CodeSwich.MN – Disrupting Equity – National Day of Civic Hacking – Sep 23-24

I know this is a drive for most readers – but it looks like a great event. And maybe worth replicating in other areas…

Join in on September 23-34 at Union Depot, in Downtown Saint Paul at CodeSwitch:
http://codeswitch.mn

What is CodeSwitch?

Code Switch is a free, two-day civic hackathon in which community members, designers, project managers, programmers, and people who just want to learn, collaborate intensively on projects that change our community. Great solutions are born when innovators from the community lead the development process—from ideation to launch.

Is CodeSwitch for me?

Yes. Code Switch is for everyone. Code Switch is for you. We are looking for techies AND non-techies: from developers to entrepreneurs, artists, educators, business professionals, everyday people and more! You will join other people on a team to come up with an idea on a web or mobile app that helps solve a pressing problem in your community.

What is a Hackathon? 

A hackathon is an event in which community members, designers, project managers, programmers, and people who just want to learn, collaborate intensively on projects. There are no fixed rules for what Code Switch project teams can work on. Projects can be technical or non-technical. Projects can be proposed by anybody (yes, anybody). You don’t need a detailed plan.

Organizers 

Code Switch is organized by Blacks in Technology – Twin CitiesOpen Twin Cities, and Software For Good. It is part of Hack for MN and the National Day for Civic Hacking 2017. We leverage inclusion, data, and technology for civic innovation and change.

P.S. E-Democracy.org is the 501c.3 non-profit fiscal agent for OTC and the Code Switch event. Check out the growing list of amazing CodeSwitch event sponsors. If you would like to donate toward this event or related activities, you can do so here online. Leave a memo about CodeSwitch. Donations are tax deductible.

Problems facing MN Broadband Grantees: What we can Learn from Kandiyohi County

Kandiyohi County was a recipient of a Minnesota Border to Border broadband grant. The County was working with CTC (Consolidated Telephone Company) to serve around 1700 homes in an area north of Willmar, in the Lake Florida-Norway Lake region. They were awarded $4.92 million.

The County was going to match the grant with tax abatement bonds. Proceeds from the bonds ($5 million) would be loaned to CTC for the project. The debt would be paid from tax abatement revenues and property taxes which will be reduced or cancelled by the loan payments from CTC.  The loan would be paid back fully by CTC with no impact to the tax base in Kandiyohi County.  The project started with a series of open house meetings in the communities in the proposed service areas. The goal was to get people to sign up for service and pay $25 down payment to show their commitment to taking services.

Getting residents to sign up in advance was key to CTC moving forward.  This become key because the financials substantially changed from the time of the grant application submission to the project buildout timeline.  Interest rate increases drove up the cost of debt CTC would be incurring substantially.  Despite encouragement from several sources – including Representative Baker – they did not get as many signed up as CTC needed to move forward.

 

So what happened?

Connie Schmoll at the Kandiyohi County & City of Willmar Economic Development Commission was able to help me with some details.

One issue – CTC was looking for 50 percent of the residents to sign up and pay a deposit to move forward. What happened? More than 50% of the people in the project area signed up and more than 44% had sent in the $25 deposit at the time that CTC pulled the project.

While I’ve heard providers say they have seen a 50 percent take rate and higher, it’s a high amount to require before service is even available. But it’s high because the base number of possible customers is low. The costs of serving rural areas is higher because of the population density, distance, terrain. And the ROI is lower because you just don’t have the potential volume as is available in other (more densely populated) areas. Yellow Medicine County running into the same issue.

How can we fix it?

This speaks to the need to reevaluate the required grant match; currently there is a 50 percent required match. I’ve heard from several providers in rural areas (who offer FTTH!) that areas that still need service will require more grant dollars and lower match requirements to make the project financials work. With a lower match, CTC may have been able to move ahead with a lower advance subscription rate. (As would Yellow Medicine and other potential projects.)

Another issue – In July, TDS announced plans to expand broadband to parts of Kandiyohi. They announced they would be using A-CAM funding (federal funding for Rate of Return broadband providers) to expand to 2,200 homes to bring speeds ranging from 25/3 (25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up) down to 4/1. Those speeds do not compare to fiber BUT word of improvement did impact a resident’s decision about whether to switch providers to sign up for service.

How can we fix it?

