Blandin Broadband Breakfast Briefing Notes

The Blandin Broadband Breakfast Briefing yesterday was great event. It was well attended with 80 or so people. There were legislators, providers, Blandin Foundation partners, MIRC partners, community leaders and more.

On her way out, Karen Welle (from  the Office of Rural Health and Primary Care) noted that it was nice to see how the broadband conversation has progressed in the last few years. Being in the thick of it, I hadn’t noticed so I appreciated her comment.

Lieutenant Governor Yvonne Prettner Solon did a nice job framing the issue. She hit on a few notes that resounded throughout the day. Ubiquity is essential. A recent report from Minnesota Rural Partners demonstrates that there is a direct connection between rural investment and urban economy. In that respect, ubiquity is not only a rural issue.

There were some other issues that came up as well:

  • Broadband is essential for economic development. No one wants to move their family or their company to a town without broadband.
  • Partnership pushes us forward. We heard from a couple providers and a couple community leaders. Federal funding helped spur some partnerships – but even without it, success could be a powerful incentive to work together.
  • The Minnesota Broadband Bill, the report from the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Task Force and the maps are tools that communities and policymakers can and are using to plan and deploy broadband – including digital inclusion and adoption programs.

One of the most valuable takeaways was a White Paper, prepared for the state legislators by the Blandin Broadband Strategy Board. I also have notes from two of the speakers, Gary Evans (at Hiawatha Broadband) and Danna Mackenzie (from Cook County). All of the speakers did a great job – it was nice to hear from a range of stakeholders.

Duluth – no news isn’t necessarily bad news

Duluth has been getting lot of attention from their Google bid. As you may recall, Google was looking for partners for community wide, serious broadband (think gig!). Duluth jumped in the lake, they resolved to name their kids Google and Googlette – and they got serious.

Well Google just announced that they are starting with Kansas City – but that’s not necessarily the end of the story, as the video from Google indicates. My hopes still remain high for Duluth!

Maybe Google will put them on an express way to broadband – it seems that the idea of Google has put them on the right path regardless.

One of the players helping to build and sustain the buzz in Duluth is emerging entrepreneur Ben Damman. Originally I met Ben at the Minnesota Voices Online Unconference in April 2009. I’ve been hearing his buzz ever since. We met up a couple of weeks ago to talk about what’s happening in Duluth. And how or why it’s happening. I thought his advice and observations would be helpful to other communities.

The Google Twin Ports opportunity was a turning point of sorts for the Duluth Community. The community had some strong assets (Folks attending the 2009 Blandin Broadband Conference got a nice tour of Duluth’s assets, such as the Teatro Zuccone.) but the Google opportunity spurred collaboration throughout the community. As Ben put it, it has brought together the old and new guard. Fiber would be great – but I think the process of collaboration seems to have created another infrastructure in Duluth that is also valuable.

So how did Duluth/Twin Ports get on the ball?

It sounds like once Google made the announcement, there were a couple of people in the area who jumped on it. They posted their interest and ideas online – where others could see and sure enough like minds were brought together. The Google brand was powerful. In getting interest from established folks such as APEX, a business development organization and emerged entrepreneurs such as Ben. The Mayor of Duluth, Don Ness has also been instrumental in the cause. (As you may recall, he was the one who jumped in the lake to show his commitment.)

That brought a nice diversity of folks to the table. They had an immediate goal in mind – get Google’s 1 Gbps fiber optic network to Duluth-Superior. (Those are two key ingredients: cross section of community involved and clear goal.) It sounds like there was a two-pronged approach. In the background a team of consultants began gathering data for the detailed application. They mapped assets, opportunities, dark fiber and demographics to appeal to Google’s technology and business sensibilities. Out front was a group that gathered and promoted community support in a way that would appeal to Duluth creative side – and in a way that would garner national attention.

Ben explains that communication and transparency were key in moving everyone forward. Everyone involved was aware of the goal. (Two more key ingredients – transparency and communication.) Everyone had unique talents to bring to the table – and while these were people who didn’t necessarily know each other well enough to have built a high level of trust – they took distributive responsibility. People watched out for each other, they kept each other honest – they stayed focused and they didn’t have time for group dynamics that can often bring down group efforts.

Social media helped too. (Another ingredient – social media.) It brought people together at the onset, it provided a centralized platform for communications and organization. It provided for fast, cheap interaction to larger groups. It mobilized the masses to the tune of 800 attendees at Google Fest – a pep rally held locally.

