Fiber optic cable, similar to what Annandale would like to install to serve residents and businesses. Bridget Bennett | MPR News
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Count the 3,200 residents of Annandale, Minn., as particularly interested in the upcoming special legislative session. That’s because one of the bills Gov. Dayton vetoed last week included $10 million for rural broadband.

That isn’t much, as high-speed Internet projects go, half the amount that got spread around the state in 2014. But 20 percent of it was earmarked for Annandale. So the city’s plan to build a fiber-optic network that would serve all residents and 170 businesses didn’t get the funding that seemed likely.

Dayton criticized the legislation for not containing more money for rural broadband, something he has pushed for in the past. But he also was critical of the special provision for Annandale.

“The earmarking of $2 million for one specific broadband project undermines the program’s competitive process and sets a dangerous precedent,” he wrote in explaining his veto of the jobs and energy bill.

Even though they are only 50 miles northwest of the Twin Cities in Wright County, Annandale residents and city officials have been vocal for years about what they consider poor broadband service by the main Internet provider, Windstream.

Speeds are slow and long outages are patience-taxing, they say. Businesses have left town as a result or put up signs telling customers credit card transactions were temporarily unavailable, they say.

Businesses have expressed envy of their counterparts in Monticello, Minn., just down the road, where the city built its own fiber network in competition with local providers.

So in 2014, when the Legislature made $20 million available for projects in underserved and unserved areas around the state, the city put together a plan to build a network. The idea was for the city to build the network and then contract privately for its operation.

Officials were confident of their $2.4 million request to the state but were disappointed when 17 “border-to-border broadband” awards were announced late last year by the state Office of Broadband Development and Annandale was not among them.

So it hired the lobbying firm Flaherty & Hood, flooded the Capitol with visits by officials and got most of the money it wanted included in the final bill this year.

No other project was singled out like that, either this year or last year. The earmark language was in the House bill, not in the Senate bill, but the final jobs and energy bill that emerged from a conference committee at the last minute included it.

Now that the funding has been vetoed, all eyes are on what comes out of the approaching special session, of course. City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp said if the city gets the money, the city council will have to determine how to go ahead with the project. The council has said it would issue bonds for $2.4 million in matching money for the project.

Why didn’t Annandale win an award in 2014 when it seemed to have a strong case? Its proposal would have served more businesses than other projects, for example.

The Office of Broadband Development said Annandale suffered in the state’s evaluation for several reasons:

  • It aimed at a geographic area considered “underserved” when  priority goes to “unserved” areas. That’s a distinction the telecommunications industry pushed for a year ago, making it less likely that established providers would face direct competition.
  • The local match did not exceed 50 percent.
  • The Annandale area isn’t considered very distressed economically.
  • The partner the city chose to work with didn’t appear to have a lot of experience.

Dan Dorman, a former Republican legislator who is now executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, said he thought the biggest obstacle was Annandale’s strong economic development argument wasn’t considered under the state rules.

He thinks the city is a special enough case – a poster child for poor service — to justify the legislative earmark as an economic development project.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development, which oversees the broadband office and which did not support the special earmark, says it’s trying to help Annandale create a stronger application for the next round of funding.

Which leads to the second question: Why, in a session supposedly friendly toward rural interests, did the Legislature agree to spend only $10 million on rural broadband development this year?

Dorman, who thinks the number should be more like $100 million, says the telecommunications industry pushed last year to define the award criteria so remote and expensive projects were favored. That, in Dorman’s mind, made conservative lawmakers this year look at the costs of paying for broadband and squeeze down on the spigot.

But another factor was the strong presence at the Capitol of wireless providers, particularly AT&T. The notion that wireless technology will make hard-wired fiber networks unnecessary gained traction this year, said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, a strong broadband proponent.

“There was skepticism about hard-wired broadband,” Schmit said. “The wireless capacity is tremendous, but at it’s core wireless is going to be a supplement,” incapable of providing the robust service that business and education and other sectors need, he said. “It’s too bad we didn’t step up.”

Schmit, by the way, thinks Annandale has perhaps the strongest case in the state for building a project but would prefer to see it go through the competitive process again, rather than get an earmark.

So when the Legislature meets again soon, the two things to watch regarding broadband are what happens to the Annandale money and whether lawmakers apply more of the surplus to broadband projects generally. Then, down the road if the Annandale earmark is removed, will the broadband office look on it with any friendlier eyes?

Where the water goes in the north and east metro area. Minnesota DNR

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources makes it clear it will consider limiting future groundwater pumping in the north and east part of the Twin Cities.

