Posted by: Ann Treacy | February 9, 2016

KDAL on broadband policy: a storm is brewing

KDAL give a brief view of what they think might happen at the Legislature regarding broadband based on the MN Broadband Task Force report and reactions from legislators on each side of the aisle…

Republicans and Democrats have resumed their debate over funding for broadband Internet in Greater Minnesota with just over a month to the start of the legislative session.

A special task force recommends 200 million dollars and Governor Mark Dayton wants 100 million. But a key Republican, Farmington Representative Pat Garofalo warns “the cost is sometimes over four thousand dollars per hookup in subsidies, and that’s just not sustainable for expanding broadband across our state.”

Garofalo adds the federal government is already putting hundreds of millions of dollars into broadband in Minnesota over the next couple years. House D-F-L Leader Paul Thissen says last session Republicans ignored broadband as a critical priority for Minnesota’s future but many are now changing their tune.

There’s the same confusion I’ve seen in other places – the Task Force report has recommended $200 million over two years. So the comparisons aren’t really apples to apples but the article highlights the sticking points between parties. Garofalo’s comment is interesting – that it’s too expensive for government to pay for broadband deployment to some households. I think the point is that it’s too expensive for government or the private sector and that’s why the public-private partnership has been recommended.

Realistically there are some areas where the ROI to build is just not there. That’s why they are unserved. BUT as more and more government services move online it seems like government needs to help address the means to reach all citizens and serve all citizens equally. Government may see reduction in costs in other budgets as citizens can take advantage of online services – rather than pay postage to communicate or pay to bus in students, even on the snowiest days or staff DMV office to renew licenses… The cost for deployment is one-time, the savings is not. (And to be fair, there are annual costs associated with service but not as high as the cost to deploy.)

The Morris Sun Tribune posted an editorial from Representative Backer. His information on the federal funding is a little confusing – I assume the CAF II funding is the $500 million that is being invested over the next five years. That includes the $86 million he also mentions. It is great to see that he is interested in investing in broadband and is taking the CAF II funding into consideration – it’s a great opportunity to use the state funding to optimize federal investment. Here is what he says…

Another significant topic that will be discussed this session is expanded broadband access for communities in rural Minnesota.

Minnesota continues to make strides in rural broadband expansion. Just last year, five broadband providers in Minnesota received $86 million from the federal government through the Federal Connect America Fund (CAF II).
What’s more, the federal government will be investing an additional $500 million in Minnesota over the next five years as we continue to improve access across the state.

At least 170,355 homes and businesses across 85 counties will be served in the coming years.

I am committed to working with my colleagues in the legislature to partner additional state investments with existing federal funds to ensure that Minnesota’s broadband needs are met.

Like the Grand Forks Herald article, there are just a few points of confusion in the article in the Twin Cities Business Magazine on the MN Broadband Task Force report…

A state task force released a report on Wednesday calling for a $200 million investment to bring affordable broadband access to every region of Minnesota.

The Governor’s Task Force on Broadband also suggested the money be used to exempt telecommunications equipment from state sales tax and increase telecommunication aid for schools and libraries. …

In early December, Governor Dayton and Smith proposed $100 million to improve rural broadband access for 35,000 homes, businesses and institutions. By doubling the initial investment, the task force believes broadband could reach every corner of the state.

I don’t think the Task Force believes that $200 million in grants would cover every corner of the state – even with a 1-to-1 match of funds. They have noted that the cost to deploy broadband throughout the state has been estimated at $1-3 billion. But the greater amount invested, the greater matching from alternate sources, the greater portion of the state covered.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune gives a glimpse at what some of the discussions in the Legislature might be like…

Dayton in December proposed $100 million for the broadband grant program, an effort legislative Democrats say they support.

House Republicans have called for reforms to how the broadband grants are administered, saying Minnesota should do more to leverage existing federal funding for broadband access. GOP legislators, who hold the majority in the House, are awaiting updated budget projections later in February before saying how much they would propose for broadband, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, whose committee has jurisdiction over the issue.

