Broadband listening session: recipe for broadband success in MN and questioning why federal funding goes to DSL

Earlier today I attended a broadband listening session in Faribault hosted by Farm Foundation, NTCA, CoBank, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. and USDA.

The morning was divided into three sessions:

  • E-Connectivity Needs in the Upper Midwest with Bill Esback (Wisconsin State Telecom Association) and Steve Fenske (Minnesota Association of Townships)
  • Connecting Rural America with Danna Mackenzie (Office of Broadband Development), Kristi Westbrock (CTC) and Brian Zelenak (Mille Lacs Energy Coop)
  • Update from DC with Jannine Miller (USDA)

I was able to record most of it and I’ll share my notes below ASIS. There were just a few moments I wanted to highlight.

Bill Esback spoke about CAF 2 – federal funding from the FCC that is used to build out broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps down and 1 up (10/1). A gentleman from Jaguar asked what the price cap carriers are putting into the ground. Esback said CenturyLink & Frontier are using DSL. AT&T is using fixed wireless. The follow up question was – why would the government want to fund a technology that’s already outdated? One upload will not be enough to push the technology up? Esbeck said it was a matter of resources – we did the possible, not the best.

Danna MacKenzie noted key pieces of the Minnesota broadband model – a model that at least 18 other states have looked at:

  • The broadband TF
  • Getting state speed goals in statute
  • The state surplus made it easier to get funding.
  • Establishment of the Office of Broadband Development – in economic development agency was helpful too
  • State mapping
  • Grants are helpful to encourage partnerships

An interesting recipe that other states want to follow. But more importantly in a year when the Task Force is scheduled to sunset and the funding wasn’t allocated – I think this could be a goal list for Minnesota. If we lose pieces of this roadmap, we may lose ground in being a national broadband leader.

Also I’m going to ask for a kind eye when you read the following more complete notes. After I left the meeting, we started the family drive to pick up a kid in Winnipeg. And we’re still on that drive. BUT I wanted to get these notes to people while it was still news. Continue reading

How do you get a business to rural Main Street? Broadband!

Minn Post recently ran an article on a new 3D printer business in Gibbon. It’s a great example of what happens in a rural area when they have broadband. (Gibbon is in Sibley County – one of the areas we featured in our report about the Community ROI of public investment in broadband.)…

“Our downtown is really struggling and has been for a while,” she [City Administrator Dana Lietzau] said. “The question is: ‘How do you find businesses to come here?’ ”

The answer that landed one entrepreneur is clear: high-speed internet access.

Like many rural towns in Minnesota, this village of 750 people in Sibley County has the standard fare of small businesses: a hardware store, a bank, an auto repair shop, an insurance agency, two bars. Also, like many small towns, it has few retail outlets. The grocery store closed years ago.

So when Adam Stegeman, an engineer with a background in 3D printing technology – a growing form of manufacturing – opened a 3D printing business in an old bank building here, residents took notice. “Any employment in this city is huge,” Lietzau said.

They talk about how they got broadband…

In 2015, Gibbon joined nine other cities and 17 townships in creating a cooperative that promised to bring broadband Internet access to 6,200 residents across both Renville and Sibley counties. RS Fiber Cooperative laid fiber optic cable through Gibbon in 2016 – about the time Stegeman began thinking seriously about striking out on his own. Each of the cities involved in the cooperative now has fiber optic cable, with speeds of up to 1 gigabyte; the second phase of the project – to bring broadband to the countryside – should begin in 2020, according to a spokesman for RS Fiber.

The cost to bring broadband to the cities involved in the project was about $15 million; Gibbon sold bonds to raise its share, which was $813,000. Lietzau, the city manager, said civic leaders pitched broadband access as at least one way to encourage businesses to locate in Gibbon. The Stegeman venture has helped to validate that hope.

And details the need for high speed broadband…

To fill orders, Stegeman must download large files of designs over his broadband connection. He can download 10 gigabytes in an afternoon, which he said was a major factor in his decision to locate in Gibbon.

“It really speeds things up,” he said. Without a connection that can transport huge digital files, he would need thumb drives sent through the mail – a much slower and more inefficient way to do business, he said.

Stegeman hopes his business will grow so that he can eventually employ some people who live in the area. He looks 10 years ahead and sees stability, three or four employees and profits. That is the plan, anyway.

Broadband makes short list of DevelopMN goals of Regional Development organizations in Minnesota

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently ran a letter from Cheryal Lee Hills and Dane Smith outlining the role (and importance) of the regional development organizations (RDOs) in Minnesota…

The RDOs still are very much in service to employers, present and would-be, in the local economy. They swing deals and find capital, public money or tax breaks. But Region Five and all 10 of the entities allied as the Minnesota Association of Development Organizations are also broadly concerned these days about all the pieces crucial to healthy community development, which in turn foster more sustainable and equitable business growth.

