Balaton, Milroy awarded broadband grant funding

MARSHALL — Balaton and Milroy are among the 39 Border-to-Border Broadband Grant recipients in Greater Minnesota announced by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) on Tuesday.

The new round of grants, totaling more than $26 million, is expected to expand high-speed Internet access to 9,973 households, 2,169 businesses and 60 community institutions in Greater Minnesota.

“Broadband is not something just nice to have,” Smith said. “It’s something necessary to participate in the 21st century, just like having electricity. “It’s not fair when almost 20 percent of Greater Minnesota households don’t have the same high-speed Internet connections as their friends and family in the cities. The grants we are announcing today will help level the playing field and expand educational, health and job opportunities for thousands of Minnesotans.”

The state grant dollars are matched by more than $34 million in private and local funds for a total investment of $60,723,146 in broadband infrastructure. The funding — approved during the 2017 legislative session — goes to broadband providers and communities to build out wireline and fixed wireless broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved locations across Minnesota.

“This project fits the intent of the broadband grant program by bringing reliable internet service to a part of our state that has been lacking,” State Rep. Chris Swedzinski said. “High-speed internet no longer is a luxury, but a tool that is necessary to function in many aspects of our society. Congratulations to those who put together this successful grant and I look forward to seeing positive results.”

DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy agreed.

“Access to quality, affordable broadband is a tool that levels the playing field for Minnesotans all across the state,” she said. “This funding, and the private investment leveraged from it, will soon allow even more individuals, communities and businesses the opportunity to access the internet at speeds that meet today’s demands.”

Through the Woodstock Telephone Company, Balaton will benefit from a $413,009 state grant, combined with a local match of just over $1 million. The last mile project will serve 305 underserved households, 28 underserved businesses and six underserved community anchor institutions in the city of Balaton.

In its partnership with the state, Woodstock will improve broadband service levels to 1 Gbps down and 1 Gbps up, exceeding the 2026 state speed goal.

“As we think about the tools in our toolbox in regards to strong economic development, broadband is one of those tools to help level the playing field,” Hardy said. “This program has really done some significant investments throughout the state and we are very, very excited about this new round of grant projects.”

According to Minnesota DEED, Woodstock had received many requests for service in the city of Balaton and is already providing service to a few businesses. Building a fiber to the premise network will improve access to education and healthcare services. It will also increase employment as businesses leverage this new network and telecommuting opportunities become accessible, strengthening and expanding rural community and economic vitality.”

Through Minnesota Valley Telephone Company, Inc. (MVTC), the community of Milroy is the beneficiary of $742,365 in state grant money. With a local match of nearly $1.2 million, the last mile project will serve 256 unserved households and 22 unserved businesses in the Milroy Broadband Project located in both Redwood and Lyon counties in southwest Minnesota. MVTC plans to improve broadband service levels to 1 Gbps down and 1 Gbps up, which will help promote rural economic development and transform — through increased opportunity for home-based business options — education, health care, energy efficiency and public safety.

With the exception of Rock County, the large majority of counties in southwest Minnesota are considered to be unserved areas, which means there is no access to wireline broadband of at least 25M/3M.

The 2017 Border-to-Border projects represent all technologies eligible for the funding: fiber, optic, cable, fixed, wireless and DSL. Internet providers from all regions of the state are also represented.

“There’s a diversity in the types of projects, whether it’s wireless or different technologies,” Hardy said. “It’s very critical to this project to stay up on the technology as we’re investing in those unserved and underserved communities.”

While Minnesota is making strides, the efforts have not yet met the entire demand. Danna MacKenzie, director of Minnesota Office of Broadband Development, said 70 applications were received this year from different geographical locations all over the state. With the funding that was approved by the Minnesota Legislature, only 39 of those could be included as this year’s recipients.

This year marks the fourth year of the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program. Gov. Mark Dayton and Smith have proposed $211 million in funding to expand affordable, reliable broadband internet access in Greater Minnesota since 2014. The Dayton-Smith Administration has secured a total of $85 million in total for broadband infrastructure expansion. This funding expanded reliable and affordable broadband access to 33,852 households, 5,189 businesses and 300 community institutions since 2014, they said.

“We have made important progress, but too many Minnesotans still lack access to the promise of the 21st century,” Smith said. “We must do more to ensure border-to-border high-speed internet access across Minnesota.”

Smith added that she and Dayton will soon be accessing what they can accomplish in the future.

“The governor has the Broadband Task Force charged with thinking about the statewide strategy,” Smith said. “There’s a big plan and we are working hard to fulfill that plan.”

Funding has been the biggest hurdle in the effort so far. The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, a nonpartisan group, recommended $100 million in on-gong biennial funding for the Border-to-Border program. In 2015, the task force determined a total investment of at least $900 million is needed to ensure that all Minnesotans have broadband Internet regardless of where they live.

“After we get the budget forecast, then we’ll make decisions on what the supplemental budget will look like in regards to broadband funding in 2018,” Smith said. “I really can’t say until I see what the numbers are, but broadband is really a priority.”

With the announcement on Tuesday, all 39 projects are now authorized to begin work.

“Typically, the way these projects work, the project planning and ordering of supplies all start now,” Hardy said. “Then when spring conditions permit, the construction phase will begin.”


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