This speaks to an issue with the grant challenge process. Applicants for the MN grants are required to give notice to incumbent and nearby providers. Knowing a potential competitor’s plan in advance gives the incumbent a strategic advantage. So even if an incumbent doesn’t challenge a proposal they are still on notice regarding competitors’ or would-be competitors’ plans and are able to take the opportunity to offer some improvements. In Kandiyohi County the new service offerings the incumbent rolled out at the same time CTC was recruiting new customers did not match the symmetrical fiber network CTC planned to build; TDS’s upgrade was minimal but may have been enough to dissuade some residents to sign up. That leaves the residents who do want or need speeds that meet state goal (100/20 by 2026) out of luck.

How can we fix it?

An ongoing source of funding or at least multiple years of funding would make it easier for communities and other potential applicants to prepare applications. I have heard that from a few folks in the field. They have been working on feasibility studies with an end goal of submitting a proposal but as a deadline draws nearer they must decide whether to apply before they may be entirely ready or miss the deadline and risk an opportunity that may not return. I suspect that leads to more applications of lower quality, which in turns creates more work for the Office of Broadband Development.

So what do we do with this learning a week after the deadline for the 2017 applications?

We take the lessons to the 2018 legislative session. We talk to the powers that be. Minnesota is onto a really good thing here. Ohio and Virginia are looking at modeling our grant program. The Office of MN Broadband is receiving awards. Providers (such as CTC and others) are working hard to make the numbers work. Communities (such as Kandiyohi and others) are on the ground doing public education and encouraging action and adoption. We are leaders – and that means we learn from our own lessons to stay ahead of the pack.

How much is a public infrastructure project? Putting $22 million for fiber in Yellow Medicine County in perspective

Government Technology reports on the prospective cost of better broadband in Yellow Medicine County (MN)…

A newly completed study looking at bringing broadband service to rural areas of the county calculates that it will cost $20 million to $22 million to lay the fiber optic network needed.

It’s a matter of the county’s geography and dispersed population, according to Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, and Chris Konechne, project engineer with Finley Engineering. They presented the study to the County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday in Granite Falls.

Their study found that the county would need to lay fiber optic cable along 955 miles of roadway to serve 1,862 homes and businesses in the rural areas that are currently not served by broadband.

They also look at a lower cost option…

The study provided another option for the county. The consultants said the county could consider a combined wireless and fiber-optic “hybrid” system for a $5 million investment. A 52-mile network of fiber-optic cable could connect towers and reach the rural areas with a wireless system delivering 25 megabytes of service per customer, the minimum speed for broadband. Dawson described it as a less costly, first step toward eventually developing a more comprehensive broadband network.

But recognize the limitations…

And, he noted at the onset of his presentation, that while a 25-megabyte capacity would meet today’s needs, it will certainly become outdated. Since 1980, internet speed has doubled every year, he said.

I’ve said many times, there is room for fiber and wireless. Wireless is a great interim solution for rural areas and even after fiber is deployed, customers will want the mobility of wireless. You can access the feasibility study on the County web site. And I recently reported on discussions in Yellow Medicine and noticed that Farmers Mutual Telephone submitted an application to the Office of Broadband Development – so it looks as if things are moving forward.

But for some reason these numbers jumped out at me. It’s hard to put my arms around $22 million. So I wanted to do a little comparison and found some pricing (albeit from 2015) on cost of maintaining roads. The Pioneer Press reported…

How much does it cost to fix a road?

Anywhere from $167,000 to $3.7 million or more per lane-mile.

That’s to fix – not build. So the cost to build fiber 955 miles is $20-22 million. The cost to fix a road is $166 million to $3.5 billion.

And an interesting fact for the rural-urban eyes out there, here’s some info on building roads…

f the road’s substructure is in good condition, then rough pavement can be fixed by just applying a new surface. A typical asphalt resurface costs about $167,000 per lane-mile — meaning double that for a two-lane road and more if the road is wider. Concrete is sturdier but more expensive: a new concrete surface costs about $488,000 per lane-mile, according to MnDOT.

If a road deteriorates to the point where its substructure also needs replacement, fixing it becomes a lot more expensive. A full reconstruction costs about $1 million per lane-mile for a rural road, and $2.2 million per lane-mile in a town.

Because of the denser population in the Twin Cities, metro-area projects can be significantly more expensive — up to 70 percent more. That means more than $3.7 million for a lane-mile — or $7.5 million per mile for a two-lane city street.

I’m not saying $22 million isn’t a lot of money. I guess I’m just saying it depends what you do with it.

Dear rural wireless customer – you’re fired!