This broader vision was recently distilled in a remarkable document, “DevelopMN 2016: Comprehensive Development Strategy for Greater Minnesota.”

We believe that this document can make a positive and constructive difference and that it can be of great value to candidates and voters during this year’s election season. More than ever, the so-called urban-rural divide and in particular the future of greater Minnesota will be front-and-center, as voters assess an unusually large number of candidates for governor and other offices, to determine who casts the most credible vision for a statewide economic growth formula that appeals to Minnesotans in every region.

And explaining DevelopMN, a framework for the future (a framework that recognizes the role of broadband)…

The DevelopMN framework, based on decades of local hands-on experience, pinpoints 17 goals and 58 strategies for growth. Those include: improving local and vocational employment training; building affordable housing; addressing a child-care-shortage crisis; accelerating our statewide transition to renewable and local energy; protecting water quality and natural resources (a huge asset that makes rural living attractive in the first place); building out broadband and high-speed internet access; bringing many more arts and cultural amenities to Main Street; supporting existing local businesses; and all the while emphasizing the need to welcome and be more attractive to newcomers and immigrants, whether from Minneapolis or Myanmar.

Importantly, DevelopMN does not throw shade on the Twin Cities as a competitor and says nothing, for instance, about stopping transit investment in St. Paul to pay for roads and highways in St. Peter. The new framework and the tone of DevelopMN turn out to be similar to that of Greater MSP, the large and well-funded organization launched almost a decade ago by large corporations and Twin Cities governmental leaders to promote metro growth and attract new employers.

If you’re interested in more discussion of future plans and the interconnections between rural and urban, I might suggest attending the Thrive by Design conference happening in Granite Falls next week.

Frustrated citizen in Minnetrista wonders why the city doesn’t have broadband

Lake Pioneer reports on frustrated voiced at a city council meeting in Minnetrista on June 4…

Most recently, new resident Mark Feldman came before the council at their Monday, June 4 meeting to discuss this issue.

“My concern is that we have no access to high speed internet. Frontier apparently comes to our property but they themselves measured it at less than one megabyte per second so that’s not adequate for internet,” Feldman told the council. “I don’t know why we can’t have high speed internet at our residence.”

As city staff informed Feldman, unfortunately, internet companies are looking to make a profit. Different companies have different density requirements that an area needs to meet before they will invest in setting up high speed internet in that area, to ensure that they will make a profit on the investment. The difficulty that Minnetrista residents have encountered, and residents of other cities as well, is that internet companies set high density requirements, and often aren’t willing to collaborate or share resources with competing companies. Furthermore, their practices are not highly regulated, a fact that has generated some recent push-back for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“The city of Minnetrista is roughly 36 square miles, with 7,000 people here, so we’re not really densely populated,” explains City Administrator Michael Barone. “We’re kind of at the mercy of the vendor and the marketplace that reacts to that. So they have marketing plans for rolling out additional high speed internet to their communities but as far as we know it’s going to be difficult for us to advocate to get additional high speed internet here.”

Poor internet connectivity is frustrating, and while much of it is beyond the City’s control, they are looking for a solution. “It is important for residents to know that the City is currently and has been actively searching for ways to increase internet access and speed,” says Director of Administration Cassandra Tabor. “Last year the City applied for the Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Development Grant through the State of Minnesota and DEED (Department of Employment and Economic Development). These monies were designated to be matched by cities applying and promote the expansion of access to broadband to all areas of Minnesota.”

Unfortunately, the City of Minnetrista was not successful in qualifying for this grant as they did not meet the criteria of ‘under-served’ for internet. “Our median income was too high, and current providers in the area submitted documents that showed intent to grow their services in our area by 2020,” Tabor explains. “The City does not have regulatory control over internet and cable providers but does work closely with residents to rectify service issues when needed.”

The city did have some recommendations for residents…

While city staff continue to work towards a citywide solution, they also recommend solutions for individual residents to pursue. “Residents can reach out to Frontier Communications, request to have their speed checked to ensure they are getting the internet speed that they are paying for, communicate any concerns with Frontier Communications directly and request changes to service or access,” Tabor explains. “Frontier has individual agreements with each customer they serve, including the City of Minnetrista for the administrative and police buildings, and the City does not manage individual agreements with Frontier on behalf of the customer. Some City residents have had luck with HughesNet and other dish or satellite based providers, this would be something residents could pursue if they desired.”

Unfortunately Minnetrista is not an anomaly. There are other towns – or spaces between towns that are left unserved or underserved. This is the dark side of what the report I did (with Bill Coleman) last Fall demonstrated. Local residents benefit when they get broadband (to the tune of $1,850/year/household) but the local broadband provider doesn’t necessarily reap the same benefits. So it’s difficult for a commercial provider to make the investment. Yet, also difficult for a city, county or other local ombudsman-type organization to see that barrier and not want to find a solution.