“The goals are admirable, but the implementation has been flawed,” said Garofalo, a computer network engineer.

He said the current program subsidizes high-speed connections at too high a cost. “We’re burning through money to provide premier Internet service to a small number of people,” he said. “It’s fiscal insanity … it’s in the state’s best interest to get high-speed bandwidth to as many people at the lowest cost possible.”

The Grand Forks Herald reports on the Minnesota Broadband Task Force report with just a few hiccups in the reporting – on a few issues that are confusing. First the speeds…

A governor-appointed broadband task force suggests the state Legislature increase high-speed Internet goals by 2022, which could double some speed standards, while increasing them more than four-fold by 2026. The new speeds would jive with what the Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed service.

The new recommended speed goals are 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up by 2022. The old speeds were 10-20 Mbps down and 5-10 up. They do align with the FCC definition. The new recommended speeds goals for 2026 are 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up; those do not align with the National Broadband Plan of 100 Mbps down and 50 Mbps up to 100 million homes by 2020.

Then the funding…

The panel also recommended that the state up its spending to expand broadband into more rural areas to $200 million, twice what Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recommended last month.

Except the $200 million is for the biennium – over two years. I haven’t heard the Governor specify his proposal over two years, so I assume it is for one year.

The same article was also posted in the Duluth News Tribune.

Representative Clark Johnson posted an editorial in the Mankato Free Press. He is glad that broadband is being discussed. He is worried that is might become a partisan issue and concerned that some Republicans are satisfied with federal funding that will not upgrade connectivity enough to meet Minnesota definitions of broadband…

Rep. Kresha appears content using the federal Connect America Fund (CAF) program to provide Internet to underserved communities.

I hope he realizes the minimum required download speed provided by the CAF program is 80 percent slower than Minnesota’s broadband development grant program and that large portions of west central and northwest Minnesota are ineligible for the CAF program. Our farmers, our businesses and Minnesotans deserve better than that.

Today I’m hoping to post what local papers are saying about broadband policy. I could do it in one post but I think it will be easier for the archive if I do multiple posts. The Crookston Times says that within city limits most people are satisfied with their broadband options; outside the city is a different story but even that story is poised to change after Halstad Telephone Company completes the deployment there are doing thanks to receiving a state grant last year…

But then consider Craig Hoiseth’s situation. The executive director of the Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority – a key position that one would think would especially benefit from quick, convenient and on-demand access to high-speed broadband Internet – lives barely outside city limits, just east of Highland School in Crookston Township, and he currently has no Internet service to his home.

That could change soon, Hoiseth stressed to the Times, since, he said, Halstad Telephone Company – as part of a grant the Internet provider was awarded through the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program – extended fiber-optic lines underground to his home, and he’s anticipating that soon the service will be extended into his home. But, for now, he’s decided that no Internet service is better than the headaches of slow, dial-up Internet service, which has been his only option.

They are pleased with the recent Minnesota Broadband Task Force report that asks for an increase in broadband speed goals and funding…

“Obviously, we are excited about the new policy recommendations and are hopeful northwest Minnesota will obtain adequate funding to provide broadband to this area of the state. Everybody agreed that the initial funding level of $20 million would not go far in addressing the need for broadband statewide, and this recommendation probably acknowledges such,” Hoiseth said.

They are concerned that funding go to providers who have been proactive about upgrades and not to providers who have not…

Considering that Halstad Telephone Company and other providers who bring Internet service to the area have been pretty aggressive in recent years when it comes to expanding and improving service, Hoiseth added that he hopes, if the statewide grant program is indeed expanded significantly, providers that have been working hard to improve Internet service aren’t “penalized” when seeking grant funds, in favor of other providers who have essentially been sitting back and waiting for the State to take the lead on broadband funding. “We always want to reward business for good, smart, forward thinking,” he said.

Looks like good news – nice to know Minnesotans are working on rural broadband from the local, state and national level…

Nolan Teams Up with Bipartisan Delegation to Establish Rural Broadband Caucus

[WASHINGTON D.C.] U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan today teamed up with a bipartisan delegation of Representatives to establish the first ever Congressional Rural Broadband Caucus. The caucus will serve to facilitate discussion, educate Members of Congress and staff, and develop policy solutions to the digital divide that exists in rural America.

