Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 19, 2015

Is prevailing wage interfering with Minnesota broadband goals?

Prevailing wage as a requirement for State funding has come up at a few meetings lately. I must admit the details elude me, so I’m delighted to share a guest posting from Steve Howard. Steve is the Information Technology and Development Manager at Paul Bunyan Communications’ (PBC). PBC has been a leader in Rural Broadband for years and recently launched their GigaZone service that is deploying Gigabit Ethernet to 5,000 square miles in Rural Minnesota. As you’ll see he is in the thick of looking at the impact of prevailing wage. His comments are similar to what I have heard other providers say. It seems like prevailing wage is a good idea but requires a second look.

I’ve spent the past several weeks working on an application for the State of Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program. The design process involves a variety of things including cost analysis, GIS mapping, existing utility mapping, natural resources protection, population & network growth estimation, etc. But, at the most basic level, it starts with large maps and a highlighter. We highlight the areas that look good and then follow that up with financial analysis.

As we stare at the maps, I’m disheartened by the number of people that will be excluded from getting broadband due to outdated nuances in state regulations. In our case, this program could serve around 45% more locations with some simple no-cost regulatory “tweaks”.

The biggest hindrances to the program are in the nuances of the Minnesota’s Prevailing Wage requirements. Paying the true prevailing wage is not an issue for any provider that I know. In the current economy, if you don’t pay the true prevailing wage or more, you will struggle to find and keep skilled employees.

The problem is not the prevailing wage requirement, it is methodology used to calculate it. For example, the State of Minnesota calculates the prevailing wage including benefits for a common laborer in the Iron Range at $92,934.40/year! (1) Does that amount truly represent the prevailing wage? Is that realistic for an unskilled position?

Here are a few salary averages for Minnesota from a variety of sources:

All of the positions above (except a legislator!) require significant training and licensure, yet none earns as much as the supposed prevailing wage for an unskilled laborer. I struggled to find benefit costs, so this may not be a true “apples to apples” comparison. But, it still gives a rough idea of how drastically broken the system is.

I don’t think that it was the intention of our legislators to create a broken system, Minnesota Statute 177.41 states: “It is therefore the policy of this state that wages of laborers, workers, and mechanics on projects financed in whole or part by state funds should be comparable to wages paid for similar work in the community as a whole.” This sounds quite reasonable to me.

Unfortunately, Minnesota Rule 5200.1060 states “Each wage rate determination shall be based upon the actual wage rates paid to the largest number of workers within each labor classification”. If I remember High School math correctly, MN Statute 177.41 sounds like a “mean” calculation, while Rule 5200.1060 describes a ”mode” calculation. This can cause a single organization to dominate the outcome. The wage/organization with the largest number of employees in a job classification always wins, whether it is comparable to wages paid for similar work in the community or not. The leaves way too much power in the marketplace to a single organization/industry. What would happen if a big-box retail employer classified all of its employees as a “common laborer”? The rate would likely plummet to near minimum wage. That isn’t good either and I suspect that some employers would take advantage of employees if that happened.

The prevailing wage calculation should be changed to something that truly reflects the intention of the statute. I’m no math expert, but below are a few possible ideas:

  1. Weighted average: Drop the top & bottom 15% of wages and calculate the mean of what remains;
  2. Median: This seems like the answer that would truly reflect the intention of the statutes;
  3. X Percentile: For example, 60th percentile. Perhaps 60 isn’t the right choice, but there should be a value that makes sense;
  4. The mean is also an option, but it can also be affected too much by extremes at either end of the pay scale.

I’ve heard from other telecommunications providers that another problem is that overtime pay is required for employees that work more than eight hours in a day. Oftentimes employees prefer to work four 10 hour days instead of five eight hour days. This helps save daycare expenses and reduces travel time, providing more quality family time, less travel expenses, and less carbon emissions. If employees work on these projects they will likely be forced back to five eight hour days. “Four tens” has been around for a long time. It is time to bring Minnesota statutes up to the modern era and get this fixed also!

Another problem that faces one of our contractors is that the true benefits costs aren’t considered by the State. In their case, they have many seasonal employees that are laid off in the winter. However, they are a great employer and choose to continue their employee health benefits even while the employees are laid off every year. The state’s calculation doesn’t take this into account and, sadly, this employer faces a competitive disadvantage on these type of projects for treating their employees well.

My team and I see firsthand how the State regulatory issues are limiting the effectiveness of the Border to Border grant program. We could do so much more if these were fixed!

Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 18, 2015

Fast wireless available from US Internet in Minneapolis

According to CBS Minnesota, US Internet is now offering a faster wireless broadband option…

The new TDM network involves a device, called a time-division multiplexing node, which is attached to the side of a user’s home and can send an internet signal at broadband speeds through the walls to the user’s router.

Developed in-house over the course of two years of research and experimentation, the TDM network is separate from USI’s fiber-based service, which is also expanding.

Carter said he has been very pleased with the TDM network’s performance, which has had “almost zero problems” and meets the FCC requirement for broadband internet.

“They get the full, Hi-def Netflix experience,” Carter said. “No buffering, very low latency, very low jitter. It’s a spectacular experience.”

The TDM network currently has installed more than 60 TDM nodes and offers two tiers of service — 75 Mbps for $35 per month, and 25 Mbps for $25. The 75 Mbps option is only available in south Minneapolis; the 25 Mbps is live in downtown and expected to expand to north and northeast Minneapolis by the end of the summer.

It sounds like this might be a technology leap for cities. I don’t know what the implications might be for rural areas. US Internet is able to build upon and expand from their fiber-based infrastructure. Carter spoke to the Minnesota Broadband Task Force last summer. He was amazed at the roadblocks (backhaul charges, populations density) to providing affordable broadband in rural areas. He was very clear that while his business might expand beyond Minneapolis that he wasn’t looking to expand to Greater Minnesota. That’s not to diminish the impact of improving urban access and affordability but simply to ask how this might be applied to smaller towns and surrounding areas.

Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 17, 2015

Minnesota elected officials are talking about broadband

I’ve noticed a momentum of more broadband talk in the local papers (and with local legislators) since broadband day at Farmfest. Rather than post each story separately I thought I’d try to compile them. The a common theme is the importance of broadband, the gap between urban and rural availability and the need to keep talking about broadband especially with legislators to increase State funding for broadband projects next year…

Grand Forks Herald (and others) posted a letter from Lt Governor Tina Smith…

Eventually, Minnesota farms were electrified, but it didn’t happen for everyone for nearly 15 years. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act to assist rural communities finally replacing kerosene and wood stoves with alternating currents and wires. Access to electricity revolutionized farming and dramatically improved quality of life.

Today, nearly 80 years later, we are at a similar juncture for broadband Internet access. Increasingly, farmers are recognizing the importance of high-quality, affordable Internet. This year, the annual FarmFest trade show in Redwood County declared Aug. 4 to be “Broadband Day,” further raising awareness of the issue.

Right now, only three of Minnesota’s top 10 agricultural counties have broadband availability that meets the state’s standards for accessibility. In fact, five of these counties are below 60 percent availability for broadband.

Broadband in Minnesota’s rural communities is not just nice. It’s necessary. As the world’s population continues to grow, Minnesotans are producing more food, fuel and fiber to help meet the growing need. Precision agriculture and technology-based solutions are essential tools for farmers as they increase efficiency and maximize production.

Duluth New Tribune talks about Representative Rick Nolan’s proposed legislation…

Getting everyone online is seen as critical for delivering health care outside of big cities, for improving the education of all kids and so businesses, no matter where they’re located, can remain competitive in today’s global economies.  Recognizing and embracing all this, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, whose 8th Congressional District includes Northeastern Minnesota, introduced legislation recently to launch a massive, electrification-like effort to broaden broadband all over the U.S. His measure would create for the first time a coordinated federal strategy to bring high-tech communications to millions now underserved.  …

“There is currently no clear congressionally approved plan, no strategy and no single federal office responsible for helping connect tens of millions of rural people to modern broadband services,” Nolan said in a statement. “Here in rural America, high-speed broadband is essential to our ability to compete — to help start new businesses, create new jobs, attract new people and provide the education and health care services so essential to our quality of life.”  Centralized at the new Office of Rural Broadband Initiatives, which would be created as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Nolan’s measure, would be $724 million in grants and loans already being distributed for broadband. The office also would handle existing federal regulations related to broadband.  Run by a new undersecretary appointed by the president, the office would be the go-to place for local, regional and state broadband efforts as well as serve as a central clearinghouse for broadband information for federal agencies.

Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 17, 2015

Martin County students create tourism app for the county

KEYC (and Fairmont Sentinel) report on a fun program supported by the Blandin Foundation…

Martin County Recorder Kay Wrucke says, “What they are doing is creating an app for the Martin County website to be used and it covers sites and spots in Martin County to come, if a visitor come in or even Martin County residents.”

