Brent Legg and Laura Taylor from Connected Nation were kind enough to talk to me yesterday about Connected Nation and their work in Minnesota. Connected Nation has been hired by the Minnesota Legislature to map broadband in the State. The results should play an important art ion the recommendations made by Minnesota Broadband Task Force.
Here are the notes from the conversation. The notes are long. It was a good conversation, I feel as if I learned something. Mostly we talked about the mapping, working with providers, demand stimulation and why are they do darned successful.
Connected Nation (CN) often comes in two pieces. First is mapping supply of broadband. Second is measuring and stimulating demand. At this point they will only be doing mapping for Minnesota, although I think they’d like to help with demand stimulation as well.
The goal of mapping is to find out where broadband exists, determine where the gaps are and target build out. The mapping is as granular as possible. The goal is to know by house where broadband is available. One of the outcomes will be an interactive map where residents can plug in their address and the tool will tell them who (if anyone) provides broadband in that area.
That check-your-address map should be ready by February 1. Once it is I’ll post it on the blog so that readers can check it out. In fact the CN folks want people to check it out, test it out and provide feedback on any issues, especially since the data will be gathered from the providers. CN will accept feedback for a couple of months and then make modifications based on feedback. Then I think the interactive maps will be made available (but not updated) for one year.
The CN team will be contacting broadband providers in the State. They estimate 225 providers, which they said is a lot. It’s more than any of the other states they covered. For example Kentucky has about 100 providers. I found that kind of surprising – but that’s because my “normal” is Minnesota. Also back in the MRNet day I swear I personally spoke to 225 people who wanted to start ISPS. (Some did and some didn’t.)
CN has relationships with most of the big providers, especially if they have worked with them in the past so it is easy for them to get data from the big guys. They will generally call a new provider, sign a nondisclosure and get data from them. (The providers are protected from sunshine laws, which means that specific info about their networks will not be accessible.) Some providers track access down to the household. For those who don’t CN will work with them to get as close as they can to that level of info. CN creates a service coverage map and the provider approves it.
Working with Providers
One challenge is getting new providers to want to work with CN. They aren’t mandated to cooperate – but CN has had success showing providers the advantages of the data collection. As a librarian I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t jump at the chance to have the State pay for their market research – but I suspect it can be tough.
One reason to participate is that the State is going to use these maps to target underserved areas. If you don’t participate and show your coverage, then your area will look like a dead zone, which may make it ripe for the picking for another provider. The flip side of that is by getting full participation the maps will be most valuable to the providers in that it will help them select their areas for growth. Brent and Laura mentioned that those maps have been really valuable for that reason, especially for the small providers.
CN will be providing high level maps color coded by availability, population/household density and topography. These may be most valuable to providers and policy makers.
CN have worked to make the providers feel like they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. To be successful everyone needs to be at the table – that includes government, nonprofits and the private sector – especially in today’s economy.
CN is not providing any info or service related to demand in Minnesota. If they did, they would be contacting people to ask about broadband use to gauge areas where demand is high and low.
They also provide services to stimulate demand. They facilitate community leadership teams at a local level, recruit members from 9 sectors and work through a process (using the survey research and maps) to create a map for the community.
The plan sounds similar to some of the work that Blandin has done – most recently with the Community Broadband Resources program where local communities can sign up to get up to 32 hours of consulting to get a local program started. What I like about both the Blandin and CN approach is that you start by getting the local community involved with creating a plan. That assumes that each community will have a different plan rather than trying a cookie cutter approach where you assume what works in one rural community will work in another.
Why are they SO successful?
I have always been impressed with Connected Nation’s (going back to the Connect Kentucky day) ability to capture the attention and imagination of legislators. So I asked what their secret was. Clearly I wasn’t the first to ask as there was no hesitation in the answer.
They picked a good name. I have to say that they couldn’t emphasize that enough with me. I see the initiatives that go far and they have good names, Net Neutrality (by any other name could be ignored), Save the Internet, white spaces. I think statewide cable franchising gets lost because they don’t have a good name, yet.
Scale is important. There have been successful local and regional efforts to promote broadband but Connect Kentucky was the first on such a grand scale. Until you get that statewide scale the legislators just don’t want to know. They credit the Kentucky legislators and governors for buying into CN.
I hadn’t thought about this before but the Kentucky folks were brave to take the time to do the baseline research and mapping on such a large scale – because that kind of research isn’t cheap but without it you can’t measure success. Also without it you aren’t make decisions based on empirical data – you’re going on hunches. I’ve seen loads of businesses do this – both do the research and make informed decisions and move forward on a hunch. I’ve seen both ways work – but you don’t really learn much going on a hunch. You never know why you succeeded or why you failed – sometimes you don’t even know if you succeeded or failed. So it’s hard to replicate or avoid the same action or reaction again.
The speed of the Kentucky results made a difference. They were able to act quickly. So people didn’t lose interested and the data was easy to compare. The supply-demand approach was also a good way to go. It’s not a new way – but including the data behind it was new. So again they were able to say, “we were there, we did this and now we’re here.”
Finally they worked in states with large congressional districts and with states with high profile legislators and governors. So that helped the word get out. I’m just not that politically astute so I’m always impressed when someone is.