“Rural America has waited long enough for high-speed broadband,” Nolan said. “It’s a necessity required to start new businesses, create new jobs, help our small town rural economy grow, and modernize the education and health care services so essential to quality of life. So hats off to everyone who helped make this important caucus a reality.”

Nolan recently introduced the Rural Broadband Initiative Act to consolidate hundreds of millions of dollars in rural broadband programs under a single federal office and develop a national strategy to connect the countryside. He also joined Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Mike Thompson (D-CA) to introduce the Rural Broadband Infrastructure Act, which would make an additional $670 million in federal financing, plus additional loans and grants, available to small communities in Minnesota and throughout the nation.

The Rural Broadband Caucus will be co-chaired by Reps. Kevin Cramer (R- ND), Bob Latta (R-OH), Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Peter Welch (D-VT) with caucus members including Reps. Mike Bost (R-IL), Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), Dave Loebsack (D-IA), Frank Lucas (R-OK), James McGovern (D-MA), Luke Messer (R-IN), Rob Woodall (R-GA) and Rick Nolan (D-MN).

Many community leaders have a simple question – “How good is the broadband in our community?” It is really not a simple question at all. It is not just a matter of availability or speed when determining the state of your broadband; a multitude of factors come into play.

We would like to introduce a new, online Community Broadband Assessment tool created by Bill Coleman of Community Technology Advisors. With a focus on broadband infrastructure and services, the assessment helps a community determine where it stands in comparison to other communities with regard to access to main Internet points of presence, fiber availability to key institutions and business customers, competitive pricing, and available broadband speeds. In addition, the tool helps communities consider the ubiquity of broadband within their whole county or market area and whether they can count on their broadband service providers as community partners.

The assessment is available online. It is suggested that you print out the assessment, gather and discuss the information, then complete the assessment online. The benefits are two-fold. Your community broadband team will have a better understanding of the various components of broadband availability and will be able to focus your broadband improvement efforts to improve your competitiveness. Secondly, we will be able to aggregate community information from across the state to share with state and regional policy makers about creating and implementing effective broadband policies across the state. We hope to gather sufficient data to share with legislators this session which starts in early March.

While you are reviewing the assessment, make sure that you check out the rest of the Minnesota Broadband Coalition website.

If you have questions about the assessment, contact Bill Coleman at 651-491-2551 or bill@communitytechnologyadvisors.com.

I can’t promise to keep up on broadband-related legislation daily, but I will at least aim for weekly. Here’s what I found this week:

HF 2381: Broadband grant application process amended, report required, and money appropriated.
Authors: Baker ; Kresha on 1/29/2016
I wrote more extensively on this earlier – the proposed changes are $35 million for broadband grants to 60% unserved areas and 40% underserved, also requesting more reporting on grants.

HF 2429: Telecommunications carriers offering services to customers that block calls dialed by an automatic dialing-announcing device required
Author: Atkins on 1/29/2016
Relates to offing call blocking services and more information on what those service do and don’t block.

HF 2461: Internet service machinery and equipment exemption provided.
Authors: Quam ; Kresha ; Drazkowski ; Baker ; Pugh on 1/29/2016
Extends sale and use tax exemption for Internet service machinery and equipment

Posted by: Ann Treacy | February 7, 2016

White House Innovation Initiatives: Ideas for your community?

Thanks to Mark Erickson for sharing a fun list of White House Innovation Initiatives. It’s a fun list to peruse if you’re looking for fun ideas for your community. I think there’s an opportunity with some of these initiatives to me first to rural market. It would be fun to see Minnesota sweep up those first honors…

Smart Cities Initiative
An effort to invest over $160 million in federal research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate, and improving the delivery of city services.

TechHire
A bold multi-sector initiative and call to action to empower Americans with the skills they need, through universities and community colleges but also nontraditional approaches like “coding boot camps,” and high-quality online courses that can rapidly train workers for a well-paying job, often in just a few months.

