Broadband Task Force on the Road with Policy Seminar Opportunities

blog_taskforceThis summer the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force will be on the road:
June 19 – Grand Rapids
July 17 – Mankato
August 21 – Fergus Falls

I’ve mentioned this before but I want to mention it again beucase if you’re in or near one of those areas, you should think about going. It really seems as if they are open to hearing formt he public. Few people have shown up to chime in at these meetings – so your voice would be heard. I’m going to go out on a limb and say – even I fyou can only come long enough to be heard, that would be valuable to you and the Task Force.

I’m planning to be in Grand Rapids and Fergua Falls. I’m hoping to find a way to listen in to the Mankato session (since I’ll be out of the country that month).

Blandin FoundationAlso if you’re in or near one of these areas, on behalf of the Blandin Foundation, I’d like to invite you to attend an accompanying Broadband Policy Seminar. The seminars are hosted by a local partner and are held on the day before the Task Force meeting.

Here’s the official inviation:

Blandin Foundation and regional partners including ARDC, Region 9 Development Commission, and Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, are promoting informed public participation in the Task Force meetings by hosting free seminars prior to each Task Force visit.

Each seminar will include regional panelists actively engaged in broadband deployment and use, and time for participants to organize their regional voice for the task force meeting the following day.

Minnesota Broadband Policy Seminars
• June 18, 3-5 pm, Sawmill Inn, Grand Rapids
• July 16, 3-5 pm, Region 9 Development Commission, Mankato
• August 20, 3 -5 pm, Big Woods, Fergus Falls

If you plan to attend – please just send a quick RSVP to broadband@blandinfoundation.org

Broadband to rural Winona

I have another happy broadband story from a raeder, which I’m sharing with his permission.

John Bronk is a semi-retired boiler inspector in Minnesota. I heard from him last February. He lives outside of Winona and was working with Hiawatha Broadband (HBC) to get broadband to his house. Well, today he has it. It happened on May 18, 2009. HBC sent a crew up to his location and ran the cable to his home. John had great things to say about Gary Evans (from HBC) and his staff.

I asked him about the difference it makes to him:

It used to be when filling out state jurisdictional inspection reports, if I could get into the company server and work it would take up to 6 minutes before it would acknowledge that I entered anything. It would take about 30 minutes to fill out a report at times. Now it takes less than 2 minutes.

When I could get on ebay it would take about the same amount of time when searching for an item. At times I would just turn the computer off.

NOW, what a difference! When you try to do something on the computer, it is there right now.

FCC’s Rural Broadband Strategy Report

I read the FCC report on a Rural Broadband Strategy. It’s long. Not a lot of it is new. A lot of the juicy bits have been postponed deferring to the National Broadband Policy (due Feb 2010) and the prospect of the future FCC definitions for unserved and underserved. Speeds weren’t discussed much at all.

To me, the report starts to get interesting round about page 50 when they discuss addressing network costs and page 54 when they address overcoming challenges to rural deployment.

Addressing network costs gets into the role of government. In this section (for the first time in the report I think) they reference success efforts in other countries. The report is careful to note the pros (serving areas that are not economically viable) and the cons (potential for market distortion) of government involvement. I can’t say there is a definitive plug for municipal networks but the report does say, “A complementary government role in broadband deployment can yield advantages that a free market solution cannot achieve alone.”

Overcoming challenges. That section pulls out specific policies and technology approaches, such as the Universal Service Fund. They outline the successes of the USF, modifications to the original plans and a need to continue to support and modify USF programs.

They promote network openness; “The value of open networks is not a novel concept, but the Commission must act to ensure that the genius of the open Internet is not lost. Over the course of the Commission’s history, powerful network operators have argued that harm will result from any reduction in their absolute control over the network.”

They also look at spectrum, middle mile access, right of way, tower access and more. Many of these topics are being decided in upcoming proceedings. So again a real statement has been deferred – but dates and times of planned meetings are included. But at least I feel like these were meaty topics where the government plays a role and needs to be smarter about how short sighted decisions affect long term goals.

There’s a historical piece on how America has overcome past infrastructure challenges (starts on page 15). That part is valuable too. It outlines the postal system, railroad, rural electrification and highway system. Again that’s not so new – but I think it indicates a recognition that the government needs to step in to drive rural broadband access and each example offers a slightly different approach made in a different time in history. I hope it will help us recognize that anytime can be the right time to invest in our future.

