While final word on whether Burke receives a state grant to construct a fiber-to-the-home broadband network is not expected until later this month, City Administrator Kelly Hinnenkamp had some encouraging news to share with the Burke Area Chamber of Commerce last week. Hinnenkamp reported that Burke’s application for grant funds that lists a large majority of the city as “unserved” rather than “underserved” according to speed guidelines, had gone unchallenged by Windstream, the city’s current provider.
In all, 40 applications were submitted in October, and a challenge period was held the following month, closing on Nov. 21. Of the 40 applications, 24 were challenged, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which is administering the grant program. The city is hoping to receive $2.4 million in grant funds to cover half the estimated $4.8 million cost to build the fiber network in Annandale.
How significant is it that more than half of the applications were challenged and that Annandale is largely being considered unserved? A review of the text of the law that created the $20 million state grant fund in the spring of 2014 would say that Annandale’s unserved status is very important, because evaluators were told to give preference to areas that are considered unserved in awarding the grant funds. Hinnenkamp said speed tests have indicated that the city largely does not get the 1 megabyte upload speed that has been set as a benchmark for served or unserved areas.
However, broadband service maps drawn up by Connect Minnesota showed Annandale as underserved at the time of the grant application, because Windstream had reported that it provides the minimum download and upload speeds. The city appealed that status with Connect Minnesota using speed tests as evidence when it submitted its application, which claimed that 1,482 properties were unserved and 109 were underserved. “In Annandale, the way the plant is built, the further you get away from the central office - it’s called the degradation of copper, the infrastructure – the slower the speeds get because they can only deliver so much over that infrastructure,” said Hinnenkamp.
Was she surprised that Windstream didn’t challenge the city’s claim to be largely unserved? “No, I wasn’t expecting one, but we didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Hinnenkamp. “We don’t know why Windstream decided not to challenge it.”
Hinnenkamp voiced the need for continued caution in expectations despite the latest good news. “It’s still in process but the good news so far is that we haven’t been challenged,” she said. “But in the end it’s not like that means anything, because it doesn’t mean we’re getting the grant. It might give us more preference, but it doesn’t mean we’re getting the grant.”
There is reason for optimism, however, in that the Annandale project had the third-highest number of benefitting properties out of those applications that had numbers listed, that it is largely considered an unserved area, and that it is one of just a few public entities that have submitted an application in a field made up mostly of telecommunications providers. Finally, there is reason for optimism in that the story of how poor broadband service has affected Annandale was told often at the state level last spring as the grant program was being crafted. How those seemingly positive signs play into a final decision on the grant remains to be seen.