Ground Level Blog

Broadband providers seek $44 million from state fund

Cities, counties, cooperatives and telecommunication companies big and small are seeking more than $44 million in state money to build better broadband networks around rural Minnesota.

That's more than twice the amount approved by the Legislature this year, so by mid-December, state officials expect to determine which of 40 projects will receive money.

All the money must go to projects that will provide high-speed Internet access to areas that have no or poor service, and lawmakers required that organizations seeking the money arrange for at least a 50 percent match of local money as well. The program's goal is to get service to areas that don't seem lucrative enough for private providers.

It's been estimated that about 300,000 Minnesota households lack sufficient Internet access to participate fully in an economy that relies increasingly on the Internet. The so-called Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program would put only a tiny dent in that figure this year's money.

Some of the Internet providers seeking money are big. CenturyLink, for example, is asking for $383,000 to let it provide service to about 1,000 households in the Foley area east of St. Cloud.

Some are small. Halstad Telephone Company in northwestern Minnesota wants $1.65 million to get service to about 250 households.

Some applicants are cities.  Annandale, whose officials have been vocal in their criticism of the service the city's cable and phone companies provide, wants $2.4 million. One is a tribe. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe plan is seeking $136,000 for a project.

Some applicants are old hands at broadband and fiber optics. Federated Telephone Co., which received federal stimulus money several years ago to expand an already robust fiber network, is asking for almost $8 million in two separate projects in Big Stone and Swift counties.

But at least one is new to the game -- R-S Fiber is a cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties formed recently for the sole purpose of bringing fiber service to those areas, particularly to farms. It is seeking $1 million.

Broadband proponents who designed the program originally sought more money, and they expect that the interest shown will be an impetus to seek more from the Legislature this winter. Gov. Mark Dayton's task force on broadband development has suggested that he ask for $200 million this year.

If he does, it will pose an interesting choice for the House of Representatives, now under the control of Republicans who are urging both fiscal tightness and more attention to rural needs.

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