WILLMAR—Northern Kandiyohi County has been selected as the preferred area for a broadband expansion project that will be submitted next month for possible state grant funding.
The proposed target area was unveiled Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.
Deciding on a service area is one of the key steps as the county and Consolidated Telephone Co. of Brainerd, the county’s private-sector partner, ready themselves to apply for a share of $35 million through the state’s border-to-border broadband grant program. Applications are due Oct. 3.
Work is still underway to determine the final boundaries of the project area, said Dean Bouta, chairman of the broadband technology committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
“That’s still a little bit in process,” he said Tuesday.
A final draft will come back to the County Board for review later this month, Bouta said.
With Consolidated Telephone as a partner, Kandiyohi County is poised to take aim at one of its most frustratingly persistent infrastructure issues: the lack of adequate broadband service in rural areas of the county.
Farmers, business owners and individuals have testified repeatedly at numerous town halls and legislative listening sessions, describing service that’s slow or nonexistent and the barriers this creates for the county’s rural economy.
As Larry Kleindl, county administrator, summed up recently, rural Kandiyohi County’s future is at stake. “It’s about a way of life,” he said last month.
The proposed service area for the project with Consolidated Telephone involves roughly 1,600 residences and comes with a $10 million price tag. The neighborhoods under consideration include Games and Norway Lake northwest of New London, Monongalia Lake north of New London, Lake Florida west of Spicer and surrounding areas, and a rural tract east of New London that stretches from Minnesota Highway 23 south to Lake Calhoun.
A feasibility study completed this past summer identified the southern half of the county as the least served and most in need of broadband improvements. But under one of the criteria written into the border-to-border grant program, this section of the county has been eliminated from consideration, at least for the current round of grant applications.
Before grant proposals are submitted, applicants are required to notify existing service providers of their intentions—and if an existing provider is contemplating an expansion of its own in that area, an objection can be filed, jeopardizing the chances of receiving a grant.
Two of the providers, CenturyLink and TDS, had no issue with a Consolidated Telephone Co. project in Kandiyohi County, Bouta said. But Frontier, the service provider for most of the southern half of the county, said it was planning service improvements for next year and would object to another provider coming into the area.
That greatly reduced the feasibility of a grant application with southern Kandiyohi County as the project area, Bouta said.
“It looks like it could be highly contested,” he said.
The requirement sparked some frustration from the County Commissioners, who fretted that it could allow current service providers to stall for another year or two while potential customers remain inadequately served.
Legislators need to be made aware of the issue and consider holding the incumbent providers more accountable, said Jim Butterfield. “There’s no teeth,” he said.
Roger Imdieke, chairman of the County Board, also raised concerns about the continued problem of broadband haves and have-nots. Broadband expansion within the defined project area will still exclude many county residents who happen to live just outside the boundary, he said.
“It would be a great disservice,” he said.
Kevin Larson, chief executive of Consolidated Telephone Co., acknowledged the concerns but urged the County Commissioners to not let it stop them.
If better broadband is available to even 300 more homes, “it’s 300 that you didn’t have before,” he said.
The County Board should lobby its legislators to continue supporting the border-to-border broadband grant program and ease the more troublesome provisions, Larson said. “Hopefully we can get some of these rules changed in the future, but we have to start somewhere.”
West Central Tribune by Anne Polta