St Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN) gets grant to support digital inclusion in the Twin Cities

Street Insider reports

Mobile Beacon is honored to provide a community grant in celebration of this anniversary to SPNN’s Community Technology Empowerment Project (CTEP) AmeriCorps program in St. Paul, MN. We are honored to support SPNN in its mission to empower people to use communications and technology to make better lives, use authentic voice, and build common understanding.  We are honored to be able to supply a $10,000 monetary donation, as well as 10 laptops, 10 4G LTE hotspot devices, and free Mobile Beacon service to the organization.

CTEP will provide mobile hotspots and unlimited service to participants who are completing digital literacy training. Additionally, the $10,000 donation will be used to support their AmeriCorps program for in-person and virtual training from providing basic computer skills, resume writing and help to find jobs.

Broadband affordability: customer prices increase faster than inflation while provider costs do not

Derek Turner has a new report, Price Too High and Rising: The Facts About America’s Broadband Affordability Gap

This report lays out the facts on pricing and profits for the U.S. broadband industry. We discuss the varying ways to measure prices, the important differences between these methods, and how certain methods can be used to obfuscate the reality of what is happening in the market and at the kitchen table. We present government and industry data, noting the strength and weaknesses in each form, and highlight how the ISP industry and its apologists use this kind of data to mislead. Some of our findings include:

  • Monthly Broadband Bills Continue to Rise Far Faster than the Rate of Inflation
    (sample stat: That means the nominal increase in broadband bills was more than four times the rate of inflation during those three years)
  • Low-Priced Offerings Are Disappearing, Threatening to Cement the Digital Divide and Disrupt the Post-COVID Economic Recovery
    (sample fact: ISPs are eliminating their budget tiers. Entry level prices in some markets have increased by 50 percent or more in the past four years)
  • U.S. Government Data Contradict ISPs’ Claims About U.S. Price Superiority
  • ISPs Are Enjoying Record Profits as They Increase Prices and Reduce Investments
  • (sample fact: Capital investment by broadband providers large and small declined during the previous four Years)

The paper goes into great details, well researched and cited details. It was the framing of the issue that caught me, especially as broadband’s importance accelerated during the pandemic…

While plenty of goods and services get more expensive over time, broadband stands out for several critical reasons.

First, broadband prices consistently increase faster than the rate of inflation while the providers’ own costs do not.2 This makes this increasingly-critical infrastructure service both more expensive in real terms to users and more profitable for the ISPs.

Second, in almost all consumer product markets, particularly those involving technology, producers offer a wide array of service offerings that attract buyers of all means. But as the broadband market matures, the nation’s top ISPs are increasingly moving away from low-priced entry level tiers in favor of higher-priced, higher-speed packages, which they market as having increased value.

North Branch gets wireless with CARES funding and Genesis Wireless

The Isanti-Chisago Star reports on city-wide broadband in North Branch. It’s been a long time coming but they have it. They found a provider that would help make a plan…

[City Administrator Renae] Fry, who has been spearheading the push for more expansive high speed internet access, told how the process for achieving this mirrored the city’s previous internet access, explaining how it was very slow getting off the ground, but once everything fell into place, it reached a conclusion at a rapid pace.

“North Branch has known for years there is a core where high-speed internet is expected,” Fry said. “But there is about 30 square miles of the community that has been struggling with nothing better than dial-up. And that’s the challenge they’ve been living with, that they’ve been trying to address and have come to their elected officials time and time again to find a solution.”

Fry explained how four years ago, she invited all of the internet providers to come up with a way to provide high-speed access to all of the city.

“And I was told, ‘absolutely not, it’s not in our business plan. We can’t afford it. We won’t do it. But if you are willing to pay for it, we’re happy to chat with you.’”

Finally, Fry said she approached Genesis Wireless. “And I have to give a lot of credit to Jay Manke because he didn’t tell me no. What he told me was ‘let me do some research.’”

Fry said what he came back with about three years ago was putting up about 24-30 towers that would offer point-to-point wireless system, with the backbone being fiber-based, but the delivery is from a transmitter, to a receiver, down to the home. She said the initial cost was estimated at $800,000 to $900,000.