Here’s the info on TechHire in MN:
The Minneapolis region will expand upon three accelerated tech training programs operating in the region – Prime Digital Academy, IT-Ready, and Concordia University – that will be training a combined 300 individuals this year for entry level software positions. The region’s work also includes commitments from over sixty employers including 3M, Target, Thompson Reuters, Best Buy and Wells Fargo and apprenticeship partners representing thousands of software development, networking, and technical support jobs. They will train and place workers without traditional IT backgrounds in software engineering and support roles. Through partnerships with the City of Minneapolis, the State of Minnesota, the Creating IT Futures Foundation, the local non-profit Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and the Minnesota High Tech Association, the local alliance will increase the accessibility of the programs by making funding available for qualified students who would otherwise be unable to afford to attend.

Select Key Partners

  • Prime Digital Academy
  • Creating IT Futures Foundation/IT-Ready
  • Concordia University
  • City of Minneapolis
  • Minnesota High Tech Association
  • Jewish Family and Children’s Services

Maker Movement
Empowering students and adults to create, innovate, tinker, and make their ideas and solutions into reality is at the heart of the Maker Movement. Since the first-ever White House Maker Faire, the White House has continued to support opportunities for students to learn about STEM through making, expand the resources available for maker entrepreneurs, and foster the development of advanced manufacturing in the U.S. The website includes some ways to get your community involved in the Maker Movement.

Startup America
Startup America is a White House initiative that was launched to celebrate, inspire, and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship throughout the nation. Since launch, the Obama Administration rolled out a set of entrepreneur-focused policy initiatives in five areas:

  • Unlocking access to capital to fuel startup growth
  • Connecting mentors and education to entrepreneurs
  • Reducing barriers and making government work for entrepreneurs
  • Accelerating innovation from “lab to market” for breakthrough technologies
  • Unleashing market opportunities in industries like healthcare, clean energy, and education

ConnectED
The ConnectED initiative will, within five years, connect 99 percent of America’s students to next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon are already providing their support, collectively pledging to connect more than 20 million more students over the next two years. ConnectED will also provide better broadband access for students in rural areas, by expanding successful efforts to connect parts of the country that typically have trouble attracting investment in broadband infrastructure.

According to the Brainerd Dispatch

Blandin Foundation announced Tuesday it awarded 46 grants totaling $475,461 to help rural Minnesota communities in advancing high-speed Internet access and use.
The “Resilient Region,” which includes Cass, Wadena, Crow Wing, Todd and Morrison Counties, will benefit from four of the grants that will help achieve community-identified technology goals set last winter.

The projects include…

  • Enhanced Marketing of Our Technology Sector: Project support to implement the Tech Services marketing plan.
  • Video Conferencing System in CTC Technology Room at the BLAEDC/Chamber Offices in Brainerd: Capital support for video conferencing equipment for use by area businesses and organizations.
  • “What the Tech?” Technology Expo: Project support to host a one-day tech expo event in Wadena that will combine active learning by MNSCU students and displays and seminars for the general public. (April 8)
  • PCs for People Youth Project: Project support to continue to train youth to refurbish computers and distribute them to low-income families in the Brainerd area.

Always pleased to share good news from Minnesota Broadband Industry…

Paul Bunyan pic(Bemidji, MN) (February 5, 2015) – Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith visited the headquarters of Paul Bunyan Communications in Bemidji on Wednesday, February 3. The Lt. Governor congratulated the cooperative’s staff on being a leader in bringing high quality broadband Internet service to northern Minnesota and for building one of the largest rural fiber optic Gigabit networks in the United States, the GigaZone. She also discussed the State’s Border to Border Broadband Grant program which the Dayton administration has proposed $100 million in funding for 2016.

The cooperative, in partnership with the IRRRB and Itasca County, was a recipient of a grant from the 2015 Border to Border Broadband Grant program which will fund nearly $2 million of the $5.5 million Central Itasca County Broadband Project. Construction will begin in the spring and will bring broadband Internet service with download and upload speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second along with PBTV and voice services to nearly 1,300 locations that currently lack broadband service.

