North Dakota is Expanding Broadband's Reach with Capital Projects Fund

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Digital Beat

North Dakota is Expanding Broadband's Reach with Capital Projects Fund

North Dakota is the 19th largest state in terms of land area with more than 70,000 square miles yet is the 3rd smallest in terms of population with fewer than 800,000 residents. In too many rural areas of the U.S., residents struggle to get connected because commercial telecommunications providers are unable to recoup the cost of building infrastructure. But North Dakota has a history of urging providers to aggressively pursue federal funding opportunities. With support from the federal Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, North Dakota is poised to extend broadband to 40% of the locations in the state still lacking high-speed internet access.

The Digital Divide in North Dakota

Perhaps surprisingly, US News and World Report ranked North Dakota #2 for internet access in 2019. estimated that over 75% of North Dakota citizens already had access to Gigabit broadband, a service delivered in more than 325 communities. 

But different data shed a different light on the state.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, broadband is available to at least 95% of residents in 27 of North Dakota's 53 counties. But, according to Microsoft, no more than 41% of households actually have high-speed access in 27 counties. For example, in Ramsey County, 100% of households could get broadband, but 33% actually had it in 2021. And, according to the White House, 7% of residents don't have access to adequate broadband infrastructure and 56.7% live in areas that have only one internet provider. 

The proportions of North Dakota households that have high-speed access vary widely: In Golden Valley County, it's just 8%; in Divide County, it's 16%; and in Burke County, it's 18%. Leading the state are McKenzie County with 79%, Mercer County with 75% and Dunn County with 65%. Among North Dakota's wealthiest counties: 28% of Billings County has access, 60% of Williams County has access and 79% of McKenzie County has access. Among the least-wealthiest counties, access rates are 30% in Rolette County, 21% in Sioux County and 23% in Benson County. Among the state's most populated counties: Some 55% of Cass County households have broadband access, as well as 63% of Burleigh County households and 51% of Grand Forks County households, the Microsoft data shows.

The North Dakota Broadband Plan

North Dakota adopted a broadband plan in 2019. The goal was "to increase the availability and affordability of high-speed broadband [defined as Gigabit connectivity] for the constituents, businesses, and public entities of the State." The strategy was to provide "a business-friendly environment that allows industry to thrive." North Dakota also put an emphasis on an anchor tenant model leveraging public resources to help drive innovation and growth throughout the state. 

North Dakota's Broadband Programs—And Co-ops

North Dakota's reliance on federal broadband support goes back more than a decade. As reported by New America, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which invested significantly in North Dakota’s broadband infrastructure. BTOP paid to install hundreds of miles of high-speed fiber cable and connected several universities in North Dakota to a broader network of high-speed “anchor networks.” The North Dakota Statewide Technology Access for Government and Education network (STAGEnet) focused on bringing 1G services to all public sector anchor tenant locations with the ability to scale to 100G service. Locations include all county court houses, school districts, higher education campuses, and state government buildings.

Rural cooperatives, or co-ops, also play a huge role in North Dakota. Co-ops including the Dickey Rural Telephone Company, the Dakota Central Telecommunications Cooperative, and a co-op of co-ops, the Dakota Carrier Network (DCN), cover much of North Dakota and provide broadband to many of its residents. 

Created in 1996 by 14 rural telecommunications companies, DCN has built out and upgraded STAGEnet. Larger service providers did not object, because the cost of building fiber out to so many rural areas was prohibitive. By joining the forces of many smaller firms, DCN was able to reduce the costs of service and reach more people. By 2014, DCN had deployed 40,000 miles of fiber optics in the state, relying, in part, on support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, in July 2018 the Reservation Telephone Cooperative won a grant of over $18.5 million from USDA to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network serving the Fort Berthold Reservation Tribal Entity in North Dakota and Montana. The network will connect 1,151 people, 67 businesses, four public schools and 91 farms in Richland and Wibaux counties in Montana, and in Dunn, McKenzie, and McLean counties in North Dakota.

The latest federal support for North Dakota broadband comes from the American Rescue Plan Act and the U.S. Department of Treasury. In August 2022, Treasury approved the state's plan to use $45 million in Capital Projects Fund support for a competitive grant program, Broadband North Dakota. The program is designed to build broadband networks in areas of the state (including Tribal lands) lacking connectivity of at least 100/20 Mbps. The networks built with Capital Projects Fund support will provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses. Network operators will participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, a $30 per month subsidy for low-income families ($75/month on Tribal lands).

North Dakota is using 40% of its Capital Projects Fund allocation to connect nearly 4,000 unserved locations in the state. 

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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