They found some funding…

Fry said once the city received COVID CARES Act money, their initial thought was to apply some of that money for high-speed internet. However through research, they couldn’t be certain if that was an acceptable use of the money.

“The concern for North Branch was that if we spent it for broadband and upon final audit, we’re told it was not an allowable expenditure, the city would have been on the hook to repay that money,” Fry explained.

Once it was figured out broadband was probably an acceptable expense, there was too little time before the November, 2020 deadline to go ahead with the project. However, Fry said city staff was able to figure out the city had previously budgeted for public safety, which was also an acceptable CARES expense, enough money that if they now used CARES money, they could transfer the previously earmarked money over to pay for broadband, which had actually decreased in scope to only require three new towers plus installation on existing towers at an expense of around $500,000.

“I have to give a lot of credit to my elected officials, because they didn’t even hesitate. They said ‘absolutely. This is such a worthwhile endeavor. This is something the city has needed for so long. We support it whole-heartedly.’”

Senator Klobuchar working on broadband portion of Pres Biden’s infrastructure bill

The Bemidji Pioneer reports

On the subject of funding, Klobuchar said she’s returning to Washington D.C. next week for the start of discussions on an infrastructure package. According to the White House’s website, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for $100 billion toward public schools.

Klobuchar said she’s leading the broadband portion of the bill and noted its importance in how it relates to education. She also mentioned that she’s talked with President Biden directly about the need for broadband funding.

“He’s put it as a major part of the bill,” Klobuchar said. “Republicans in their counteroffer also have significant funding for broadband in theirs.”

“We’re really grateful for your support on broadband access,” Lutz said. “Beltrami County has excellent broadband, but that means nothing when so many families can’t afford access, so we’re working hard with our local carriers to provide access and we’ve made great gains there.”

Long Prairie Grey Eagle Public Schools Superintendent Jon Kringen also noted how important improved broadband is for his area.

People with disabilities need broadband for jobs; that’s 27,480 in St Louis County alone

Duluth News Tribune posts a column on the impact of poor broadband on people with disabilities…

People with disabilities in areas where internet access is non-existent or limited are part of the “digital divide,” which prevents them from getting remote job opportunities and which, as often is the case for Americans with disabilities, keeps them at a poor standard of living. In 2015, there were 110,000 people in Duluth living with disabilities and under the poverty guidelines. We know those numbers will be increasing when the latest figures are presented.

A Minnesota government report said there are 27,480 individuals with disabilities living in St. Louis County, the fifth-largest county in the state. Hennepin County, the largest, has 110,150 residents with disabilities, according to the 2017 Minnesota State Demographic Center report. Duluth alone has 11,400 residents with disabilities.

In Minnesota, there are 125,000 people without a wired internet provider with services at their residence, according to a 2021 Broadband Now report. Increasing internet access would give Minnesotans with disabilities the same opportunities as able-bodied individuals. The need to work remotely has increased during COVID-19 and is expected to continue when the pandemic is over.

And a final note…

Right now, too many Americans with disabilities living in Minnesota are caught in the digital divide. But the good news for them is that the gap can be shrunk by improving internet access. Americans with disabilities clearly deserve a more level playing field.

Chisago Lakes surveys show that more than 60 percent not happy with broadband speed or reliability

Thank you to Chisago Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce for sharing their recent survey of broadband access and use in the community. They had 726 respondents, which is pretty darned good. They ask, is your broadband enough – for school and/or work? And they ask about broadband satisfaction with broadband reliability and speed – turns out in both categories, more than 60 percent of respondents said their satisfaction was poor or fair.

Chisago Lakes is part of the Blandin Broadband Communities (BBC) program, which means funding from Blandin and coaching from Bill Coleman helped get this done.

Electric Coops could help close broadband gaps – esp with eased easement policies

The Worthington Globe posts a letter from Darrick Moe, Minnesota Rural Electric Association…

Surprisingly, even a full year after the pandemic’s onset, 440,000 Minnesotans still do not have access to a wired broadband connection with 25 Mbps or faster speeds. Another 125,000 do not have any wired internet providers with services available at their place of residence, according to the organization BroadbandNow.

