Bill Coleman and Chris Mitchell ask – Are CAF II Investments Helping Rural Minnesota?

The podcast is a good listen. Here’s the intro from Community Networks

In the most recent report from the Blandin Foundation, Researcher Bill Coleman from Community Technology Advisors and his crew put boots to the ground to examine the results of Connect America Fund (CAF II) investments. Bill recently visited our office in Minneapolis to discuss the report with Christopher for episode 318 of the  podcast.

You can download the report, Impact of CAF II-funded Networks: Lessons From Two Rural Minnesota Exchanges here.

Bill and Christopher discuss the challenges Bill and his team encountered when they initially decided to gather documentation on what services CAF II funded projects brought to rural Minnesota. In order to get past those challenges, the researchers devised a methodology that other communities can reproduce.

Once the team had answered the technical questions about infrastructure, they analyzed the results and applied them to Minnesota’s statewide goals for broadband access. They determined that, in addition to lack of transparency regarding CAF II network plans, the tendency to invest in slower speeds, including DSL, will not help Minnesota achieve its goals.

For people living in urban areas who have grown accustomed to broadband within reach, it’s hard to imagine the situation in rural Minnesota, where there are still homes that have no access to the Internet at all. The disparity in speeds and availability complicate the idea that rural folks should have access to high-quality connectivity at the same levels as people living in urban centers.

How do three small towns in MN maintain population? Ask Litchfield, Mora and Pine City

The Daily Yonder features three small towns in Minnesota that have maintained population…

Litchfield, Mora and Pine City are the only three cities located outside a metropolitan area in the Gopher State to have never lost population throughout their respective and storied histories.  Reasons why, while debatable, might come as a surprise.   

Many rural cities across the state—from Ortonville to Olivia—have shown three straight decades of population loss due to aging populations and, primarily, urbanization; today, more than 7 in 10 Minnesotans lives in an urban area.  Dwindling rural populations are part of a national trend.   

 Over the course of time, Litchfield, Mora and Pine City chose rather than to wilt away, to be resilient and adapt.  For each, the result has been a continued renaissance of sorts.  Since incorporating, their respective population counts have risen every 10 years. 

So what has helped them? Location…

“Proximity to the Twin Cities is certainly one explanation,” suggested Hibbs.  After all, it always comes down to location.  All are within 70 miles of Minneapolis in separate directions.  Luke Greiner, Regional Analyst Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, also pointed out, “All have solid highway access,” whereby Litchfield is west of the Twin Cities on US Highway 12; Mora, north on State Highway 65; and Pine City, northeast on Interstate 35.   

Government centers…

Another explanation could be each is a center of government.  “All three cities are county seats, which may be a good source of economic stability or growth,” noted Hibbs.  Litchfield is the seat of Meeker County; Mora, Kanabec County; and Pine City, Pine County.  The county populations have grown throughout most of the period, although the 2016 population estimates (which have a margin of error) seem to indicate that growth is leveling off.  

Schools and lo costs of living…

 It doesn’t hurt there exists strong education systems with relatively lower costs of living.

Jobs…

While two-thirds of rural counties in the U.S. lost jobs from 2007 to 2017, the three counties these cities are capitols of saw job growth, including during the recession from December 2007 to June 2009.  Pine County gained 1,823 jobs; Kanabec, 1,357; and Meeker, 1,209.  Job growth continued through last year. From January 2017 to January 2018, Pine County added 469 jobs; Meeker, 335; and Kanabec, 307. 

Thanks to communities that are welcoming and adapting to change, these jobs are in a variety of sectors.  According to Pederson, “If we chose not to embrace change for the future, our community will fade into the darkness of the night.”  True for Pine City, Litchfield, Mora and any rural community, really.

Inherent in some of these characteristics – access to broadband. Broadband access opens to the door to better education opportunities and more jobs. SO while it’s hard to change your location – or to canvas to become the county seat after the fact – but with broadband you can create fertile ground for growth in your community.

Comcast Internet Essential now available to Low-Income Vets

CED Magazine reports…

This year, Comcast is expanding eligibility to Internet Essentials to all low-income veterans living in the operator’s service footprint, which it estimates covers about 1 million eligible veterans.

The article details more of the program…

During a press conference call on Monday, Comcast’s Senior EVP and Chief Diversity Officer David Cohen said the Internet Essentials program, which provides high-speed internet service for $9.95 per month plus tax to eligible customers, is the most successful internet adoption program, outpacing other initiatives by 10 times.

