Minnesota will has been awarded three state funded grants totaling to $11 million to provide high-speed Internet to many who live rurally.

by Heather J. Carlson, Post-Bulletin / November 23, 2015
Minnesota has awarded a number of broadband grants to finance connectivity enhancement projects throughout the state. Shutterstock

(TNS) -- More than 800 customers in Southeast Minnesota will soon have access to high-speed internet after three local projects won state grant funds.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith announced Friday that $11 million in broadband grants had been awarded to 15 different applicants. Among the big winners was Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC) and Winona County. The Winona-based business teamed up with the county to put forward two grant requests. Both projects got funded.

"Obviously, we're ecstatic that we got the grants," said Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz.

The first project was awarded $247,000 and expands broadband access in Elba and Norton townships, including Whitewater State Park. Once completed, 135 households, 70 businesses and five community anchor institutions will have high-speed internet access. The total project costs more than $773,000 and the rest of that cost will be covered by HBC, according to Fritz.

The second project received more than $314,000 and will fund construction of broadband infrastructure in Witoka and Wilson. That will enable 256 households, 117 businesses and three community anchor institutions to have high-speed internet access. The project's total cost is $973,000. Winona County will contribute $100,000 toward the project's cost. The rest of the money will come from HBC.

Fritz said the county reached out to HBC to help get broadband access to rural parts of the counties that are heavily agricultural or have difficult terrain.

"This will go a long way to helping bring broadband to those locations that aren't typically served by it," Fritz said.

The third Southeast Minnesota project to get funded is in Goodhue. New Ulm Telecom was awarded nearly $116,000 to build broadband infrastructure in Goodhue Township. A total of 24 households, businesses and community institutions will gain high-speed internet access when the project is done. The total project costs more than $244,000 and New Ulm Telecom plans to cover the remaining costs.

Competition for the $11 million in grants was fierce, with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development receiving more than 40 applications totaling $29 million in requests. Red Wing DFL Sen. Matt Schmit said that highlights how great a need there is for broadband funding in the state.

"We're doing the bare minimum so far, and I think it's clear that there's great interest around the state. I think we have to signal that we are going to continue to be committed to this effort," Schmit said.

Last year, the state awarded $20 million in broadband grants. No Southeast Minnesota entities applied for funding that year. Earlier this year, Schmit introduced a bill proposing to spend $100 million on broadband grants over two years. Lawmakers instead whittled the total down to $10 million. The Governor's Task Force on Broadband has recommended lawmakers allocated $200 million to expand broadband. Schmit said he plans to put together a proposal for $100 million to $200 million in additional broadband funding during the 2017 legislative session.

"Many Minnesotans — upwards of 20 percent — are missing out on that access to high-speed internet," Schmit said. "This is the great equalizer in greater Minnesota. It removes barriers of distance and geography and allows folks to compete in the 21st century wherever they live."

©2015 the Post-Bulletin Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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