I love hot weather – but maybe as a Minnesotan I’m not ready for 90 degrees in mid-September because things are making me crabby. For example the fact that Verizon is cutting off 20,000 rural cell customers in states like Maine, Michigan, North Dakota and Montana because they spend too much time roaming. The Rural Blog gives a quick description of the situation…

Verizon is disconnecting wireless service to rural users in several states, including Maine and Montana, saying they use too much data to make service profitable. The issue centers on Verizon’s LTE in Rural America program, which Verizon say has brought coverage to more nearly 2.4 million people since its inception in 2010. Verizon partners with 21 small rural carriers around the country and pays them when its customers end up roaming off Verizon’s cell network and onto the rural carriers’ network. The affected customers have Verizon’s “unlimited” data plan, but don’t live in Verizon’s native service area. Verizon may be losing money on these perpetually roaming customers, Jon Brodkin reported for Ars Technica in June, when Verizon first began cutting off rural customers.

As a private company, Verizon can do what it wants. (Although Stop the Cap outlines the specifics of the services procured and now cut off in some of the states listed. Part of the frustration is that local partners – sometimes public partners – built infrastructure to entice Verizon to their areas and now Verizon is walking away.)

But this is a reminder that we need to reconsider broadband and telephone (cell or landline) standing as utilities!

There has been a push to deregulate VoIP in Minnesota – or more specifically recognize that all telephone calls are quickly transferred to IP (Internet Protocol) so in practice it’s a push to deregulate POTS (plain old telephone service). The push is an attempt to level the playing field because traditional phone companies are held to a pretty stringent standard and are expected to compete with wireless providers, who are not. No doubt, it isn’t fair.

But I think seeing this action from Verizon indicates that lowering the bar leaves consumers unprotected. Maybe the answer is that we level the playing field on higher ground!

Talking about the attempt to deregulate phone service (in April 2017) Representative Sheldon Johnson and Senator Simonson said the following…

First, under the bill there will no longer be a right to have phone service. It is expensive and unprofitable to serve rural customers and maintain infrastructure. Companies will invest their money in densely populated, more profitable urban areas and disinvest in maintenance of the network in rural, more expensive-to-serve, less profitable areas. Rural consumers will experience decreasing service quality and more outages as the system is allowed to deteriorate and resources are moved elsewhere.

Second, existing protections against charging exorbitant connection or reconnection charges would be gone. If the bill becomes law, phone companies can shut you off for no reason even if you always pay their bill on time or without notice if you are late. Companies can shut off customers simply because they are too expensive to serve and not sufficiently profitable. Who are these customers? They are older Minnesotans, people with disabilities, people on fixed incomes, and people who live in Greater Minnesota.

Third, AT&T and Comcast tell legislators that deregulation will produce more competition, lower prices, better service, more jobs, and broadband for everyone. Beware of would-be deregulated telecommunications companies bearing “gifts.”

Their second point sounds prophetic now – if you add “cell” to “phone companies”. Communication (broadband and phone) is a lifeline. Perhaps more policymakers need to look at it from that lens.

HBC gets a nod for wireless work in rural Minnesota

A recent article in the Daily Yonder looks at WISPs – Wireless Internet Service Providers  as the “unsung heroes” of rural broadband, calling out HBC by name…

Even some traditional fiber providers are seeing value in adopting a WISP mindset. Hiawatha Broadband Communications in Minnesota has been selling residents in 10 towns 25 Mbps symmetrical wireless since 2015. An internet service provider might take several years to finish a fiber network, but Hiawatha got wireless up and running much more quickly. Rather than wait for fiber, Hiawatha’s customers are overjoyed to get wireless because the only other option was dial up.

“Rather than focus on speed, the policy makers, funding agencies, and others should focus on unlimited data because if you listen to consumers, that’s what they want,” says Carr. “Fixed wireless with no data caps is the sweet spot where WISPs play. This bias against wireless in some quarters is no longer grounded in reality.”

The Daily Yonder does a good job describing the difference between fixed wireless (which is what they are talking about here) and cellular…

WISPs use fixed wireless, in which a transmitter “fixed” in one location transports data back and forth between one or more receivers fixed on homes, buildings, or other structures. Fixed wireless is different from, and performs better than, cellular data networks. WISPs generally don’t have strict data caps and high overage charges, the way many cellular data plans do.

I have often said there is a place for wireless AND wired connections. As the article points out, fixed wireless is a fraction of the cost to deploy fiber. So it is an good interim solution – build wireless to build a customer base and serve a community need while working on fiber. And even once fiber is deployed, people will want the mobility of a wireless solution.

