WILLMAR — There has been a local, state and national push to expand broadband access into underserved or unserved areas, especially since the pandemic has shown how instrumental it is to have reliable high-speed internet. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, in a visit to Willmar on Friday, joined a roundtable discussion about broadband to hear and learn about how broadband expansion is going in Kandiyohi County.

"I've been coming to Kandiyohi County to talk about broadband for a long time," Smith said. "We all are here because we understand how important broadband is. It is the fundamental infrastructure of the 21st century."

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has been working on broadband issues for many years, first as Minnesota's lieutenant governor and now as a U.S. senator. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has been working on broadband issues for many years, first as Minnesota's lieutenant governor and now as a U.S. senator. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

As the federal government works to expand federal support for broadband, she wants to not only learn about upcoming projects but also hear their concerns and ideas on how to make the process easier.

"How can I be more helpful as we move through this?" Smith asked. "Fundamentally, how can the federal government be a better partner as you do this really, really important work here?"

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High-speed broadband expansion has been a priority of Kandiyohi County for several years. With the opportunities presented due to the federal coronavirus relief funding bills, the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission's broadband committee, along with staff and the County Board, have been working overtime to bring projects forward. Kandiyohi County plans to spend up to 75% of its more than $8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act on broadband projects, and has already committed almost $2 million.

"We are committed to building out broadband in rural Kandiyohi County as quickly as possible to the unserved and underserved," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

Attending a roundtable Friday in Willmar with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith were leaders from Kandiyohi County and its townships, representatives from internet and utility providers and members of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission broadband committee. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
Attending a roundtable Friday in Willmar with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith were leaders from Kandiyohi County and its townships, representatives from internet and utility providers and members of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission broadband committee. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

One such venture is the Federated Fiber project, which will bring fiber high-speed broadband to either four or seven townships in the northwest quadrant of the county, depending on grants. The county has applied for a National Telecommunications and Information Association grant that would fund 88% of an expansion project in Norway Lake, Colfax, Arctander, Lake Andrew, Dovre, Mamre and St. Johns townships. The county is also trying to receive a state Border to Border broadband grant which would fund approximately 50% of the project, but only in Arctander, Mamre, Dovre and St. Johns townships.

Even with grant monies, broadband projects can be expensive. Without the grants, it would be impossible for small townships.

"It represents a very big commitment for the township board. It will take two-thirds of our useable cash to do this project," said Joel Johnson, Mamre Township supervisor. "Without this help, it would not be attainable at all."

A major concern for all who plan to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for state grant matches is whether it will be allowed since the state plans to fund those broadband grants with its own American Rescue Plan Act allocation. Right now there are worries that current statutes — specifically the Stafford Act, which covers how the federal government assists state and local governments after a disaster or emergency — would not allow that.

"If there is not a waiver of that somehow, projects across the country are going to fall apart," said Michelle Marotzke, economic development professional with the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission. "This should be a federal concern."

Another issue facing local projects is the impact of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, which allowed internet service providers to bid on bringing in broadband services into unserved census tracts. Winning bidders are eligible to receive funding. LTD Broadband was the winning bidder for several tracts in Kandiyohi County.

A problem, however, is the state will not provide funding for any projects in those areas. Many townships in Kandiyohi County now face the dilemma of only portions of the townships having access to these county-backed projects, while many other families are stuck waiting on LTD to complete its proposed project, if it ever does.

"It is very inefficient, very stupid. But it is the way it is," said Randy Kveene, St. Johns Township supervisor.

St. Johns Township supervisor Randy Kveene, during a broadband discussion Oct. 22, 2021, in Willmar with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, shares the township's frustration with not being able to offer a Federated Fiber project to all of the its residents because of prior, but uncompleted, claims on certain census tracts. Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, LTD Broadband was the winning bidder to bring service to several tracts in Kandiyohi County. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune
St. Johns Township supervisor Randy Kveene, during a broadband discussion Oct. 22, 2021, in Willmar with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, shares the township's frustration with not being able to offer a Federated Fiber project to all of the its residents because of prior, but uncompleted, claims on certain census tracts. Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, LTD Broadband was the winning bidder to bring service to several tracts in Kandiyohi County. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

Kveene would like the project that is shovel-ready to be able to move forward, regardless if there is another service provider talking about or planning a project.

"First come, first serve. If we get the grant first, they are gone," Kveene said. "If we get the grant, we will be going next year."

The county and township governments want to make sure they bring in the best projects and technology for their residents, to offer the reliable and high-speed internet needed to do so much of today's work.

"What COVID has done, it has emphasized to all of us living in a rural area that we are dependent on the internet not just for streaming of entertainment," but for telehealth, school and work, said Bonnie Watson, Lake Andrew Township clerk. "The need is now. It is absolute. It is fixed, and it is not going to change; it is only going to increase."

Smith said she left the discussion re-energized to work harder on broadband, to make sure these projects move forward and broadband access reaches all who need and want it.

"We've been talking about these issues for a long time. This is figuring out how to put our shoulder into it and really get things moving," Smith said, adding she plans to call the Federal Communications Commission to discuss the concerns raised in Willmar. "See if there are things I can do personally to shake loose some of the inefficiencies that are holding up some really good projects here."