Governor endorses Connected Nation for Minnesota broadband maps

Win, lose or draw, the first round NTIA/RUS broadband stimulus fund applications are in. Word is getting out about who applied and who didn’t including who applied for funds to do Minnesota mapping.

Mike O’Connor wrote a post on Wednesday about Minnesota Departments of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and Commerce recommending to the Governor that the State work with Connected Nation to pursue a grant to conduct a broadband map for the State of Minnesota with data that will be used to create a national broadband map. Connected Nation are the folks doing the current mapping for the State. This money would extend/expand on that work. Twelve other states and one territory are working with Connected Nation on their applications.

The Story

Here’s the quick take on the deal, partially gleaned from Mike’s post, Brent Legg at Connected Nation and Diane Wells at the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

The NTIA will provide “approximately $240 million in grants to assist states or their designees to develop state-specific data on the deployment levels and adoption rates of broadband services.” The NTIA seemed to be looking for a “single eligible entity in a State that has been designated by the State to receive a grant.” So state approval was important.

The folks at the State heard from two possible mappers – Connected Nation and the University of Minnesota. At this point I suspect local readers are saying – hey why didn’t they go with the U? All things being equal I buy local, especially if I have federal dollars to spend.

When CN approached the State they had a track record, a complete plan in place and the required 20 percent match. According to the letter of recommendation from the State, they have been “very satisfied” with CN’s work to meet the terms of the 2008 contract and the price paid. The funding from NTIA will allow the State to ask more questions, which will help get better maps. (Although the State wasn’t necessarily thrilled with all of the details as set out by the NTIA.) There will be a Steering committee to work with CN. The State and CN have a memorandum of understanding in place concerning the question of verifying availability and speeds

The University had a good idea but the plan was not complete. They were unable to specify staff members dedicated to the project. Their 20 percent match was less assured than CN’s. Without existing relationships with the providers, it seems optimistic to think that the U could meet the short deadlines required by the NTIA.

The Controversy

The old controversy is CN. People have extreme feelings about Connected Nation and have for a while. Steve Borsch outlines his concerns in a recent article; CN’s Brian Mefford has addressed concerns in a recent rebuttal of a Wall Street journal article, which I think is the basis of Steve B’s article – only Steve’s article is still online for free.

The new controversy is about how a mapper was selected in Minnesota. Should the State have consulted with the TF board? Did they consult with members offline? Does consulting with some members count? (CN is slated to speak at the next Task Force meeting. They were scheduled to speak earlier but as I recall they were asked to postpone while the TF was on the road.)

I’ve tried to present the facts. I’ll offer my own two cents and open this up to comments if others have an opinion.

7 thoughts on “Governor endorses Connected Nation for Minnesota broadband maps

  1. To begin, I question the need for additional mapping in the first place. The existing maps do not inform local or state decision making or change provider investments. More detailed maps will not change that situation. Incumbents know where they provide service; CLECs would rather compete where there are large and many customers that already have service.

    But since the funds are going to be spent, I agree with Mike that this is definitely a missed opportunity for Minnesota. It is quite easy to believe that Connected Nation had the better proposal with more certainty and possibly lower costs. After all, they have been doing broadband mapping for several years. I will also say that they have been very responsive when I have asked for special map like the Leech Lake Reservation.

    But why wouldn’t we want to have this task done by the University of MN? They have the expertise, they are on the ground here in MN and I assume that they regularly share data with state agencies for natural resources, demographic and other topic areas. To think that their proposal would be as complete and polished with a couple weeks preparation as Connected Nations is ridiculous; to think that they could not accomplish the task is equally ridiculous. Unfortunately, the MN Twins purchase of out-of-state sod generated more discussion that this Pawlenty Administration decision.

    I anticipate that the end product produced by the U of M would have been about the same as Connected Nation. This is because the rules of the NTIA program assures providers of the confidentiality that keeps current Connected Nation data secret. Same collection rules = same output.

    Today, the FCC requires providers to report their take rates by census tracts. This data would be very helpful to communities and community institutions as they work to improve services and deploy new technologies in education, government and health care. Unfortunately, this data is also kept private. Many of us found this out as we prepared stimulus applications requiring community members to go door to door asking about broadband subscriptions to answer the questions of one federal agency when another federal agency had the information in their locked files.

  2. I agree with Bill particularly as it relates to the U. The programs at the U that have addressed mapping of various kinds have been ongoing for over 30 years. This far exceeds the experience offered by CN, they are local and good capable folks too. We should spend public dollars here first, only going outstate when local resources are not available. In truth though, many who have pursued FTTH do not hold that view. But, unfortunately, that’s water over the damn (yes, damn).

    What would be helpful is to see the State’s actual application. This should be available as a public document and it will tell us much. A couple of examples might help.

    The initial NOFA required data collected at the address level and subsequently reported by census block (subsets of Census Tracts). It still does although there were certain concessions made to the incumbent providers to the effect of lessening this detail (availability may be reported by service areas, service areas were not defined so it could be all of Minnesota, for example). What level are we collecting?

    Production of State broadband maps were left to the States to decide, although whether a State did so was to be stated in the application. What maps did we propose to provide the public? What level and detail are we reporting on these maps?

    The confidentiality agreements that CN initially used in its data collection were disallowed by the NOFA. There are still protections for trade secret data and certain data like ARPU by address, but what are the confidentiality agreements that our State agreed to?

    Second party validation of data is required by the NOFA. This was a particular concern during the initial CN work. What validation mechanisms were proposed?

    These and other concerns should be made public, along with the entire application. Only then will we know what we will have to work with, how reliable, how usable and whether this was a sound public decision or not.

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