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One agency says no to Kandiyohi County broadband grant; county hopes USDA and state will still say yes

While the news doesn’t seem to be good for Kandiyohi County in regard to receiving a major broadband grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the county continues to work with Meeker County to get a USDA ReConnect grant. The county is also still waiting for word on the state Border to Border grant.

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The National Telecommunication and Information Administration has not awarded Kandiyohi County with a grant to help pay for a major broadband expansion project. The county hopes to hear better news from the state's Border to Border program and the USDA ReConnect program later this year.
Stock graphic / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — While Kandiyohi County hasn't heard officially from the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, a news release sent out on Feb. 25 has left supporters of the county's broadband expansion efforts disappointed.

"It's not good news," said County Commissioner Corky Berg at Tuesday's Kandiyohi County Board meeting.

According to the news release, Kandiyohi County was not a recipient of the 13 grants awarded by the federal agency. The National Telecommunication and Information Administration gave out $277 million to connect more than 133,000 households to high-speed broadband in 12 states and one territory. The money for the grants had been provided through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Kandiyohi County had hoped to procure the federal grant to pay 88% of a $33 million broadband expansion project in Colfax, Lake Andrew, Norway Lake, Dovre, Mamre, St. Johns and Arctander townships.

"It is a heck of a way to find out we are not a recipient of a grant," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl, who said he left a message with the National Telecommunication and Information Administration but hasn't heard back as of yet.

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While that federal grant has turned out to be a bust, there are still grant opportunities out there. Kandiyohi County is awaiting word on when the application window will open for the next round of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Border to Border broadband grants.

The county plans to apply for 50% of the nearly $10 million needed to complete the broadband expansion project in Dovre, Mamre, St. Johns and Arctander townships. The County Board has already earmarked $1.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to go toward the project, and Federated Telephone will be paying for 25% of the project.

More Broadband coverage:
A cooperative project between Kandiyohi County and Charter Communications will bring broadband to more than 170 rural, unserved homes and small businesses in the county. Charter is investing more than $563,000, and the county has committed nearly $240,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners has approved sending American Rescue Plan Act dollars to another high-speed broadband project, this time in Hawick and Long Lake. Approximately 289 properties will soon have access to fiber-to-the-home broadband, through Vibrant Broadband.
The Willmar City Council gave its Planning and Development staff the OK to continue working with VIBRANT Broadband on a project would bring fiber broadband into the city's Industrial Park. The city could then build off that backbone to offer fiber to homes across the city.

Then there is the newest project opportunity.

Meeker Cooperative Light and Power Association's Vibrant Broadband is in the process of applying for a United States Department of Agriculture ReConnect broadband grant, which would help fund a project that will bring high-speed fiber broadband to portions of nine townships in Meeker County and nine townships in eastern Kandiyohi County.

"I am really excited about this, that you guys are willing to do something like this, this kind of scale of project," said County Commissioner Duane Anderson.

Luke Johnson, of Meeker Cooperative, spoke at Tuesday's County Board meeting to share information about the proposed project and the grant process. The plan is to have the grant application submitted to USDA by the end of this week. It will probably be fall before any award announcement is made.

"It is going to take time, there is no doubt," Johnson said. "It will probably be June, July of next year before we can even start construction."

The delay in hearing back about grant awards is a worry, as most of the projects will also be using American Rescue Plan Act funds that need to be spent by the end of 2024. With the 2022 construction session probably already lost for many of these projects, the clock is ticking.

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"In construction and government, that time goes by really, really fast. We need to make sure we communicated the urgency of that to our legislators," said Commissioner Roger Imdieke.

In an interview with the West Central Tribune on March 2, Kleindl said he hopes the state understands how important it is to get these grants approved, so more broadband projects can be constructed. Kleindl compared expanding broadband into rural areas to the push to bring electricity to rural areas back in the 1930s.

"We need some action," Kleindl said. "Minnesota needs to make this a priority."

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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