Kandiyohi County Commissioners and state legislators agree on importance of broadband
State Rep. Dave Baker and Sen. Andrew Lang, during a visit to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, agreed with the commissioners on the importance of getting broadband to the rural areas of the county. Both said completing changes to legislation language and grant matches were important priorities for this year’s legislative session.
WILLMAR — At their annual visit to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners , District 17 Senator Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and District 17B Representative Dave Baker, R-Willmar, were on hand to not only give an update on what is happening in St. Paul, but to also take in the concerns and priorities of the board.
"We're here today to listen," Baker said.
The topic the group spent the most time on during Tuesday's meeting was broadband. Since early 2021, the county board has made expanding the reach of high speed broadband a high priority, even pledging up to 75% of its coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan act to the cause.
"This group of people are very committed to broadband," said Connie Schmoll, who has been working on county broadband projects on a contracted basis.
In recent months the state and federal government have also brought broadband forward as a priority, in part due to the pandemic and how it showed the need for high speed internet access across the nation. The federal infrastructure bill includes hundreds of millions of dollars for broadband infrastructure, some of which will come to Minnesota.
"It has become the new rural electric issue. It is infrastructure, it has to happen," said Commissioner Rollie Nissen.
However, not everything is running smoothly in getting broadband projects approved, funded and constructed. Some of the rules and regulations attached to state broadband grants and federal funding are making it difficult for the county to put all the pieces together. Kandiyohi County has its eye on both a federal grant and a state Border to Border grant , but those regulations are slowing the process.
One of the biggest issues still be hashed out is whether both the state and local units of government like Kandiyohi County can use American Rescue Plan act dollars to fund the same broadband project. Kandiyohi County wants to use part of its ARP money to fund the 50% local match required of the state Border to Border broadband grant. However, the state might use its ARP money to pay its half of the project as well, and state law doesn't allow that.
"That would really be helpful, if we would remove some of those barriers applying for those grants," Imdieke said.
The county would also like to see the match local governments are asked to pay when awarded a state broadband grant, presently 50%, to be lowered, to make it easier for more rural areas to participate.
"Everybody needs skin in the game," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl, but asking a low-populated area to cover 50% of an expensive broadband expansion project can be too much of a burden.
Yet another barrier is the inability for the county, when using the state Border to Border program, to be able to extend broadband to areas already within the purview of a private service provider, whether that business provides the service to that area or not. Incumbent first right of refusal means if an unserved or underserved area is within the service area of a private internet provider, that provider can block a Border to Border funded project from moving forward. The county has run into problems with this rule in the past. Kleindl would like to see that rule removed.
Both Baker and Lange agreed that changes needed to be made to the rules. What may have made sense years ago, such as the first right of refusal or the size of grant matches, might no longer work.
"I think it is policy getting in the way," Baker said. "Money isn't the issue."
The county board, Schmoll and others are pushing for those changes to be made quickly, in time for grants to be awarded and projects to be moved forward for construction.
"This needs to happen," Schmoll said. "We can't lose a construction year in Minnesota."