“We are honored that Lt. Governor Smith took the time during her busy trip to Bemidji to stop at our cooperative and visit with our staff. She along with Governor Dayton are strong proponents of bringing broadband access to all Minnesotan’s and we are very appreciative and supportive of their efforts. There are far too many rural areas that remain without access to broadband. We will continue to do what we can to bring it to as many in northern Minnesota as we can,” said Gary Johnson, Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager.

In addition to meeting with Paul Bunyan Communications staff, the Lt. Governor toured the cooperative’s facility.

Paul Bunyan Communications has the region’s largest and fastest all fiber optic network with over 5,000 square miles throughout most of Beltrami County and portions of Hubbard, Itasca, Koochiching, Cass , and St. Louis Counties. The Cooperative provides Fiber Optic High Speed Internet Services, digital and high definition television services, Smart Home services, digital voice services, and more.
###

Doug Dawson (POTs and PANs) wrote an interesting post earlier this week on municipal networks – promoting public private partnerships. As Doug points out he has a unique perspective because he works with municipalities and small ISPs. And he points out that few communities want to become broadband providers…

One thing that I have noticed over the years is that there is a huge amount of distrust by commercial ISPs towards municipalities that explore building fiber optic networks.

And I think for the most part this distrust is misplaced. It’s been my experience that there are almost no cities that want to be an ISP. I think perhaps the idea that cities want to do this has been caused by the big telcos and cable companies spreading alarms about the cities that have done this. I think that most of the cities that have built fiber, except for a few like Chattanooga, would have much preferred to have a commercial company bring competitive broadband to their city.

It’s easy to forget about the fear and angst in rural America concerning broadband. Rural communities keep seeing other rural places that are getting gigabit broadband while they still have homes that don’t even have DSL. They look around and see little towns of their own size with broadband that are thriving and they realize that if their town stays on the wrong side of the digital divide that their long term viability is at risk.

He goes on to use Winona as an example of why municipalities have to get into the game – or have to think about getting into the game…

Perhaps the best example of this that I’ve heard came from Hiawatha Broadband of Winona, Minnesota. This is a commercial overbuilder who built broadband networks to a number of small towns in their region. They have been at this for a while and what they observed in the last census is that every one of the towns with one of their broadband networks gained significant population while every town around them that doesn’t have broadband is losing population.

People need broadband and they are going to live where they can get it. New homes are going to be built where there is broadband. People want to work at home and can only do that where there is broadband. And people with kids want broadband so that their family is not at a disadvantage. Towns and rural areas without broadband understand these issues and they don’t want their area to dry up and disappear.

His suggestion is public private partnerships…

So I think it’s time to get rid of the mistrust between municipalities and small ISPs and instead come together to get the job done. I’ve done a lot of financial analysis of rural America and fiber projects are a lot more feasible when part of the project is funded by municipal bonds and not just from bank debt.

The Blandin Foundation has supported several conversation on Public Private Partnership – at the 2015 Broadband conference and the 2014 conference. There are several examples of successful partnerships.

Posted by: Ann Treacy | February 5, 2016

Snow Day redefined with broadband at Red Wing Schools

One of the reasons I live in Minnesota is the dream of a snow day. But that dream isn’t as good as it sounds when you’re a teacher and snow day means you are required to physically show up for work to get work credit. Red Wing Schools has a workaround.

Red Wing Schools have made snow days an online working day for educators. Using their group subscription access to Whitewater Learning, Red Wing educators can stay home and work on professional development – and still get credit for working. In years past, educators were required to physically show up for work, even on Snow Days, to get work credit. But with the Whitewater subscription – funded for the Goodhue County Education District (GCED) in part by the Blandin Foundation – educators can report for work simply by logging in and completing at least one online professional development course from Whitewater.

The teachers actually get two weeks to complete the course – so if they don’t have broadband at home they can wait until they get to school or find another location. Teachers seem to like it a lot since they didn’t have to drive in to work during the snowstorm.

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