The creation of the app is being used as a learning opportunity to teach high school students how to program applications through programs available online.

App Camp Instructor Laurie Aaronson says, “Teach the students not only to be consumers of technology, but to also be developers.”

Eleven students are taking part in the eight–day camp, which wrapped up today.

It was made possible through a grant the county received.

In addition to app for the county, they are also given the tools to create apps of their own.

But the students are using what they learned as a stepping–stone for their future.

Student James Hodge says, “It will look good on college applications and it is a good thing to know for yourself and teach others.”

About a week ago I attended a showcase of digital inclusion programs developed and deployed by AmeriCorps members. It was so much fun to learn about the various programs. I wanted to share them in case communities were looking for inspiration or programs to replicate. You can learn more on the SPNN (St Paul Neighborhood Network) blog – they have been kind enough to share the videos (created by AmeriCorps members) and I suspect they would be happy to have folks contact them for more info.

Below is a list of the projects and what they accomplished. They are all great – but I am hoping to get involved with the teen technology scavenger hunt next year (Quest for College) and I think the video from the Ronald McDonald House is my favorite YouTube video of the year and really makes the case that we need to do more to prepare good teachers to use the technology – if only to see those teachers smile!

After School Code Club
Partnered with Code Savvy to teach 5th through 8th graders at Lucy Laney Community School in North Minneapolis about computer science concepts by making games, animations, and controlling robots.

  • Partnered with Code Savvy
  • Used Scratch to teach kids how to code
  • Kids create a wizard game
  • The created curriculum, sparked an interest in coding in the school and created a new coding construction model
  • 49 kids participated, 9 regularly, 4 got very interested

Digital Storytelling Initiative
Engaged youth in East St. Paul to develop digital storytelling skills through a summer camp. Read More…

With funding from the Blandin Foundation, Friendship Forever has been able to create a project that connects older folks in Winona through a virtual exercise class. The Friendship’s Forever Project strives to create a healthier community by actively engaging older adults living at home with limited mobility, students from Winona State University and volunteers from the Friendship Center in a virtual outreach program that offers opportunities for socialization and learning through videoconferencing. (The grant provided portable connectivity which is a major obstacle for these older adult. The grant also provided rich programming while more free programs are developed for this population.)

The program reached 15 older, isolated local residents. It’s a one-of-a-kind project, although they are presenting to a group of Midwestern colleagues later this fall to help spread the word. It’s been a successful way to extend the value of the local senior center to former residents who have lost some mobility and have not been able to visit. It’s a great way to keep people moving, keep them connected to their friends and cohorts and provides a motivation to get online to a demographic that has been slower to get online.

See it in action…

The Office of Broadband Development’s recent newsletter mentioned a couple of opportunities for funding and an opportunity to express an interest in future funding. (You can sign up to get updates from them on their website.)

Border to Border Infrastructure Grant Program Application Available

Reminder–the application period is now open for the 2015  Border to Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program and runs until 4:00 p.m., September 15, 2015!

The application is available on our website at http://mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband/grant-program/index.jsp. We have also posted an FAQ document and information on the challenge process, both available on our website. If you have any additional questions, you can reach us at 651/259-7610 or at DEED.broadband@state.mn.us

NEW: Infrastructure Grant Program Expressions of Interest

We recognize that everyone in need of financial assistance for building out a broadband infrastructure project is not going to be in a position to apply by September 15. To better document the interest in continued grant funding for broadband, if you have a project in mind but cannot apply this round, please see the Expression of Interest form we have made available on our website at http://mn.gov/deed/programs-services/broadband/grant-program/index.jsp and consider submitting with any information you can about your project.

RUS Announces Rural Broadband Access Loans—Deadline September 30th

The Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced the opening of its application period for Rural Broadband Access Loans under the 2014 Farm Bill. Details were recently published in the Federal Register. According to the information posted there and on the RUS website, loans can be for a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $20 million. A total of $24.1 million has been appropriated for FY15 for the Farm Bill Broadband Loan & Loan Guarantee Program. Information included in the interim rules, also posted in the July 30 Federal Register, indicate that a minimum of two application periods annually (March and September deadlines) will be established for ranking applications.

The DFL Caucus (Representatives Paul Thissen, Paul Marquart and Erin Murphy) met with folks in Willmar yesterday to talk about broadband. Similar to their meeting in Morris earlier this week the trend for all participants seemed to be disappointment in the 2015 allocation for Minnesota broadband funds and a drive to push for more next year.