Letter to the Editor – AT&T is investing in northwestern Minnesota

The Crookston Times posts a letter to the editor from Paul Weirtz, state president of AT&T Minnesota…

Mobile internet coverage is always a hot topic these days, especially in northwestern Minnesota. That’s why I wanted to take an opportunity to highlight some good news AT&T has to offer residents here.

Over the last five years, AT&T has made 115 upgrades to expand our network and boost coverage and reliability in Polk County and the surrounding counties of Kittson, Marshall, Pennington, Red Lake and Rosseau. This includes 36 network upgrades in Crookston, East Grand Forks, and Thief River Falls.

Just last month, we expanded our 4G LTE wireless network in the area with upgrades to an AT&T cell site on Highway 64 west of Thief River Falls. With these enhancements, AT&T customers will experience faster, more reliable wireless service.

We know residents and businesses are doing more with their wireless devices than ever before, and our goal is to give them an effortless network experience, not only in northwestern Minnesota but throughout the state.

That’s why AT&T is committed to investing in our wireless networks across Minnesota. We invested nearly $350 million in our Minnesota networks from 2014 to 2016. In 2017, we made 976 network enhancements across 299 communities in the state, including new cell sites, network upgrades, and capacity expansions. And we are continuing to invest in our networks this year. In fact, expanding our network in Minnesota has given AT&T the most wireless coverage in the state.

Not only do these investments boost reliability, coverage and speed, they also improve critical services that support public safety and first responders.

This is important because last year, Minnesota opted in to FirstNet, accepting a plan from the FirstNet Authority and AT&T to deliver a wireless broadband platform to the state’s public safety community. We are very proud that AT&T, in a public-private partnership with the FirstNet Authority, will build, operate and maintain a highly secure wireless broadband communications platform for Minnesota’s public safety community for the next 25 years at no cost to the state. The FirstNet experience will deliver innovation and create an entire system of modernized devices, apps and tools for first responder subscribers of the service.

As a member of the Governor’s Broadband Task Force, I know full well the benefits of broadband deployment.

I’m very proud of AT&T’s commitment to investing in our networks in Minnesota, and I’m excited for what the future holds.

Paul Weirtz, state president
AT&T Minnesota

 

Free broadband planning and funding application help for your school

Rural School Collaborative posts a good reminder about Education SuperHighway – they offer free broadband planning and help with funding forms. It’s free. So if your school needs help, it would be worth a call…

EducationSuperHighway is the leading nonprofit that is working to ensure every school across the country has access to high-speed broadband. There is no catch. Everything they do for school districts is free of charge, and they have worked extensively with rural schools and in rural communities in over 30 states.

If you have any questions or would like to receive support, contact Alyssa Cubello (alyssa@educationsuperhighway.org) or visit www.educationsuperhighway.org/accelerate to get in touch. EducationSuperHighway can help you:

  • Plan your broadband network upgrade
  • Research technology and provider options
  • Develop your E-rate Form 470 / RFP strategy
  • Evaluate bids and select the best provider solution

Additionally, you can watch their free webinars here to help you understand more about your available E-rate Category 2 budget, make best use of these funds, and run a successful procurement.

Lack of rural broadband is hurting business – reprinted letter from Inter-County Leader

Thank you to the Inter-County Leader for permission to re-post a letter to the editor from someone who had experience with fiber in Minnesota and is talking about what life is like without broadband…

Rural Internet service

When I recently volunteered at Forts Folle Avoine during a fundraising event, their credit card machine stopped working. This was eventually fixed but staff said it happens quite often, especially when they have events where there are lots of people wanting to charge. The staff indicated that internet service in that area was poor.

The previous year, during Gandy Dancer Days, the credit card machine in the coffee shop in Webster did not work. They lost business as people didn’t have cash and most don’t use checks. On a recent visit to the coffee shop, the credit card machine was working but they had no internet. A customer said she was looking for a job and relies on using the internet at places like the coffee shop to apply for jobs. She stated that the school where she previously worked had iPads for students, but they often couldn’t connect due to slow internet speed. So she used her cell phone hot spot which cost her around $200 a month for unlimited data.She stated that this lack of access to the internet does not give local students an equal opportunity in education when compared with other locations in more populated areas.

About two years ago the school where I worked in rural Minnesota, a small town of 500, was getting up-to-date fiber optic cable for better internet access. I believe this was partly funded by the state of Minnesota.

With a population of 15,000 for the whole county of Burnett, the internet provider doesn’t seem to be concerned about the poor internet service. What the company doesn’t realize is that many “lakers,” some coming from the Twin Cities, want good internet service and they are at their cabins regularly. I would recommend that people interested in improving the internet connection in Northwest Wisconsin contact their legislators and their internet service providers asking for better up-to-date internet.

Pam Girtz

Frederic

Unfortunately the state funding she mentions above was not funded in the last legislative session – it was part of the Supplemental Budget that was vetoed.