Just like water and electricity, broadband has quickly emerged as an essential service, and border-to-border broadband access is a state priority.

Historically, when large companies win state and federal grants to expand broadband access, they often cherry-pick a path serving larger population centers to enhance profits. This approach, while beneficial for investors, results in islands of unserved and underserved communities that become even more difficult and expensive to reach. Without a financial incentive to serve the smaller and more rural areas, they are bypassed time and time again for larger, more profitable service areas.

In the 1930s, a similar situation unfolded in rural Minnesota. For-profit utilities had the opportunity to bring electricity to rural communities, but many of those companies chose not to build power lines in the areas. Fast forward 90 years, and profitability is now preventing deployment of broadband in rural communities.

With a primary mission of serving the needs of the communities they serve, not-for-profit electric cooperatives came to the rescue for rural America by stringing power lines in smaller, less populated areas. Today, electric co-ops can be an asset in making broadband accessible to all Minnesotans.

He mentions one way the State could make it easier for electric cooperatives to serve broadband…

Currently, if an electric co-op wants to deploy broadband or partner with a telecommunications company to deploy broadband, they must first get a newly signed easement agreement from every landowner that gives the co-op express permission to use the easement for broadband purposes. However, obtaining new easements is an extremely time-intensive and expensive task.

To address this legal challenge, the Minnesota Rural Electric Association has worked with state legislators to draft HF 686/SF 1304. This bill would allow co-ops to use their current electric service easements to also deploy broadband, providing they give easement holders six months’ notice in a bill insert or via first-class mail and recognize a landowner’s right to commence legal action or seek damages for a fair market decrease in property value.

Chisago Lakes Strut Your Stuff: manufacturing tours, new website, getting seniors connected

Today we met up with the Chisago Lakes BBC team. Like the other BBC communities, Chisago has been dealing with the COVID challenges of the last year. They have been focus on a few areas:

  • Getting older folks connected with computers and training (computers going out now)
  • Getting better broadband in the area, including a survey, push to get people to take the speed tests
  • Working with businesses – specifically doing video tours of manufacturing plants for students
  • Building a new website for the Chamber – to be unveiled very soon

All of the efforts are off the ground, a few are just about ready for prime time. I am particularly looking forward to some of the stories they have collected from folks who are happy and unhappy with their home broadband.

OPPORTUNITY: Community Economic and Workforce Development Grants from Just Transition Fund

An opportunity from Just Transition Fund for communities that are transitioning from coal. Minnesota communities are eligible and it looks like broadband projects might be a good fit…

The Just Transition Fund is on a mission to create economic opportunity for the frontline communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from coal. Our goal is to build resilient communities by advancing economic solutions that are equitable, inclusive, and low-carbon. We provide both grants and technical assistance to frontline communities as we work to strengthen the capacity of the coal transition movement. Guided by a belief in the power of communities, we partner with innovative organizations that are working to create high road jobs, build local wealth, and improve conditions for those most affected by the changing coal economy.
We will award grants in 2021 through two funding cycles: Community Economic and Workforce Development (Cycle 1, May-July) and Policy & Planning (Cycle 2, September-November). We are currently accepting inquiries for Cycle 1. (Rapid response grants are also available on a rolling basis to grantees only. Please see our website for more information.)

Areas in MN without access to 100Mbps and NO apparent potential for federal funding

CNS has created an interactive map that highlights areas that do not have access to 100Mbps (download) and are not in areas that are eligible for federal funding. These are areas that are going to need to hustle to get broadband deployed. These are area that might be in a good position for state grants if/when they are available.

Here’s their press release…

In light of increasing discussions of additional funding for rural broadband, Cooperative Network Service (CNS) has recently created an interactive map to help stakeholders understand which areas of the country that currently do not have access to 100Mbps download speeds.