The DFL Caucus (Representatives Paul Thissen, Paul Marquart and Erin Murphy) met with folks in Willmar yesterday to talk about broadband. Similar to their meeting in Morris earlier this week the trend for all participants seemed to be disappointment in the 2015 allocation for Minnesota broadband funds and a drive to push for more next year.

There were about 20 people – elected officials, one provider (MVTV), economic developers, educators, someone who lives 2 miles outside of Willmar and can’t get online and lots of folks from the Broadband committee.

Folks talked about the troubles they’ve had trying to improve broadband in the area. They praised the initiative of independent and local providers but expressed exasperation with the larger providers in the area that are not based in Minnesota. They have had bad experience with those companies making very incremental upgrades – but they seem to feel those upgrade are tokens more than investments in the area.

The mood was optimistic starting with the visiting legislators: We’re going to have a budget surplus. Broadband might be a good fit. We want to learn more about challenges and opportunities. We want to collect and tell stories of need in rural areas at the capital!

Read on for more details and rich conversation – also the folks in Willmar created a helpful sheet on Broadband in Rural areas that highlights needs of agriculture – including the traceability of food, which isn’t something that gets a lot of discussion in the Twin Cities. Read More…

Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 14, 2015

Blandin Webinar Archive: Advocacy Groups – Who are They?

Thanks to those who joined.

Presentation from Dr. Norman Jacknis

And more info…

Advocacy Groups – Who are They?
Thursday, August 13 from 3-4pm

Blandin Foundation’s broadband efforts have always included a dual focus. We work to spur investment in next-generation broadband infrastructure while engaging communities to adopt next generation technology applications. All for the expected outcome of enhanced community vitality. Without a network, adoption is difficult. Without adoption, investment is wasted. Our August webinar speakers will illuminate both sides of this coin.

Deb Socia is Executive Director of Next Century Cities (nextcenturycities.org) which supports community leaders across the country as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet. The principles of Next Century Cities share many values including the benefits of community engagement, ubiquity, collaboration self-determination. Next Century Cities now has over 100 member communities across the country. Learn more about the efforts of Next Century Cities and the resources available through this new organization

The Intelligent Community Forum (intelligentcommunity.org) has been a partner of Blandin Foundation for many years as the Foundation used the Intelligent Community Framework as a platform for our Minnesota Intelligent Rural Community project more than five years ago. The Intelligent Community Framework helps communities think about the relationships between broadband and community vitality – adding Knowledge Workforce, Innovation, Digital Inclusion and Marketing/Advocacy to the strategy discussion. Lou Zacharilla and Dr. Norman Jacknis will talk about the 2016 Intelligent Community of the Year process and ICF’s expanding rural initiative

Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 13, 2015

Dakota County RFP for fiber projects

I wanted to share the following opportunities for prospective bidders but also for communities who are looking at fiber projects. The documents are almost 8o pages each. They are full of policy, technology and financing details and could be used as a template or to inform planning discussions:

Fiber Optic Network – Palomino Tower

​Dakota County seeks bids to construct a metropolitan area fiber optic system project along Palomino Avenue within Dakota County.
Bids due: Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 at 4 p.m.

Fiber Optic Network – Robert Street Project

​Dakota County seeks bids to construct a metropolitan area fiber optic system project along Robert Street within Dakota County.
Bids due: Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 at 4 p.m.

Thanks to Dakota County for sharing. Good luck to bidders!

Broadband Communities Magazine recently announced their FTTH Top 100, a list that celebrates organizations for their contributions to “Building a Fiber-Connected World.” Congrats to the list members with a Minnesota connection…

