Kandiyohi County Commissioners sign letters of support for three broadband grant applications
At Tuesday's Kandiyohi County Board meeting, the commissioners approved submitting three letters of support toward three broadband projects hoping to be awarded state Border-to-Border grant funds. An update on projects was also given at the meeting.
WILLMAR — It took much longer than anyone wanted, but applications for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program through the state Department of Employment and Economic Development are finally being accepted. By the due date of Thursday, at least three of those applications will be coming from Kandiyohi County.
High-speed broadband expansion has been a priority of Kandiyohi County for years, but it gained even more traction during the coronavirus pandemic, when working from home, distance learning and lockdowns showed just how important reliable internet access really is.
While some areas of the county have access to high-speed broadband, others are considered underserved or unserved. It is those areas the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission's Broadband Committee along with the Kandiyohi County Board and other partners have been focusing on.
"There is so much need and we saw it during the pandemic," said County Commissioner Steve Gardner at Tuesday's board meeting. He considers broadband expansion to be the rural electrification of today.
When the county received its more than $8 million in American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus relief funds, the board made the commitment to earmark around 75% of those monies for broadband. So far, the board has approved allocations to several projects across the county.
"We have had a lot of interest and a lot of opportunities to get broadband deployed into the county," said Mark Boeschen, chairperson of the EDC Broadband Committee.
At Tuesday's meeting of the County Board, the commissioners approved signing and sending three letters of support to DEED for three different broadband projects. Border-to-Border awards grants of up to $5 million or 50% of the project cost, whichever is less. This year, there is approximately $95 million in funds available, thanks to an influx of cash from both the state's general fund and from the federal government.
The county's primary project, which is made clear in the letters of support, is the Kandiyohi County West project, that would bring fiber broadband to 645 locations in Dovre, Mamre, St. Johns and Arctander townships. The project is estimated to cost more than $9.8 million, and the EDC Broadband Committee is asking for $4.5 million from the DEED program.
"We are asking for that full 50%," said Sarah Swedburg, business development manager with the EDC. "We need every penny that the state can give us."
A public hearing for residents and businesses within the project area to learn more about this plan is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 15 in the lower level conference room at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building in Willmar.
Two other projects, headed by broadband providers, also received letters of support from the board.
Charter is working on a project that would bring broadband to 347 locations in the unserved and underserved portion of New London Township and in small areas of Irving, Burbank and Lake Andrew townships.
The second project is from Frontier, which if constructed would bring broadband to 450 locations in an areas from Blomkest to Svea, Lake Liliian, southwest Atwater, south Diamond Lake and some properties north of Atwater.
"They are not looking for any money; they are just asking for letters of support," Boeschen said.
There was some board concern about having more than one project submitting an application to the grant program. Boeschen said the Broadband Committee has spoken to the state on that specific issue.
"It is not going to hurt to send three letters of support as long as you indicate your primary project," Boeschen said.
While the county has been waiting for the opportunity to apply to the Border-to-Border program to help fund the Kandiyohi County West project, work has continued on several other broadband projects.
There are projects either completed or under construction in the areas of Hawick, Prinsburg, New London Township, the Riverwood neighborhood near New London and the Long Lake neighborhood north of Willmar. All totaled, 672 new locations will have access to high-speed broadband by the end of the year that didn't when the year began.
"That is a great accomplishment for us," Boeschen said.
The committee is also working out the final details on a new project in Lake Andrew and Colfax townships, which would serve 967 properties. It is a venture with Mediacom and is new to the committee's list of projects. More information will be coming to the board at an upcoming meeting.
"This just came up in the last week and a half," Boeschen said. "That is a nice, good project around that area."
Still waiting in the wings is the massive Vibrant Wireless project, which would bring broadband to 2,084 locations in Roseville, Burbank, Irving, Harrison, Gennessee, Fahlun, Lake Elizabeth and East Lake Lillian townships. An application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture ReConnect grant has been submitted, but no award announcements have been made. That project will need the grant to move forward.
"We are certainly gaining traction and making some really good progress and I think we are going to continue going in that direction," said Commissioner Corky Berg, who also thanked all who have been involved.
It is important to get these projects moving, since supply chain issues could hold up construction. Boeschen said one provider is expecting a 13-month lead time on fiber, and many of the project agreements stipulate the projects need to be completed within two years. Adding to that, once the state makes the Border-to-Border decision, another estimated $180 million in projects will be trying to get equipment and material.
"Our committee has tried to move these projects quickly, so we get in the front of the line," Boeschen said. "Supply is going to get tight. The quicker we move, the better off we will be in this county."