WILLMAR — While the COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of challenges, it has also made a few opportunities. One of those is the sudden rise in funding available for broadband projects, thanks to the American Rescue Plan.

The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners has already decided to focus most of the county's share of the federal funding to broadband, bringing a big lift to the work being done by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission broadband committee.

"They are giving us the opportunities to get the funds we need to make these projects possible," said Connie Schmoll, broadband planner, at Thursday's meeting of the EDC Joint Powers Board.

Large swaths of Kandiyohi County, and the state as a whole, are considered underserved or unserved, meaning properties don't have access to 100 megabits per second download and 20 mbps upload internet speeds. During the pandemic, it became obvious for many that working and learning from home just wasn't possible without high-speed, reliable internet.

Schmoll said she heard stories of parents going into the office, when they should not have done so, because they needed to save whatever internet speed they had at home for the children's distance learning.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"Now is the time" to get these broadband projects done, Schmoll said.

The main focus of the EDC committee is the Federated Telephone fiber broadband project for Dovre, Mamre, St. Johns and Arctander townships. So far, about 681 properties could receive high-speed broadband through fiber if the project is completed.

"This is good news for the people in this area," Schmoll said.

The project is estimated to cost around $9.7 million and funding is coming from a variety of sources. Federated is funding 25% of the project, and each individual property being hooked up to the new service will have to pay around $1,246, based on current cost projections.

The county has already approved two different funding requests for the project. The first was a $25,000 grant, available to any township in the county expanding broadband access. The second pot of money was $1.3 million from the county's American Rescue Plan allocation.

The four townships are also putting the vast majority of their American Rescue Plan funds toward the project.

"This is a wonderful funding plan," Schmoll said.

In addition to American Rescue Plan funds, the broadband committee is also pursuing grants, including a state Border to Border broadband grant and a National Telecommunications and Information Association grant.

For 2021, the Minnesota Legislature has approved $35 million for the Border to Border grant program. The EDC hopes to be awarded half the cost of the four-township project. This will be the only project for which the county is seeking grant funds, and the grant is a must: Without it the project won't be financially feasible.

"It is going to be very competitive," Schmoll said.

Another big funding chance is the National Telecommunications and Information Association grant. If successful, it would fund 88% of not only the four townships in the project, but also three others — Colfax, Lake Andrew and Norway Lake. That would create a $33 million project. Federated has already said it would fund what was left, meaning there would be no money needed from the county or townships.

In addition to the Federated projects, the committee is looking at other projects across the county. At the July 20 meeting of the Kandiyohi County Board, the commissioners approved sending $35,000 in American Rescue Plan funds to a Charter project in the 141st Avenue Northeast area in New London Township. A small project, it would bring services to 37 unserved homes in the area.

A $1 million project, developed by Arvig, could hook up 510 premises in Prinsburg to high-speed internet. Potential funding sources for that project include American Rescue Plan money from both the county and city of Prinsburg, along with $450,000 from Arvig and another $175,000 from a mix of the school, city and residents.

"We are looking at quite a few projects," Schmoll said.