It’s also promising that it won’t take that step without more rigorous monitoring of wells, review of existing water permits and the creation of a transparent regulation process.

That’s at the heart of a draft plan developed for the North and East Metro Groundwater Management Area Plan and released this week.

The plan is the result of more than a year’s discussion among officials from the DNR, cities, businesses, homeowners and others involved in a groundwater planning process that is new to Minnesota.

The area affected by the plan includes all of Ramsey and Washington counties, southern Anoka County and the part of Hennepin County east of the Mississippi River. It’s one of three places in the state where the DNR is trying to involve local “stakeholders” in appreciating that groundwater — the source of water for most Minnesota households — is a limited resource that is in danger of being pumped at unsustainable levels.

The draft plan will go through review before it is made final. But it lays out the challenge: About 30 billion gallons of water gets pumped out of the ground every year on average, and the amount is expected to increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years. In the meantime, trout streams and wetlands in the area are under pressure, contamination in groundwater is a concern and water levels in most of the observation wells the state uses have been going down.

The draft says there are 259 permitted wells in the area. (A permit is required if you pump more than 10,000 gallons a day or a million gallons a year; homeowners typically do not need a permit for personal-use wells.) Of those, 16 used more than their permits allowed in 2012. For three of the permitted users, in fact, the average amount pumped over five years exceeded the permit level.

Most of the water pumped in the area goes into city water systems, and demand on those systems varies. The draft plan notes that almost half the cities in the area fail to meet a metro area goal that residents demand no more than 75 gallons per day per capita.

The DNR is responsible for the state’s groundwater and for issuing permits to tap it. The draft plan calls for it in the next several years to study lakes and streams more thoroughly and to add three wells to its network of 60 to monitor groundwater levels. It will create a new data system to ensure better public access to water information, and it will determine how much water can be pumped before sustainability is threatened.

“Where needed, (the) DNR will limit current and future appropriations,” the plan says. In the next five years, the DNR will evaluate all the permits it has issued and adjust what is allowed if it finds the pumping threatens the aquifer’s sustainability.

Jason Moeckel, who oversees the groundwater management effort at the DNR, said officials “may find that an amount permitted is more than can be pumped. But that is not the case yet.”

Although the state’s new approach to groundwater management stresses the involvement of lots of people and organizations with a stake in pumping water, Moeckel was clear to say that the DNR maintains ultimate authority.

What the new approach promises, he said, is that all stakeholders will know more about how sustainability is being defined and how the state is moving to maintain the ability to maintain groundwater levels.

Broadband cables. Daniel Roland / AP file

Cities, counties, cooperatives and telecommunication companies big and small are seeking more than $44 million in state money to build better broadband networks around rural Minnesota.

That’s more than twice the amount approved by the Legislature this year, so by mid-December, state officials expect to determine which of 40 projects will receive money.

All the money must go to projects that will provide high-speed Internet access to areas that have no or poor service, and lawmakers required that organizations seeking the money arrange for at least a 50 percent match of local money as well. The program’s goal is to get service to areas that don’t seem lucrative enough for private providers.

It’s been estimated that about 300,000 Minnesota households lack sufficient Internet access to participate fully in an economy that relies increasingly on the Internet. The so-called Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program would put only a tiny dent in that figure this year’s money.

Some of the Internet providers seeking money are big. CenturyLink, for example, is asking for $383,000 to let it provide service to about 1,000 households in the Foley area east of St. Cloud.

Some are small. Halstad Telephone Company in northwestern Minnesota wants $1.65 million to get service to about 250 households.

Some applicants are cities.  Annandale, whose officials have been vocal in their criticism of the service the city’s cable and phone companies provide, wants $2.4 million. One is a tribe. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe plan is seeking $136,000 for a project.

Some applicants are old hands at broadband and fiber optics. Federated Telephone Co., which received federal stimulus money several years ago to expand an already robust fiber network, is asking for almost $8 million in two separate projects in Big Stone and Swift counties.

But at least one is new to the game — R-S Fiber is a cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties formed recently for the sole purpose of bringing fiber service to those areas, particularly to farms. It is seeking $1 million.

Broadband proponents who designed the program originally sought more money, and they expect that the interest shown will be an impetus to seek more from the Legislature this winter. Gov. Mark Dayton’s task force on broadband development has suggested that he ask for $200 million this year.

If he does, it will pose an interesting choice for the House of Representatives, now under the control of Republicans who are urging both fiscal tightness and more attention to rural needs.