The map shows areas that (according to the most recently released 477 data) do not currently have 100Mb download speeds AND are not within areas where federal funding mechanisms are currently funding broadband deployment (ACAM I, ACAM II, CAF II Auction, RDOF, USDA ReConnect and Community Connect).

“The goal is to have a visual to use as a starting point (knowing it’s not perfect) for the industry and various stakeholder groups to use when considering rules for upcoming broadband funding programs,” said Paul Solsrud, CNS Product Manager. “We’re seeing many new funding mechanisms to support rural broadband upgrades as a result of the pandemic, at the Federal, State, and Local levels. “If we continue to use 25Mb as the speed threshold for determining which areas get funding, we may find ourselves with excess funding.”

Acting FCC Chair has long been a proponent of higher minimum speeds, saying “We need to set audacious goals if we want to do big things. With many of our nation’s providers offering gigabit service, it’s time for the FCC to adjust its baseline upward, too. We need to reset it to at least 100 megabits per second. While we’re at it we need to revisit our thinking about upload speeds. At present, our standard is 3 megabits per second. But this asymmetrical approach is dated,” in her August 19, 2020 statement regarding the findings of the 16th Broadband Deployment Report and Order.

Additionally, four Senators, in a March 4th, 2021 bipartisan letter, urge the Biden administration to invest in networks that provide symmetrical 100Mb speeds.

Included for reference in the interactive map is a layer of areas that are currently unserved by 25Mbps. There are many considerations and variables in creating a map like this, and this does not consider state and local planned projects, and we all know that the available datasets have drawbacks, but the “Overview and Methodology” section in the map explains what’s included and what’s not. Further, layers comparing census blocks with 0 households are included to show unserved areas that did not have at least one housing unit in the 2010 census. Click here to access the map:

My annoyance is that because federal funding doesn’t always require 100Mbps, this map is hiding areas that are getting federal funding but are not actually in line for getting an upgrade that will make a difference for long.

St Paul could use COVID money for better broadband

MinnPost posts an idea from columnist Bill Lindeke…

In normal times, especially given the 2020 COVID budget crunch, cities would be hamstrung when it comes to doing anything about this problem. But these are not normal times. This month, cities across the country are getting a huge one-time influx of money, thanks to Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

In a city like St. Paul, it amounts to $187 million, and it’s targeted for COVID-related assistance and a list of infrastructure types that, critically, includes broadband.

How does St Paul Compare to Minneapolis?

St. Paul grants companies permission to provide internet access within the city every few years — the current franchisees are Comcast and Centurylink —  and that negotiation provides an opportunity to leverage benefits for people. For example, both of the current providers are supposed to provide a small income-based discount for people who qualify. (In practice, this can be a difficult application and is not always applicable.)

One of the key reasons that Minneapolis’ broadband network is so much better than St. Paul’s is that it has a decade-old partnership with US Internet (USI), a Minnetonka-based company. Years ago, the city teamed up to fund an admittedly spotty municipal wireless service network. But that partnership allowed USI to invest in fiber optic broadband throughout much of south Minneapolis. That in turn allowed the city’s fiber service to be both faster and more affordable than the larger national providers.

Ask around yourself. Pretty much without exception, any USI fiber customer gushes accolades about their broadband service, which reaches speeds of 300 megabits per second (at minimum). By far the biggest complaint about USI is that it’s not available everywhere. Moving from a Minneapolis neighborhood with USI fiber to a part of town without it amounts to losing a cherished pet, and I’m convinced there are people who decide where to live based on their fiber service availability.

Maybe St Paul could improve on the Minneapolis model…

Chris Mitchell would like St. Paul to use some of its ARP money to copy and improve this model, perhaps leasing a new network to the company. Or alternately, the city could build the fiber network itself, representing something of a moonshot for a municipality that only recently began organizing trash collection.

Either way, there are a lot of options for how to leverage the funding, and it could do wonders for digital equity in St. Paul’s poorest communities. Crucially, they could use COVID money to focus on the city’s poorest neighborhoods first.