  • 3M Company / Communication Markets Division
    www.3M.com/telecom 800-426-8688 Interconnection, connection protection, fiber management and facilities protection products for broadband network
  • Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide PC
    www.baller.com 202-833-5300 Legal services, public policy advocacy
  • Blandin Foundation www.blandinfoundation.org
    877-882-2257 Grant making, community leadership development and public policy programs
  • Calix www.calix.com 707-766-3000; 877-766-3500
    Fiber access solutions for residential and business services, network and services management software, value-added software as a service
  • Clearfield www.seeclearfield.com 763-476-6866; 800-422-2537
    Fiber distribution systems for inside plant, outside plant and access networks
  • Finley Engineering www.fecinc.com 417-682-5531 Network design and engineering services
  • Graybar www.graybar.com 800-GRAYBAR (472-9227)
    PON electronics, optical transport, fiber cabinets/enclosures, single-mode fiber optic cable, fiber splice closures and pedestals, DC power, outdoor fiber terminals, FTTx drop cable, hardened MSTs
  • Hiawatha Broadband Communications
    www.hbci.com 888-474-9995 Voice, video, data and wireless services over high-speed networks
  • Institute for Local Self Reliance www.ilsr.org; www.MuniNetworks.org
    612-276-3456 Broadband policy research and municipal broadband advocacy
  • KGP Logistics www.kgplogistics.com 800-755-1950 Products for FTTH, including outside plant, central office, DAS, transmission and customer premises; supply-chain and distribution services
  • MasTec www.mastec.com 218-785-3030 FTTx deployment, outside-plant cabling, inside-plant construction and installation, joint trench systems, splicing and testing, systems integration, ongoing maintenance
  • TE Connectivity www.te.com 610-893-9800 Fiber optic cabling and connectivity products

It’s always helpful to know who is accepting CAF money. So here’s info on the latest Minnesota provider to say yes, according to the Rural Blog

Windstream “has accepted $174,895,478 in annual, ongoing support from the Connect America Fund to expand and support broadband for over 800,000 of its rural customers in 17 states,” the Federal Communications Commission reported on Wednesday.

“The Connect America Fund support will enable Windstream to deliver broadband at speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps uploads to over 404,000 homes and businesses in its rural service areas nationwide where the cost of broadband deployment might otherwise be prohibitive.” However, the FCC recently redefined high-speed broadband download as 25 Mbps, something the press release did not note.

States that will benefit are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas

The FCC reports that in Minnesota that means $ 1,519,855 to serve 4,440 homes and businesses. You can visit the Windstream-Minnesota website to see if what serves they provide in your area.

Posted by: Ann Treacy | August 12, 2015

Broadband could make a Rural Impact

All I can think while I read about the new Rural Impact initiative is that broadband is the solution. Broadband is a new avenue for delivering services. It’s a means to media that reach younger generations. (Do you have teenagers? Do they watch TV? Mine don’t they watch their devices!) It’s a way that people can take classes from anywhere! And it opens the door to/for remote workers!

Rural Impact is a new effort from the White House Rural Council to address the challenge of rural child poverty by bringing together federal agencies and public and private resources. Rural Impact focuses primarily on a multi-generational approach to how public and private resources are invested in rural families and communities. With support from the President, Cabinet officials, universities, foundations, non-profits and community groups, Rural Impact will focus primarily on three major areas:

  1. Innovation: Developing new approaches of program delivery, including integrated services and remote health and learning technology, to address rural challenges and barriers;

  2. Awareness: Enhancing public awareness of rural child poverty and its impact on the future of rural communities and our nation’s global competitiveness; and

  3. Investment: Improving access to high-quality child care, early learning, and continuing education, and making work pay.

Reading though the White House initiatives some are more clearly linked to broadband than others (see opportunity below) but it seems like broadband could be part of the solution for a lot of the goals…

Piloting telehealth and distance learning technology to connect rural children with health services. Rural children living in poverty face a range of health and human service needs and often lack direct access to quality clinical and social, human, child development and family support services. HHS’ Office of Rural Health Policy will award up to three pilot grants for a total annual investment of $945,000 in FY2015 (and $2.8 million over three years) to test new ways to use telehealth and distance learning technology to link rural children living in poverty with specialized health and human service that may not be available locally.

The House DFL Caucus met in Morris earlier this week to discuss broadband. I’ve had a few people ask about the next meeting in Willmar. I thought I’d share the details:

Willmar Public Library
Thursday, August 13th
12:15 PM – 1:15 PM

If I hear of any changes I’ll update here and Tweet.

Hack2osocialmediaWillmar is hosting a hackfest next month. It’s a three-day event (Sept 18-20) for coders and non-coders alike. It will be hosted in the WORKUP co-working space located at MinnWest Technology Campus. The setting is beautiful. The opportunities are numerous.

I have attended a few hackfests. If you’re a coder (or wannabe coder) in the area, you should definitely think about going. It will be a chance to meet colleagues and maybe prospective employers. BUT the event isn’t just for coders. If you have an idea that would harness technology for a civic good, this is a good place for you too. And in my experience all talents are welcome – folks who are good thinkers, writers, project managers.

You are welcome to come to the event with a preconceived idea (or problem) and/or a team. You are welcome to come even if you’re not really sure what in the heck you’re signing up for – and every position in between.

Learn more.

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