And

The program has made enhancements each year, with more than 35 in all. Last year, Comcast expanded eligibility to include more families with school age children, those receiving HUD housing assistance, and low income seniors in select markets. It also increased the program’s service speed to 15 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up.

The FCC has designated the national broadband standard at 25 Mbps download speeds, though Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently said she believes that should be upped to 100 Mbps.

The big news is the popularity of the program…

In its seventh year running, Comcast’s program to provide low-income Americans with less expensive internet access has now connected 6 million people across the country.

And it’s good to think of people getting broadband for reduced rates. It would also be good to see them get it at the 25/3 rate mentioned above and to see the FCC increase the speed definition.

Fire damages high school so kids will be going online for some classes

Bring me the News reports on the results of fire damage in a school in St Cloud…

Apollo High School in St. Cloud is facing an unusual set of challenges due to a fire that damaged parts of the school in July.

The July 11 fire started in a classroom and caused significant smoke damage throughout the school. Last week, health inspectors informed school officials that parts of the school will not be ready for the start of the upcoming school year.

But they have a plan to go online…

“We will begin the school year on an alternate day schedule,” said District 742 Superintendent Willie Jet on Monday. “This means that students will rotate the days they will physically attend Apollo. Students not at Apollo will engage in on-line learning directed by their classroom teachers. Fortunately, every high school student is provided with a one-to-one device which makes this opportunity possible.”!

Jett said they worked with the Minnesota Department of Education and schools around the state that have experienced “similar catastrophic situations” to come up with the plan.

I was worried that plan was going to be a hardship for families that didn’t have broadband access at home, but it turns out they have a plan…

Students that don’t have access to Wi-Fi outside of school will be provided with hotspot devices, according to Apollo Principal Al Johnson.

Wouldn’t it be nice if those families got to keep the hotspots even once the school is ready for a full schedule of students? Imagine how nice it owudl be for them to do homework from home.

 

Blandin Foundation Offers Candidates Insights on Rural Broadband Needs

In a letter sent today from Blandin Foundation President Kathy Annette, a set of insights on rural Minnesota’s broadband needs, developed by the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board, were offered as a resource to candidates running for office…

On behalf of Blandin Foundation I am writing to thank you for undertaking the hard work of running for office and to call attention to an issue critical to the vitality of the community you seek to serve: broadband.

Blandin Foundation works for vibrant rural Minnesota communities by investing in community leaders and working with partners to expand opportunity for all residents. It is one of only a handful of foundations in the U.S. focused exclusively on rural communities and the largest rural-based private foundation in Minnesota.

In 75 years working with rural leaders, we’ve learned that thriving communities are built on hard work. On the hard work of leadership, of reaching across differences to build lasting connections and of listening.

We’ve listened to leaders across rural Minnesota who say — broadband access is necessary for our communities to survive and thrive.

We agree and that’s why since 2003 Blandin Foundation has partnered with countless communities to get the affordable broadband access they need and the skills to use it. We offer technical and financial resources to support community leaders as they tap the power of broadband to create resilient, connected futures.

To guide our work, we formed a statewide advisory group – the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board – made up of telecommunications providers, community economic developers, elected officials and technology experts. In 2005 the Strategy Board adopted a set of principles for decision-makers. These principles, endorsed by the Foundation, offer a guidepost for navigating complex technology policy challenges while keeping the public good at the center of public discourse.

Ubiquity
Ultra high-speed broadband needs to be available to everyone in Minnesota, including businesses, institutions, and individuals. While ultimately all Minnesotans will need this service, this goal will necessarily be achieved in stages.

Symmetry
Ultra high-speed broadband needs to provide symmetric speeds and facilitate source-to-source communication. Download speeds support consumption; upload speeds support economic development and wealth creation.

Affordable
Ultra high-speed broadband needs to be available at rates people can afford. It also needs to be affordable to build. Where the market does not reward private investment, the public sector must step up.

Competition
Competition among service providers should be encouraged. Competition increases customer choice and promotes innovation.

World Class
We must achieve world-class state-of-the-art service based on global standards. We cannot afford just to be better than our neighboring states.

Collaboration
The deployment and use of ultra high-speed broadband is a challenging goal that can benefit from public and private entities working together.

Neutrality
Ultra high-speed broadband policy should be promoted regardless of the technology platform that delivers it. The best technology for delivering ultra high-speed broadband may not have even been invented yet.

Interoperability
Regardless of the technology used for ultra high-speed delivery, all systems must seamlessly interoperate with all other technologies.