NU-Telecom launches Hanska broadband project

According to The New Ulm Journal

NU-Telecom recently celebrated the launch of one of its 2017 broadband development projects, made possible by a grant awarded by The Minnesota State Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). NU-Telecom received three of the 42 grants announced by Lt. Governor Tina Smith earlier this year.

NU-Telecom received $200,397, roughly 45 percent of the $445,326 project, to build fiber connections to 46 homes and businesses in the rural area of Hanska, an area previously designated as unserved and an underserved area. NU-Telecom received two additional grants in the rural areas of Bellechester and Mazeppa, MN. President and CEO Bill Otis stressed the significance of reliable broadband in rural communities.

It’s great news for Brown County!

 

MN broadband grant requests $50.3 million – more than twice available funds

Monday was the deadline for the Minnesota Border to Border grant applications. The Office of Broadband Development reports that they received 70 applications, totaling $50.3 million in requests and representing $112 million in total project costs. During the 2017 session, the legislature included $20 million in funds for the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program.

You can get a full list of applicants online (I’ll paste that info below too). The next step is to see if there are any challenges to the applications. Here’s more info on that from the OBD…

An entity wishing to challenge an application must do so by 4:00 p.m. on Monday, October 16, 2017. Challenges will only be considered from providers that submitted updated broadband mapping data to Connected Nation in the spring 2017 data collection period. Challenges must be submitted in writing to the Office of Broadband Development, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 1st National Bank Building, 332 Minnesota Street, Suite E200, St. Paul, MN 55101-1351. A separate challenge must be submitted for each project being challenged.

So who is asking for funds?

  • AcenTek (2 applications)
  • Albany Mutual Telephone Company (2 applications)
  • Advantenon (6)
  • Arvig (1)
  • Benton Cooperative Telephone Company (1)
  • BEVCOMM (6)
  • Carlton County (1)
  • CenturyLink (3)
  • Farmers Mutual Telephone Company (2)
  • Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (3)
  • Garden Valley Telephone Company (1)
  • Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association (2)
  • Halstad Telephone Company (1)
  • Hanson Communications (1)
  • Jaguar (1)
  • KMTelecom (1)
  • Mediacom (4)
  • Midco (3)
  • Midstate/TDS (3)
  • Minnesota Valley Telephone Company (1)
  • NU-Telecom (5)
  • Otter Tail Telcom (1)
  • Palmer Wireless (5)
  • Paul Bunyan Communications (1)
  • Runestone Telecom Association (1)
  • SCI (4)
  • Sjoberg’s Cable (1)
  • West Central Telephone Association (2)
  • Wikstrom Telephone Company (1)
  • Windomnet (1)
  • Winthrop Telephone Company (1)
  • Woodstock Telephone Company (3)

At what speeds:

  • 1 Gbps/1Gbps – 37 applications
  • 1Gbps/500Mbps – 4
  • 1 Gbps/100Mbps – 3
  • 1Gbps/50Mbps – 4
  • 1Gbps/20Mbps – 1
  • 940Mbps/20Mbps – 3
  • 250Mbps/20Mbps – 4
  • 100Mbps/100Mbps – 8
  • 100Mbps/20Mbps – 1
  • 25Mbps/3Mbps – 4

 

Which counties are looking for funds?
(This does not indicate that the whole county is applying, usually just a portion)

Counties:

  1. Aitkin County
  2. Benton County
  3. Brown County
  4. Carlton County
  5. Chippewa County
  6. Chisago County
  7. Cottonwood County
  8. Dodge County
  9. Douglas County
  10. Faribault County
  11. Fillmore County
  12. Freeborn County
  13. Goodhue County
  14. Grant County
  15. Hennepin County
  16. Houston County
  17. Hubbard County
  18. Itasca County
  19. Kandiyohi County
  20. Kittson County
  21. Lac qui Parle County
  22. Lake of the Woods County
  23. Lincoln County
  24. Lyon County
  25. Marshall County
  26. Martin County
  27. Mahnomen County
  28. McLeod County
  29. Meeker County
  30. Mille Lacs County
  31. Morrison County
  32. Otter Tail County
  33. Pennington County
  34. Pine County
  35. Pipestone County
  36. Polk County
  37. Pope County
  38. Ramsey County
  39. Redwood County
  40. Rice County
  41. Roseau County
  42. St Louis County
  43. Scott County
  44. Sherburne County
  45. Sibley County
  46. Stearns County
  47. Stevens County
  48. Todd County
  49. Wadena County
  50. Wilkin County
  51. Wright County
  52. Yellow Medicine County

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