ST. PAUL — Minnesota utility regulators on Thursday, April 16 agreed that their federal counterparts should be the ones to have jurisdiction over the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's community-owned broadband company.
The band had earlier pushed for federal oversight in filings with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Members of the commission unanimously ruled in the band's favor during an online meeting Thursday morning, April 16.
The band envisioned its high-speed fiber-optic network as stepping in for the private companies that had done little to expand service in the Fond du Lac reservation in northern Minnesota. Approximately 80% of the reservation does not have access to even low-speed internet, according to PUC filings.
Completed in 2019, the $12 million system provides broadband service not only to the reservation but to three small parcels of land just outside its borders. With their decision Thursday, commissioners declined to exercise jurisdiction over those three areas as well.
Two of them are uninhabited, broadband project engineer Lyle MacVey said Thursday, and the third is home to only three households.
"There is no compelling reason the commission should exercise jurisdiction over those parcels," Commissioner Valerie Means said.
Attorneys for the band have argued that its broadband company, Fond du Lac Communications, should answer to the Federal Communications Commission on the basis of tribal sovereignty. Reservation officials have sought to deal directly with the FCC in their efforts to secure an "eligible telecommunications carrier" designation for the company, something the MPUC normally grants.
Doing so would open up the company to a stream of federal funding through the Lifeline, a benefit program that helps qualifying low-income households to save on their monthly phone and internet bills. Officials say the program could be crucial for the more than 20% of reservation households that fall below the poverty line.
While the program typically provides subscribers with discounts of up to $9.25 a month, those on tribal lands can save as much as $34.25. Only about 50,300 households use Lifeline in Minnesota, according to the most recent PUC data from 2018
It is unclear when or if the band expects its petition for Lifeline eligibility to be approved by the FCC. A spokesperson declined to comment.
Attorneys representing the band in utility proceedings did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The FCC could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.