EVENT May 11: Fiber Broadband Association: Fiber to the farmhouse – Strategies and methods for deploying rural fiber networks

Looks like an interesting event…

The Fiber Broadband Association invites you to join us for a webinar on Tuesday, May 11, at 3 PM EDT, with Mark Boxer, Technical Manager, Solutions and Applications Engineering, at OFS. The pandemic has laid bare what rural residents have known for a long time. Rural broadband in many places is lacking. However, help is on the way. Federal and state funding programs are providing much needed assistance for rural fiber builds, and there’s never been a better time for a rural fiber build than now. This webinar will discuss design and deployment for rural networks, reviewing strategies to take fiber to the farmhouse. We’ll review the tradeoffs for various parts of the network build, and discuss concepts that may challenge some pre-conceived notions of how to deploy networks. Panelist Bio: Mark Boxer is Technical Manager, Solutions and Applications Engineering, at OFS. In this role, he assists customers deploying fiber in a wide variety of network design scenarios around the world and analyzes trends in telecommunications markets that drive new product innovation. Mark has a BME degree from Georgia Tech, and has spent his 30+ year career in the fiber industry. His experience includes varied roles in manufacturing and applications engineering for fiber-based products and markets. Other activities include inventor of six US Patents, member and past Secretary of the IEEE Power Engineering Society Fiber Optic Working Group, contributing member to the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) (formerly FTTH Council) Technology Committee and Board of Directors member of the FBA and North Carolina Broadband Matters.

Register now!

eNews: MN Monthly Recap: Federal, state local funding for broadband

GigaZone Gaming CosPlay Co-Winner

Minnesota adoption rates by generation
Minnesota has one of the largest gaps in broadband adoption by age. Under 65, adoption rate in Minnesota is 76.6 percent; over 65 it’s 56.0 percent. That gap will impact telehealth adoption and policy decisions at the local level, especially when county commissioners and city council are over 65.

Land O’Lakes unveils American Connection Corps
Land O’Lakes created a new program for young leaders aimed at a boots-on-the-ground effort to boost local internet connectivity and the benefits it provides. The program, the American Connection Corps, will be led in conjunction with Lead for America (LFA) and funded through the support of Heartland Forward and 19 additional partner organizations. Applications are open now for a two-year, full-time paid fellowship.

Funding is greater but more confusing
The good news is that there is unprecedented funding focused or potentially focused on broadband from the federal level, and continued funding from the State. The bad news is that funding is becoming more complicated in terms of what they fund and how they make choices. There are some places to get more information. The Institute for Self Reliance has created a Community Guide to Current Broadband Funding. The National Association of Counties is keeping a list of American Rescue Plan Funds distributed in MN and by County (in MN).

Broadband maps are integral to funding
Current broadband maps indicate that there’s no broadband at Vikings Practice Facility. That’s why the FCC asks you to take their Speed Test and the Minnesota Broadband Coalition is asking you to take theirs. (A related topic, you can check out Digitunity’s map of computer ownership.)

Minnesota Women and Broadband
100 Rural Women hosted a conversation between Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Policy and Engagement at the Blandin Foundation and Tina May, Chief of Staff and Vice President at Land O’Lakes moderated by Benya Kraus from Lead for America.

State Policy Issues (in reverse chronological order)

Federal Policy Issues (in reverse chronological order)

Impact of COVID-19

Vendor News

Local Broadband News

Aitkin County
Increased access to telehealth is patient-centered care

Blandin Foundation helps Aitkin County expand and use broadband

Waiting for broadband in Alexandria MN

Another reason for ubiquitous broadband: adherence to Open Meeting Laws

Hunter Branson Wins Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Tournament for 2nd time in a row at GigaZone Gaming Championship 5

Team YES wins Overwatch 6v6 Tournament at GigaZone Gaming Championship 5

Roselynn Jones from Cass Lake took 1st place in the online cosplay contest with her “High Inquisitor of the Scarlet Crusade” costume.