So there you have it – some of the magic beans for driving a community broadband effort: get diverse group involved, make the goal clear, communication, transparency and social media to mobilize. It seems that these ingredients have served Duluth well. Aside from the Twin Ports Google effort, Duluth is also working on the following initiatives:

  • TEDx UMD happened March 1
  • TED Duluth is in the works for next Fall
  • Android Conference this week
  • STEM curriculum push for K12
  • New Data Storage Center (Involta)

Blandin Broadband Breakfast – tomorrow!

I forgot to mention one important conference in my post yesterday – the Broadband Breakfast Briefing – Rural Minnesota at the Digital Crossroads. We are very excited to report that as of last count, we have 75 registered attendees – 25 are legislators.

For folks who aren’t able to attend in person we will be streaming it through Ustream. This is our second time using Ustream, it worked well last time. It is stronger for audio (unless we can get the speakers to stand still) but we figured the audio is most key. (Ustream will provide an archive too.)

Upcoming MN Tech Events

I’ve run across a couple of events in the last few days that I thought might be of interest to readers…

March 28-30 Minnesota Telecom Alliance

The annual MTA convention and trade show, March 28-30, 2011, at the Hyatt Regency and Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

April 14 – MHTA Spring Conference

A day of networking and education as Minnesota’s technology community explores ways to grow and improve our innovation ecosystem right here.

April 27 – Phone Justice Policy Day

An interactive workshop where attendees collectively build knowledge, explore relationships to the Internet and cell phones and create phone justice policy that reflects what our communities need in Minnesota!

Minnesotan wins Health App Contest

I got some fun news last week…

Practice Fusion has named Epicenter the winner of Analyze This! part of Health 2.0’s Spring Developer Challenge. Using Practice Fusion’s sample of 15,000 de-identified health records, available free through Microsoft’s Windows Azure Marketplace, Epicenter developer and self-confessed “data nerd,” John Schrom, said his application could help identify and better control the spread of disease across America.

“Epicenter allows doctors to benchmark local patient data against a uniform dataset to identify anomalies in real-time,” said Schrom. “It would also allow doctors to quickly identify local disease outbreaks, the groups they’re occurring in, and then share those high-risk patient profiles with the wider medical community to drive proactive treatment initiatives, more targeted screening and faster warnings.“ A video demonstration of Schrom’s Epicenter application can be viewed here.

As part of the Health 2.0 and US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Developer Challenge, Analyze This! entrants were asked to use Practice Fusion’s dataset to answer pressing public health questions around obesity trends, drug efficacy, disease outbreaks and treatment outcomes.

The award caught my eye because John Schrom is from Minnesota. He graduated from South High School in Minneapolis, went to the U of Minnesota-Morris for a year before transferring to University of Minnesota-TC . He graduated from college when he was 20 and decided to move to Chicago to pursue a MPH in Epidemiology from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

John and I had an email conversation; he was kind enough to tell me how he felt that broadband and health care fit together. I am going to post his answer nearly verbatim because I think it’s an exciting glimpse of what a really smart and innovative person can do with emerging technologies and access to data – and how essential ubiquitous broadband is to making sure everyone has access to these tools and that when it comes time to making policy, everyone is represented.

There were a number of interesting discussions at the Health 2.0 conference that worked under the assumption of universal access to broadband. There’s a Minnesota company that’s working on producing over the counter test kits for common conditions (e.g., strep). There’s also a company called TeleThrive that’s working on improving telemedicine (they actually serve Minnesota with their consumer product, RingADoc). So, you could imagine an opportunity for someone in Rural Minnesota wanting to get tested for some STI, getting one of these products, testing positive, and then seeking a video/skype conversation with a provider related to their result. Of course, that only works if you have the bandwidth to support it.

Or, another example more related to Practice Fusion’s contest and Epicenter… I got an email this morning at work asking for help identifying patients at risk for measles. Minnesota is at the start of a measles epidemic, and so now there are efforts to quickly identify and vaccinate kids to help stop it. If there were a tool like Epicenter fully developed and implemented, this process would be incredible simple (or even automated — you could imagine MDH pushing a machine readable notice out to providers about measles, and an application automatically generating lists of patients that need action). However, this work requires bandwidth — not as much now, but many of the plans to improve the functionality of Epicenter will require a faster connection.

