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Kandiyohi County elected officials and leaders air grievances over broadband issues

Members of the EDC's Joint Powers Board and local leaders recently aired their frustrations with private entities and the government when it comes to making sure broadband is available to all households from border to border in Kandiyohi County.

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A meeting of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission's joint powers board provided the opportunity for elected officials and local leaders to air their frustrations about broadband infrastructure within Kandiyohi County communities.
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KANDIYOHI COUNTY — Frustrations about broadband boiled over recently during a meeting of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission 's joint powers board.

Frustrations were also shared during a recent roundtable discussion in Willmar with Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.

The EDC wants to see fiber across the county, providing equal access to all residents, and the EDC’s broadband committee has been working on the issue for a couple of decades, according to Business Development Manager Sarah Swedburg.

Aaron Backman
Aaron Backman
Tribune file photo

The EDC is currently working with cooperatives from neighboring counties to build out the broadband network in order to get fiber to homes everywhere. Two major projects the broadband committee was able to secure will have ribbon-cutting ceremonies in December, according to EDC Executive Director Aaron Backman.

The main frustration among members of the EDC joint powers board is that private entities — which have promised in the past to increase broadband access to rural areas and then not followed through — are suddenly commencing projects during a time when government funding is available due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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This has created problems with the planning of grant-funded, cooperative projects on which the EDC staff and broadband committee are actively working, and has wasted the time and energy of EDC staff and the broadband committee.

The EDC joint powers board is made up of elected officials from the city and the county. Updating his fellow joint powers board members about the progress of border-to-border broadband in the county, Kandiyohi County Commissioner Rollie Nissen noted there is a lot of activity happening for broadband, especially around Nest Lake in New London.

He also noted that additional broadband projects for Arctander, Mamre and Dovre townships have been submitted to Minnesota's Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, which funds the expansion of broadband service to areas of Minnesota that are unserved or underserved.

“We’ve got a good plan, but there’s a lot of people asking for money,” he said.

Another project the broadband committee had been working on that was all ready to go was in Lake Andrew and Norway Lake townships. That work turned out to have been wasted effort with the announcement of a project by TDS.

“TDS came along with a plan and kind of blew that apart, I’ll put it that way,” Nissen said, noting TDS had put out a news release regarding that project.

“We were a little disappointed, for lack of a better term,” Swedburg said, noting she and other Kandiyohi County representatives met with TDS recently. “We kind of really put them in the spotlight and asked them to come to the table with us as a community partner. We really don’t want to spend time, energy and resources pursuing projects in areas that they are already going to be providing adequate service.”

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She noted TDS promised a map and different things, which are not public. Currently, the EDC is working on nondisclosure agreements and other things TDS wants before providing those maps.

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“Really the goal is to serve everybody, but at this point, broadband is such a need that we don’t have the resources to double up. We’re still in communication with them and working on really understanding where those 3,700 homes are so that we can not work against each other,” she added.

“There is, sadly, going to be that person out in the middle of nowhere that is not going to be able to get it,” Nissen said. “That’s part of the problem with all this competition. They pick the low-hanging fruit.”

Nissen recalled TDS receiving a grant a number of years ago to complete broadband projects at Norway Lake, Lake Andrew and other townships along that corridor, but the project never came to fruition.

“What we are hearing today and the conversations that are taking place, are all around the fact of the right of first refusal … these providers get painted into a corner where something is going to happen and they invoke their right of first refusal,” said Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin, also a joint powers board member.

Minnesota statute allows incumbent service providers in a proposed project area to "challenge" a grant application under the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program if the incumbent commits to providing, within 18 months, a level of broadband service that meets state goals.

“The only people that can fix that are the Legislature and the federal partner. … When you have that right of first refusal, you don’t have to do a doggone thing until you’re painted in the corner, and then you can come jumping out as a big savior.”

He noted how the news release from TDS made the business “look really good in the eyes of the people that don’t know,” adding that there will be areas of Kandiyohi County that won’t be served.

Nissen added that the Lake Andrew project was all set to go around five years ago. “It sticks in my mind like it was yesterday,” he commented.

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“It was so disappointing,” added Willmar City Council and joint powers board member Julie Asmus.

Reliable broadband needed for development in rural Minnesota

The frustration during the roundtable discussion with Secretary Simon is that the government continues to drag its feet with addressing the problems that inaccessibility to broadband creates in terms of equity.

Simon noted that the broadband issue is not going away and it’s been talked about a lot at the state Legislature with differing opinions about what to do. Some think the state should wait until the next wave of technology and others say it’s not a role for the state and it should all be private sector investment.

However, he also acknowledged that cities and counties are saying they can’t wait that long. “If you were king or queen for a day and you could wave a magic wand, what would it be?” Simon asked.

Michelle Marotzke, economic development professional with the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission, offered her opinion. “I would take $1.3 billion of the $9.1 billion surplus and fix it and be done,” she said. “It’s low-hanging fruit, and, at the end of the day, this is something we can do — just wipe it out.”

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Increasing access to broadband for residents in rural areas is something that organizations and government entities in Kandiyohi County have been working on for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic helped it become a front-runner in issues to solve across Minnesota and the country.

Marotzke explained how access to broadband could help cultivate economic development in the rural areas of the county, where people want to live and work but do not have the technology to allow them to do so.

Businesses may want to locate into the rural areas of the county, but can’t do so because they don’t have enough internet speed to allow their point of sales systems to work reliably and accurately.

“You mention technology and some are just waiting around for the next one,” Marotzke continued. “Fiber has been around for over 40 years. It is the premium technology.

“ ... Fiber is a solution. Fiber to the premise is ideal,” she said, noting Kandiyohi County has done a good job of supporting broadband efforts.

Jennifer Kotila is a reporter for West Central Tribune of Willmar, Minnesota. She focuses on local government, specifically the City of Willmar, and business.

She can be reached via email at: jkotila@wctrib.com or phone at 320-214-4339.
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