Smart Rural Community: Paul Bunyan Communications Video

Comparing Duluth’s market-based broadband solution to Superior’s Municipal open access model

Doctor in Duluth asks policymakers to make COVID telehealth changes permanent

CTC brings FTTH to Ely MN

Broadband is happening around Ely with CTC, Midco and Treehouse Broadband expansions

Grand Rapids
Future leader in Autonomous Vehicles? Grand Rapids MN! (For more info, check out MN Report on Automated Vehicles that mentions 10 year investment in fiber.)

Kandiyohi County
Kandiyohi County is poising to use American Rescue Plan funding for broadband

Koochiching County
Koochiching joins MN Broadband Coalition

Le Sueur County
Le Sueur County Strut Your Stuff show great innovation to meet local access challenges

Nobles County
Libraries Without Borders US and Blandin are working to bring the library to patrons in rural MN

Northwest MN
The Health Variant gives an up close look at telehealth in NW MN

Otter Tail County
Otter Tail County Strut Your Stuff: zoom rooms, tech packs – getting people connecting during COVID

Rock County
Free internet coming to Jasper’s campground 

Southeast MN
Senator Klobuchar appreciates FTTH network in SE Minnesota built by Harmony and MiEnergy Coop

White Earth Reservation
White Earth Strut Your Stuff: plan in place, ready for action

Upcoming Events and Opportunities

Stirring the Pot – by Bill Coleman

Everyone is now certifiably bonkers for broadband.  Prior to the pandemic, the need for broadband everywhere was increasingly evident and many communities were working on solutions.  Even then, the “homework gap” was seen as an inconvenient symptom of a larger problem.  It was not a big enough problem to actually spur action, but an easy to understand hindrance that typically spurred policy makers to say “we have to do something about that…sometime.”  Through the pandemic, we’ve spent millions of emergency funding on cellular hot spots to connect kids and Internet Essentials-type subscriptions applying a very expensive and short-term band-aid to connectivity shortcomings.  That money is now spent and we are right back to square one.

Long term solutions for your community may emerge from the flood of money from the FCC RDOF program, the American Rescue Plan via the US Treasury,  MN DEED SCDG program, and possible MN DEED OBD appropriations and American Jobs Act. Each program has a unique set of rules, eligibility, non-duplication requirements, timeframes, etc.  As someone who has been around the confluence of broadband and economic development for twenty years, I can safely say that the broadband world has never been more confusing.  The community role in deploying these funds ranges from absolute control to zero. There is tremendous opportunity within this chaos.

Communities must rise to this opportunity in spite of all its challenges and be prepared to positively influence the broadband deployments from this funding blizzard.  Dedicate staff resources to obtain knowledge, build desirable partnerships and pursue your broadband vision.  Find and empower local broadband champions.  Gather market data, build your local and expert broadband team, select preferred partners and be ready for opportunities.  DEED’s SCDG program has a short 40-day application window and other emerging funding programs may be similar.  Be ready!

One sure way to be ready is build the capacity of your team by taking advantage of the archived webinars on the Blandin site.  Many past conference sessions are also available there.

Good luck!

White Earth Strut Your Stuff: plan in place, ready for action

Today we met up with the White Earth Reservation BBC team. White Earth has seen a lot of changes in the last year, which has made staffing difficult but we met with two stalwarts who have been holding tight while waiting for new folks to join.

They have an enthusiastic community, new staff is coming soon and they have plans in place for:

  • Hotspots
  • Hotspots Buses
  • TVs on buses
  • Computers for elders & families
  • Cell boosters for areas with limited broadband

EVENTS: May Lunch Bunch: State funding (May 12) & Digital Use (May 26)

Each month the Blandin Foundation hosts two conversation or lunch bunch sessions; on the second Wednesday of the month the focus is Infrastructure and on the fourth the focus is Digital Inclusion and Use. Here are the topics for May:

  • Join us on May 12 for our lunch bunch update from Minnesota Broadband Coalition on what’s happening with the Minnesota Legislature.  Join us ready to contribute!
    Register here 
  • Join us May 26 for our lunch bunch on Digital Use and adoption. The specific are still in the cooker, but we’re working on something related to get help to lead a community broadband strategy. Register here.