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Southeast Minnesota a model for expanding broadband infrastructure

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar held a call on April 6 with the co-owners of Harmony Telephone Co. and MiEnergy Cooperative. The company has been a leader in the Midwest when it comes to using federal funding to expand broadband infrastructure at a fast pace.

Minnesota is doing better than other states when it comes to rural broadband access, but 16% of households in the state still lack access to broadband at baseline speeds.

"That means about 144,000 households don't have adequate access to the internet," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. "And much of that falls on the shoulders of our rural families."

Klobuchar has heard concerning stories from rural Minnesotans lacking access to quality internet, such as a doctor who relies on the Wi-Fi at McDonald's to access X-rays and records when he's not at the hospital and a student who had to take a biology exam in the parking lot of a liquor store.

But Minnesota is still "ahead of the curve" when it comes to rural broadband access, Klobuchar said, and during a recent meeting of the Commerce Committee, Minnesota kept coming up as a "shining example."

The state's actions are being examined as President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan includes $100 billion for broadband projects across the country.

Klobuchar held a call to discuss efforts to expand internet access on April 6 with the co-owners of Harmony Telephone Co. and MiEnergy Cooperative. Last winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development awarded Harmony Telephone a $2.7 million grant and a $2.7 million loan to construct a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network.

Federal resources to boost broadband capability have been given out in the past to companies who have "not used them correctly," said Klobuchar. She said that's not the case in southeast Minnesota.

"I think sometimes people don't understand how much you do, as small companies, and how you're on the ground and able, if given the resources, to get things done for your subscribers," Klobuchar said to the group.

Harmony Telephone Co. used the USDA funding to connect more than 550 households, a health care center and a community facility spread over 143 square miles in counties bordering southern Minnesota and northern Iowa with high-speed internet access. The company branched off to also create MiBroadband, which provides fixed wireless service to underserved rural areas.

Harmony Telephone Co. announced last fall that it would use a ReConnect grant and a ReConnect loan from the USDA to install a fiber network to connect 1,579 people, 96 farms and 31 businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Howard and Chickasaw counties in Iowa.

According to Jill Huffman, COO of Harmony Telephone Co., the amount of federal funding allows the company to get the most out of its capital investment and "bring broadband infrastructure at a faster pace" than if it were investing only its own money.

But Huffman said there's more work to do after building the right infrastructure.

"Our work does not end with just infrastructure. We need to work with our customers and our members to understand their barriers to adoption," Huffman said. "Whether that's price, understanding the devices and support of applications, which utilize the service and meaning maintaining home Wi-Fi networks, in a secure and operational manner are things that members and customers worry about."

"And our commitment is here to serve them even after the infrastructure is delivered to make sure they get the most out of those broadband connections," Huffman said.

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