The 2005 work of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board was prescient, as has been the work of the various state broadband task forces created and supported by Governors Pawlenty and Dayton. Recent task forces have upgraded the state broadband goals and supported the creation and funding of the Border-to-Border Broadband grant program. This program has directly funded deployment of robust broadband in many areas of greater Minnesota. Still there is much more to do and the consequences of inaction will be harsh for those left behind.

In service to our mission of being a trusted partner and advocate for healthy rural Minnesota communities, Blandin Foundation is aware of broadband’s critical role in their vitality. And as you prepare to serve, working hard to understand the challenges facing your constituents, the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board offers as a resource a set of insights related to Minnesota’s broadband goals.

This knowledge is informed by the Foundation’s 15 years’ experience working on broadband access and adoption in communities across the state and by the personal knowledge and expertise of board members, individually and collectively. As a whole, they represent the perspectives of rural people, rather than of any service provider.

As the election season approaches, we are reaching out to all candidates running for public office this fall to share these recommendations geared at creating and supporting the most effective broadband deployment and technology adoption programs possible

  1. Continue the Governor’s Broadband Task Force
    The Task Force provides an opportunity for community members, advocates, providers, consumers, and others to have input and make recommendations on broadband policy in Minnesota. It recommended to the legislature our state’s current broadband goals and reports annually on progress, including in digital literacy, cyber security, innovation and broadband-enabled economic development.

    To ensure that the Task Force fulfills its public mission, the next Governor should conduct a membership and representation review. The Strategy Board believes that, in its current form, those within the broadband industry (service providers, vendors and trade associations) have outsized representation compared to elected officials, consumers, business owners, agriculture, and people living in unserved and underserved areas.

  2. Optimize the Border-to-Border Broadband Fund
    Significant portions of Minnesota, especially rural areas, still lack adequate broadband services. Recognizing that rural broadband subsidies are required for successful deployments that meet state goals, we recommend that appropriate tools and programs be created by the legislature. The existing grant program gives providers the financial incentives they need to extend and improve networks in the hardest places to reach in Minnesota. The total grant amount requested by all applicants far exceeds the money allocated to the fund to date, demonstrating strong continued interest in the program. The lack of 2018 funding was a serious blow to those preparing to seek funds for 2019 construction.

    Project partners have expressed concern with the single-year funding model currently used by the Legislature. The application timeframe to complete the complex task of blending engineering, finance, partnership agreements, and community support into a competitive application is not conducive for larger, long-term projects. Stable, biennial funding – incorporated into DEED’s base funding – would give confidence to providers and communities alike to continue to plan and build the partnerships required to prepare effective project proposals. Including the Grant Program as part of the base budget in FY 2020/21 is of highest priority.

    Public leaders committed to maximizing the public benefit from the fund should be aware of opportunities to improve some details of its administration. For example, the $5 million grant cap per project hinder projects of larger geographic scale, whole counties or multi-county network builds. Scale matters when building infrastructure. In some cases, larger projects allow for more cost-efficient network planning and construction. They also can offer ubiquitous coverage across rural counties.

    Finally, the Fund’s challenge process remains an obstacle to building the best network possible to communities. Under the current rules the challenge process is overprotective of incumbent provider interests – the company already serving the area where the project is proposed – and discourages non-incumbent providers from participating. Incumbents are not required to install the same or better service as proposed by the non-incumbent applicant; rather the process allows the incumbent challenger to prevail as long as they commit to improve service ‒ not to 2026 speed goals ‒ but just enough to prevent a grant, to the long-term detriment of the community.

