A $5 million boost
LUVERNE -- The Rock County Broadband Alliance will share in $19.4 million in Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) funds to expand Internet fiber and broadband services to unserved and underserved areas within Rock Co...
LUVERNE - The Rock County Broadband Alliance will share in $19.4 million in Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) funds to expand Internet fiber and broadband services to unserved and underserved areas within Rock County.
The funds are the first to be awarded through the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program established by Gov. Mark Dayton in May 2014. Each of the 17 grants awarded will provide up to 50 percent of the cost to develop broadband for improved high-speed Internet across the state.
The RCBA will received the largest grant from DEED, at $5 million, with the agreement that Alliance Communications Cooperative - the company currently providing broadband services in portions of Rock County - will invest $7.85 million in the project. With the grant and matching funds from Alliance, the RCBA will expand broadband connectivity to 1,350 homes, farms, businesses and institutions in Jasper, Beaver Creek, Hardwick and rural areas surrounding Luverne.
In announcing the grants Monday, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and DEED Commissioner Katie Clark-Sieben said the funds will bring needed infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas of the state. In addition to the state grant dollars, more than $25 million in private investments are being made.
“Just like businesses and homes need power and water to function, they need broadband to function,” Smith said. “In today’s economy, broadband isn’t nice - it’s necessary.”
The grant funds specifically target areas in Greater Minnesota, where high-speed Internet access is more expensive. Clark-Sieben said 36 percent of Greater Minnesota homes lack broadband.
“From an economic development perspective, it limits the state from being competitive,” she said. Simply put, businesses without reliable connections can’t participate in the global marketplace, and students who don’t have access to Internet face many challenges.
Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre said the grant, combined with the commitment of Rock County Broadband Alliance, will bring high-speed Internet to nearly all residents of Rock County. Once the fiber is placed and the connections made, he said the only areas of the county that will remain underserved are Kanaranzi Township and a portion of Magnolia Township.
Oldre pointed to three areas that stand to benefit from increased broadband in Rock County - business commerce, communications and health care. From being able to conduct retail transactions online to providing the opportunity for non-traditional students to take college courses online, broadband is a necessity.
Specifically in health care, Oldre said high-speed Internet will allow medical professionals to monitor patients and keep older people in their own home longer.
“We think it’s going to impact all of these facets in Rock County because they’ll be able to have the speed and capacity to meet those needs and do those types of activities,” Oldre said. “I think it’s going to have a huge impact for many years to come.”
The lack of fiber to homes in rural areas of Rock County (Luverne is considered to be fully served by Internet access), was identified as a gap in services, Oldre explained.
“Hopefully this will start to meet the need,” he added. “Our next step will be trying to fill out the rest of the county. We’ve got that area that’s still not going to be served, and we’ll continue to work until we get that done.”
Rock County Commissioner Jody Reisch was one of the commissioners who pressed for expanded broadband services in Rock County.
A senior regional director for a national insurance company, Reisch had to lease office space in Luverne just because the Internet service he had in his home office was so unreliable.
“I could no longer do business out in the country,” Reisch said.
With broadband now planned to come into his area of rural Rock County, Reisch is excited to once again be able to work from home.
“It will be good for other folks in Rock County who telecommunicate,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of different people that work out of their homes - CPAs and farmers - and this will allow us all to have much better connectivity.”
Reisch commended Oldre and Deputy County Administrator Susan Skattum for their efforts to see broadband expanded in Rock County.
“(Oldre) really was a good quarterback in this whole process,” he said. “He also talked to the providers to see who was interested in partnering with Rock County.”
Alliance Communications Cooperative already has fiber in western portions of the county.
The 17 grant awardees were selected from a total of 40 applicants, requesting funds of more than $44 million, said Clark-Sieben. The applications were ranked based on the percentage of unserved and underserved residents, the amount of private match being offered, project readiness, project sustainability, community support, the local economy and availability of technical assistance.
Combined, the awards will help serve 6,095 households, 83 community institutions and 150 businesses in unserved or underserved regions of the state.
While these grants will bring broadband services to many, both Smith and Clark-Sieben were quick to say there is a lot more work yet to be done to bring every household in the state online and up to speed.
“When we launched the state’s first Broadband Grant Program, we sought to meet the needs of the 450,000 Minnesota homes and businesses that lack high-speed broadband access,” said Clark-Sieben. “This is an economic development and quality of life issue that is essential to Minnesota’s ability to compete, and will move us closer to our goal of ensuring all state residents, schools and businesses have access to high-speed Internet.”
Dayton is proposing to invest another $30 million in the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program for 2016.
“We’re very hopeful and excited this program will continue to receive additional funding,” Smith said.
Smith will be in Luverne at 10 a.m. Friday to lead a round-table discussion on broadband with local officials.
A map at www.tinyurl.com/DEEDBroadbandMap shows the location of each project and the amount awarded.