Another concept I liked from the report was the notion that the federal government had to start thinking of broadband as a big goal. (To that end, I also liked the appendix that lists federal programs that might touch upon broadband.) So all agencies have to consider how their rules and funding will impact rural broadband. It made me think of folks who have been frustrated with federal funding that seems to shut doors to ubiquitous broadband access. For example the eRate funds that were great for building a learning network in Minnesota but left some communities with a wired school but no access for local businesses or residents because rules mandated that the network be used only for one purpose. That’s just one example; there are other ways where with a concerted effort the government could be more mindful of ensuring broader access to broadband.

The first 50 pages didn’t seem so new to me. There’s a push towards assessing current broadband status, mapping and broadband adoption programs. It sounds a lot like the Connected Nation plan; it also sounds like the broadband stimulus plan. It had some nice stories of successful broadband deployment in different areas; it recognized specific needs of rural communities.

I’m not saying I agree or disagree with it – it’s just not so new and not really detailed enough to be meaningful. And until you define broadband, unserved or underserved or until you set a budget – I think it’s a plan that’s too broad to be very helpful.

I think a lot will be said about Connected Nation’s role in this report. Clearly their comments and reports have been incorporated. I’ve said it before the thing that CN does better than anyone is they make it easy for the policymakers. They offer a solution. Is it the right solution? If it’s the only solution the policymakers know and understand, it’s the one that going to fly. To compete or complement the CN solution, I’d start by replicating what they do well – make it easy for the policymakers.

Online gambling ban not going so well

Last month the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division (AGED) told ISPs to prohibit access to some 200 gambling web sites. So far none of the ISPs have responded.

The DPS claimed the federal wire law allowed them to make the request to ban access to the gambling sites – but most folks seem to feel that isn’t right.

Minnesota Broadband Videos

Long before Blandin Foundation had a blog, we had a video contest for Get Broadband communities. To make a medium story short – several rural communities in Minnesota got digital video cameras; Blandin got great videos that highlighted how each community was promoting or using broadband.

Some were pretty specific to the project; some are more general broadband stories. I thought I’d share a few:

Sleepy Eye
Tells the story of a high school student who is able to attend classes online and take care of her brother with muscular dystrophy and the owner of a small business

Continue reading

Community Benefits Agreement for communitywide networks

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Sheldon Mains about his work with the community benefits agreement in Minneapolis. Sheldon is a friend who helps nonprofits and foundation use technology wisely. In April he posted a blog on the history of the Community Benefits Agreement in the Wireless Minneapolis Project.

The quick, loose take is – a community benefits agreement (CBA) is traditionally used in real estate where developers commit to certain concessions in exchange building permission. The folks in Minneapolis were smart enough to think about a CBA when talking to US Internet about the communitywide wireless contract. (Again read Sheldon’s post for the details.)

I asked Sheldon to talk about what he had learned through the process of developing and deploying the CBA and what advice he might have for other communities looking at a communitywide (wired or wireless) network.

In Minneapolis there were some folks pushing for a municipal network while others wanted to outsource; others came up with the idea of using a CBA as a compromise.

It started with an informal roundtable of likely stakeholders: schools, libraries, community technology centers, nonprofit service organizations, community-based organizations. They talked about what they wanted and needed from a CBA.

Next the city pulled a task force together – with many of the same players. Minneapolis wanted free and low cost access. The task force recognized that cost of connectivity wasn’t the only issues. Cost of computers and training were also barriers. So a fund that would help with the broader issues was more valuable that cheaper access.

They decided that the money should go to a Foundation (the Minneapolis Foundation) who would administer grants. There were some benefits for US Internet to give money to the Foundation rather than the government and the community saw benefits with working with the Foundation.

So if you’re in a community that might be interested in pursuing a similar path, Sheldon suggests that you remain flexible. The benefits that Minneapolis chose might not be what you need. See what works for the provider and your city.

The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability has a guide called Community Benefits Agreements: Growing a Movement in Minnesota (Jan 08) on their site; they also have Recommendations for the Wireless Minneapolis Community Benefits Agreement (March 06).

I think the CBA is a clever way to think about how to get your community the best solution without reinvesting the wheel entirely.

US ranks 15 with OECD

Thanks to Mary Mehsikomer for sending me the heads up on the latest OECD report. So the good news is that as of December 2008, the US is the most wired city in the world – when you look at sheer numbers. When you look at per capita basis, we’re not so hot.

The US ranks 15 in terms of broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants
The US ranks 14 in terms of average monthly broadband subscription price

So that’s not so hot. You know who is hot? Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Finland and then Korea. Maybe we need to start looking at what they do – build our National broadband plan after reading theirs.