  3. Continue the Office of Broadband Development
    The Office of Broadband Development (OBD) is testimony to the fact that improving broadband networks and services across the state is a shared, non-partisan priority for all Minnesotans. The OBD provides a critical link between communities and providers and administers the Broadband Fund while documenting successful infrastructure project design and management. The Strategy Board believes the Office also should be resourced to promote the adoption and use of broadband, including broadband-based economic development, so that the highest possible value is gained from broadband infrastructure investments.
  4. Address Digital Equity
    A growing digital divide threatens Minnesota’s future prosperity. Every Minnesotan, regardless of their ZIP code, should have a device, a network connection and the skills to meet their online needs, including access to health care and education resources, employment and training and tele-work opportunities. Access denied is opportunity denied. The Office of Broadband Development should be funded to support digital equity efforts statewide.
  5. Commitment to State Speed Goals Using Scalable Technology
    State policies should prioritize strategies that lead to achieving the state’s 2026 speed goals of 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload. The Strategy Board strongly endorses the current requirement that projects funded with state dollars must meet scalability requirements. State investment in broadband should prepare the state for the future. At a minimum, this requires funding projects that meet the current scalability standards.
  6. Continue Mapping While Reviewing Processes
    Accurate broadband maps are essential for sound investment and development policy and for addressing the needs of Minnesota’s un- and underserved communities. The Office of Broadband Development should continue to have resources to map Minnesota’s broadband networks. Advancements in technology, such as fixed wireless services, should be carefully and accurately accounted for in mapping of unserved and underserved. Broadband service providers should be encouraged to cooperate responsibly with OBD in this process.
  7. Evaluate New Broadband Solutions
    Policy leaders should review and highlight opportunities for creative technology, financing and partnership solutions to meeting the state’s broadband goals. Removing statutory and administrative policy barriers is a good place to start.
  8. Ensure Rural Business Connectivity
    For rural business development, broadband connections must be redundant, reliable and symmetrical. All communities need to be able to support tech-dependent businesses, whether in downtown areas or industrial parks.
  9. Support Rural Business Tech Transformation
    Advanced broadband networks are necessary, but not sufficient to help emerging and established small and medium-size firms make effective use of connectivity. Quality tech support and strategic business planning and implementation resources are necessary for cost-efficient and effective technology adoption. In addition, rural schools, health care providers, governments and non-profits would benefit from similar tech support.

I hope you find these insights from the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board helpful as you delve into the broadband issue and begin to think about the broadband policies that you will support.

Strong rural communities need broadband access to thrive and its going to take leadership, investment and cooperation at all levels to make it happen.

Our Blandin broadband staff is available to connect you with people and knowledge should you like to explore any of these insights in greater detail; Bernadine Joselyn can be reached at brjoselyn@blandinfoundation.org or (218) 327-8728. You will also find significant information about rural broadband and other perspectives in two places:

www.broadband.blandinfoundation.org
www.ruralpulse.org

With appreciation for your public service, and on behalf of the rural Minnesota communities we serve,

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Kathleen Annette, President & CEO
on behalf of the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board

Joe Buttweiler, CTC – Consolidated Telecommunications Company
Stacy Cluff, Mille Lacs Energy
Nancy Hoffman, Chisago County HRA EDA
Steve Kelley, U of MN Humphrey School Public Affairs
Jon Linnell, North Region Health Alliance
Scott Marquardt, Southwest Initiative Foundation
Dan Pecarina, Hiawatha Broadband Communications
Rich Sve, Lake County Commissioner
Fred Underwood, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Madonna Yawakie, Turtle Island Communications

Weave Got Maille in Ada credited in Inc Mag for better broadband a jobs!

Just what kind of impact can one super niche internet business have in a community? Well ask Ada. Inc. Magazine just credited Ada’s own Weave Got Maille for better broadband and more jobs. (We wrote about them in 2015 too.)

Weave Got Maille manufactures chain mail supplies – tiny rings. Founder Edie Ramstad thought she’d be making 1,000 a day – turns out she does 2-3 million a day! But it was the business that almost wasn’t or at least almost wasn’t in Ada. Inc reports on some issues…

Lack of machinery was just one problem facing Ramstad, who at one point almost gave up, thwarted by Ada’s sparse infrastructure. Founded in 2012, Weave Got Maille was the first nonagricultural manufacturer in this farm town of around 1,600 people, 45 miles northeast of Fargo. “You can’t be an internet business with a post office that closes at 2 o’clock and puts a limit on how much you send because the mail carrier doesn’t have a very big car,” Ramstad says.

And unfortunately success only magnified the issues…

But the demand strained a business that, back then, operated out of a building in the middle of a wheat field. Ada is a county seat; but a few years ago it had only dial-up internet. The local post office turned away Ramstad’s business because it couldn’t handle the volume. As she struggled alone with infrastructure constraints and new challenges, like managing a scaling workforce, she grew increasingly frustrated.

But it turned around after Ramstad attended 1 Million Cups event in Fargo. They she got inspired and networked in with people who were also inspired and inspiring. Some of those stepped in to help her get the better broadband she needed…

Someone from Kauffman reached out to North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp on Ramstad’s behalf; Heitkamp asked the U.S. postmaster general to intercede with the Ada branch to increase its hours. After hearing Ramstad address a later 1 Million Cups event, the mayor of Fargo advised the governor of Minnesota to bring fiber to Ada. “Three years ago, the kids here could not even do their homework online,” Ramstad says. “Now we have good internet.”