Minnesota broadband director talks weather and topography challenges, funding strategies

Although Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” it’s not short of geographical constraints when it comes to building broadband.

Bree Maki, director of Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development, shared with Fierce some key deployment challenges, including weather and workforce constraints. Weather is particularly a hurdle for building fiber in the ground, as Minnesota has a limited construction season, similar to states like Alaska.

“We have long winters, and we have to wait for the ground to defrost before we can do the construction season,” Maki said, noting there’s not much time between the start of construction and “when snow really starts flying in the fall and the temperatures drop.”

“Of course, every year is a little different…last week we had some pretty good snowfall, our ground in most areas is still pretty frozen,” she said. Also, Minnesota has different types of topography – lakes, prairies, valleys and more – that impact builds.

Along with construction limitations, Minnesota must cope with getting its hands on “all the fiber and the supplies that go into getting access to everybody as well as the workforce it takes to in order to do the actual deployment,” Maki added.

To boost the broadband workforce, she said her office strives to raise awareness on some of the more technical roles required. But one way Minnesota has “avoided mass workforce issues” is with a deliberate grant management process.

“We try to break them up a couple of times a year to allow for the workforce constraints not to be as a big of an issue,” she said. “Instead of doing, let’s say, one massive grant round where everybody is competing to get the contractors needed. Having these incremental grant rounds helps make the workforce a little bit more manageable throughout the season.”

Funding strategy

Like other states, Minnesota wants to ensure there’s enough dedicated funding to go around for ISPs.“We are getting to the point where the business model does not add up for providers to have 100% of the cost of deployment on them,” Maki said.

Minnesota’s main state funding resource is the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program, established in 2014. Thus far, the program has doled out $230 million to connect over 90,000 Minnesotans, said Maki.

For the 2023 grant round, the state plans to dish out up to $67 million later this spring. The state legislature has proposed $276 million in additional funding for the Border-to-Border program.

In terms of federal dollars, Minnesota is leveraging $30 million from the Capital Projects Fund (CPF) to support its Low-Density Pilot program, which Maki said is similar to the Border-to-Border program “but it allows for some additional cost share percentages, because we know that there is a higher cost at hardest-to-reach areas in the state.”

Another $15 million in CPF funding went towards the state’s Line Extension program.

“If the fiber runs across the street and doesn’t come right to your house, it doesn’t do a lot of good,” said Maki. The program allows individual landowners, residents and businesses to report if a wired broadband service is unavailable at their location. The grant itself would go towards the eligible provider, she added.

As for Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding, the state anticipates it’ll receive around $600 million but that figure is “based on early numbers and speculation.”

Mapping and community-driven broadband

Without naming specific ISPs, Maki touted “every provider that goes through our program is hitting a critical need,” whether they are traditional ISPs, cooperatives or others.

“Communities in general have relationships with different providers. In some areas, [the co-ops and telcos] are the ones leading this because that’s what works best in their community and they stepped up to do that,” she explained, whereas other areas might be more concentrated with incumbent ISPs.

Minnesota’s broadband map provides an overview of providers that have received grants across the state. For instance, the map’s 2023 grant applications filter displays big-name ISPs like Frontier Communications, Lumen Technologies, Charter Communications and TDS Telecom.

The statewide map has a slew of other helpful filters, such as the grant areas that have been built thus far, the number of providers in a particular location as well as areas the state considers unserved (less than 25/3 Mbps) or underserved (at least 25/3 Mbps but less than 100/20 Mbps).

“Our job isn’t to micro-manage who goes where," Maki said. "It’s the communities supporting the providers who are putting the applications in and then we come in and help with the funding."

When it comes to technology priorities, Maki said while her office doesn’t have an explicit preference for a particular technology from a grant-seeking service, “most often fiber is what’s most desired.” But that doesn't leave other options off the table.

“If [fixed wireless providers] can show they can meet the statutory goals, the needs of the community…then that might be a good fit,” she said. However, fixed wireless providers might have trouble deploying in a valley topography, for instance.

Overall, Maki said the state has been pleased with its broadband program and that Minnesota’s model “has been used a great deal as a federal model.” Having an established broadband office helps, as there are some states “that are starting from a different place” in terms of facilitating deployment.

“We’ve been doing this for a while, we have a great program that’s standing up well and we’re excited to get the additional federal resources and are hopeful we can continue to run our Border-to-Border program the way that it has been,” she said. “There are many checks and balances within there, we have great relationships with those who have used our program and [we] are a trusted agency.”