I could keep going (e.g., limited access to social support through websites like PatientsLikeMe), but I definitely think healthcare and broadband are both important and related. Certainly you can still get on the internet without broadband, but to really take advantage of a lot of ideas coming out of the Health 2.0 movement, you’re going to require something faster.

On a semi-related note, I just read an article in Wired about how “governments need to unlock their information vaults.” (Sorry, can’t find an online version of the article.) Their point was that it might create jobs – that with access to government data, developers can create information products. A prime Minnesota example is West Law (which has morphed several times and is now Thomson Reuters). West took court information and codified it, revolutionizing the way law was practiced and creating hundreds of jobs. The advent broadband, smartphones and access to information provides another perfect storm for developers to create new products – such as Epicenter, imagine the jobs that someone like John could create with his products.

ILSR Report on Publicly Owned Networks

Last week Chris Mitchell and the Institute for Local Self Reliance published a report and a number of maps that highlight the prevalence and barriers to publicly owned networks. Chris is a champion for publicly owned networks and tracks there better than anyone one I know.

The maps are helpful both to communities and policy makers. There appear to be clusters of publicly owned networks – where you find both cable and fiber networks.

This map tells an important truth: community networks are not a fad. They have been around for decades and have proven themselves many times over.

The report highlights the role that local, state and national policies will have on ability of communities to approach public networks and the intrinsic value of those networks. The value of a publicly owned network isn’t measured in profits alone as the report points out…

The results are impressive: millions of dollars of community savings; some of the best broadband networks in the country offering a real choice to residents and businesses; and increased investment from incumbent cable and phone companies as they respond to a new non-profit competitor.

The report also points out how a local publicly owned network allows the local community to set the local policies – potentially leap frogging national rules.

The citizens and businesses in each of the towns on our map have a network that will offer access to the open Internet
– because they own the network and they make the rules for it.

Public networks are one route, a valuable route, that communities have to taking control of their economic future.

MPR creates new broadband info hub

Minnesota Public Radio’s Ground Level has created a nice hub of stories and information on broadband – especially broadband in rural areas. They highlight a number of questions asked in the web site intro…

How fast does Internet access need to be? Is providing it a government role, a marketplace question or something in between? How should people be encouraged to use it? How does it affect a community? The federal government is heavily involved; should the state be?

The hub includes a number of article now (I assume it will grow, Ground Level has been covering broadband for a year or so now). Here are a few of the topics they are covering now…

Who should build the next generation of high-speed networks?

There is no right answer to that question in rural Minnesota. It all seems to depend on the market factors, local providers’ entrepreneurial spirit, local community’s drive and demand as well as topography. Jennifer Vogel has interviewed a number of folks from different communities such as Windom, Lac qui Parle County, Monticello, Sibley County and the North Shore about what is working – and what isn’t in their regions.

Telecommuting levels the field for some rural Minnesotans

Many Minnesotans want to live in rural Minnesota. They enjoy the benefits of living in the country – but they want the financial rewards of working in businesses located in the Twin Cities (or Chicago or anywhere). Telecommuting is making it possible and is breathing new life into towns that have seen population decline (especially a youth drain) for generations. The article explains…

But communities have reason to think broadband could level the playing field, especially with the growing number of workers not tethered to a desk. A recent study by ConnectMinnesota and the Minnesota Broadband Task Force found that 37 percent of Minnesotans work from home at least occasionally; twenty percent telework on a regular basis. What’s more, the report says, “Three out of ten Minnesota adults who are not currently in the workforce say they would work if empowered to do so through teleworking. This includes 17% of retirees, nearly three out of five unemployed adults, and almost one-third of homemakers.”

Grand Marais wants broadband to open doors but not wreck the allure of remoteness

Cook County “has some of the worst connectivity in the state.” Yet they have some of the greatest interest in broadband adoption. The article talks about their trial and tribulations – from a community and economic development perspective…

“This is not a place where families with children can move and make a living,” says Jay Andersen, a host with the local community radio station, WTIP. “This [broadband] is probably the only way you are going to get economic development in this county that is going to tap into new people and sources and revenues.” He says virtual industry is perfect for remote Cook, because transportation costs make it prohibitive to manufacture and ship physical goods. Plus, “You don’t have to build another building. Anything that would help economic development without screwing up the ambiance is needed.”

There are also some fun features that will help get readers up to speed on broadband quickly: