WILLMAR—Local leaders greeted the announcement of broadband grant funds Wednesday with enthusiasm, calling it good news for rural Kandiyohi County.
Two projects in Kandiyohi County made the list of recipients of border-to-border technology infrastructure development grants, announced Wednesday by state officials.
Consolidated Telecommunications Co. will receive $4.94 million to improve high-speed internet services in a rural neighborhood that includes the New London, Spicer and Willmar areas. The grant was the largest to be awarded.
Frontier Communications was awarded $1.02 million to expand broadband access in rural southeastern Kandiyohi County.
All told, the state is providing $34 million for 42 broadband infrastructure grants through its border‑to‑ border technology program. The aim is to make state dollars available to help spur broadband development where it’s needed the most—in unserved and underserved areas of Greater Minnesota. The funding fills in gaps where the private sector is unable to provide cost-effective infrastructure and services.
The boost in access to high-speed internet will be felt across the board, from education to health care to business and industry, with implications for telemedicine, telecommuting, distance learning and more, said Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith in making the announcement Wednesday.
“We are very enthusiastic about this and excited for the direct economic impact this is going to have on Minnesotans everywhere,” she said.
The 42 grants will collectively bring better and faster internet services to more than 16,000 households, more than 2,000 businesses and 71 community institutions.
Shawntera Hardy, Commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the improvements in broadband infrastructure will enable rural Minnesota communities to compete more effectively, both locally and globally.
She called it a leveling of the playing field.
“Broadband is not simply a luxury. It is a critical economic development tool,” she said.
For leaders in Kandiyohi County, word of the grant awards represents important progress toward a long‑sought goal of increasing good access to homes and businesses in areas of the county that remain inadequately served.
“We couldn’t be more pleased,” said Connie Schmoll, business development specialist with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
The EDC, along with county officials and local business leaders, has been pushing for months to improve rural broadband. At public meetings with legislators, story after story was shared about farmers, business owners and families hamstrung by a lack of high-speed internet service.
Those personal experiences appeared to resonate when it came to Consolidated Telecommunications Co.’s grant application, which was submitted in partnership with Kandiyohi County, Schmoll said.
“All those stories were submitted with the grant. The state paid attention,” she said.
The project by Consolidated Telecommunications, set to begin this year, will bring service to 1,438 households, 149 businesses and four community anchor institutions in the north central and northwestern part of the county.
The grant to Frontier will expand high-speed internet to 1,147 households, seven businesses and seven community anchor institutions in the southeastern area of Kandiyohi County. The southern half of the county was identified last year as the most lacking in access to broadband.
The list of grant awards also includes Hiawatha Broadband Communications and RS Fiber, which received $807,966 to bring services to 193 households, 99 businesses and three community anchor institutions in 16 townships in northern and central Renville County.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, issued a statement Wednesday saying he was “thrilled” that Kandiyohi County received funding for two substantial projects.
“Folks in our area need high-speed connection to stay connected with the rest of the world, and these grants will go a long way in bringing broadband to thousands more residents,” he said in his statement.
The two projects in Kandiyohi County will leverage nearly $6 million in additional local matching funds.
State officials said several electrical and telephone cooperatives applies for this latest round of border‑to‑border grants. They said they also saw several communities organize at the grassroots level to urge telecommunication providers to submit applications.
Grant recipients are monitored to ensure they follow through with completing their projects. Of the 31 projects funded through the border-to-border program in 2015 and 2016, 18 are between 95 percent and 100 percent completion and the majority of the rest are between 70 percent and 75 percent completion, according to Danna MacKenzie, executive director of the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development.
“They are all demonstrating successful forward progress,” she said.
Despite a new series of projects ready to move ahead, there’s still work to be done to close the broadband gap in Greater Minnesota, Smith said Wednesday.
Within the next couple of weeks, Gov. Mark Dayton will release a budget proposal that contains more funding for broadband development, she said.
Grantee: Consolidated Telecommunications Co.
Award: $4.94 million
Project area: North central and northwestern Kandiyohi County
Impact: 1,439 households, 149 businesses, 4 community anchor institutions
Local match: $4.94 million pledged by Kandiyohi County
Total project cost: $9.87 million
Grantee: Frontier Communications
Award: $1.02 million
Project area: Southeastern Kandiyohi County
Impact: 1,147 households, 7 businesses, 7 community anchor institutions
Local match: $1.01 million
Total project cost: $2.03 million
Grantee: Hiawatha Broadband Communications and RS Fiber
Project area: Northern and central Renville County
Impact: 193 households, 99 businesses, 3 community anchor institutions
Local match: $1.26 million
Total project cost: $2.07 million
West Central Tribune by Anne Polta