Public Private Partnership to bring fiber to Ramsey County

This weekend, the Pioneer Press profiles Ramsey County’s plan for fiber. We’ve featured the project before, but the Pioneer Press include some good details. The high level description is that Ramsey County wants a fiber network exclusively for government communications. They looked at building a network a while back but the cost was prohibitive. They have found a partner, Minnesota Fiber Exchange (MFE) that is willing to build the network and share the cost – as part of the deal, MFE will also be building their own network, which they will lease to folks such as broadband providers who want to serve end customers.

Incumbent providers (Comcast and CenturyLink) are skeptical of the deal. Other are concerned that residential customers may be the last of the last mile served. But it seems as if MFE are the folks who have stepped up to build the network and it seems as if getting the dark fiber in place is a step closer to fiber throughout the county.

Here are some of the details from the Pioneer Press article:

The county has long said the network would be exclusively for government use. Facilities without fiber connectivity, like the county workhouse, or governmental bodies like the City of St. Paul — which is considering leasing space on the network to replace its service from Comcast — would be the only users, the county says.

The county estimates its share of the construction cost, including the necessary lateral connections to its various buildings, will be about $14 million. Minnesota Fiber Exchange’s share has yet to be determined because the company is still negotiating with the county over its contract, but two years ago, the city of St. Paul and Ramsey County considered building a fiber optic network themselves, and the cost estimate then was $30 million.

Ramsey County’s desire for fiber is easy to understand. As people use more Internet video and download and upload large data files, movement on conventional broadband has started to slow.

Eventually, experts say, we will all need superfast fiber optic access directly to our homes and businesses. In response, phone and cable companies have been upgrading their networks by adding a patchwork of fiber.

Fiber optic cable moves data with light pulses through narrow glass tubes. It is exponentially better than traditional broadband in terms of capacity and speed. Could consumers tell the difference? In coming years, yes, as the increased movement of large data files creates an Internet traffic jam. Consider that traffic on Netflix — one company — now eats up 32 percent of U.S. bandwidth during peak times.

The disadvantage of fiber is that it has to be buried in the ground, making installation extremely costly and inconvenient for a number of parties — cities and counties, property owners and motorists, to name a few.

Ramsey County’s proposal calls for digging into more than 100 miles of street and burying an entire network of fiber connectivity.

Last time I wrote about Ramsey County I noted that the project reminded me of the original Minnesota Broadband Task Force Report and National Broadband Plan; both promote public private partnerships. It still does. I can remember years ago when government would build infrastructure that was closed to government-only traffic. So the courthouse hasd decent connectivity (which may have been a T1 back in the day) but the local businesses on the same block had nothing. It was very frustrating for those businesses. Building two networks seems like a good way to serve the different sectors.

Minnesota Digital Classroom: Facts, figures & more questions

Connect Minnesota recently released a new report: The Digital Classroom: Colleges and Universities Expanding their Reach through Broadband. It looks at what’s happening in elearning in Minnesota and beyond. Here are some of the highlights, borrowed from their press release…

Key facts from the report include the following:

  • Approximately 1.3 million Minnesotans access the Internet to take a class online or conduct research for schoolwork (e-Learning). [That’s 37% of Minnesota Internet users.]
  • 414,000, or 14% of, Minnesota broadband subscribers said the main reason they subscribed to broadband was because someone in the home needed it for schoolwork.
  • E-Learners who are employed and work from home represent 20%, or 252,000, of e-Learning users in the state.
  • More than one out of ten (11%) adult Minnesotans use e-Learning applications on their cell phone. That translates to 143,000 that use their cell phone for taking classes online or conducting research for schoolwork.
  • Adults age 18 to 34 have the highest usage rate of any age group among Internet users and cell phone Internet users for e-Learning.

I think the information is valuable – but it also opens a door to a lot more questions for me. To be fair, I don’t expect Connect Minnesota to research these questions but on the off chance that a graduate student in need of a research topic happens upon this post or other readers have some answers, I’m going to start asking. Also I plan to attend the EduTech 2012 Showcase and Forum on October 8. I might learn more then.

Are more folks learning now?

I love that 37 percent of online Minnesotans participate in elearning online. Bringing the classroom to the student obviously makes online learning easier in terms of logistics – for those who have access. But has this access at our fingertips encouraged more people to learn? What percentage of people were participating in any sort of learning 20 years ago?

How much traditional learning has shifted online?

In 2008, former Governor Pawlenty set a goal of having 25 percent of all credits earned at MnSCU campuses come from online courses by 2015. I haven’t heard a recent statistic. Two follow up questions – has the shift to online education saved money? If so, what is the impact? I guess what I’d really like to know is if any potential savings would ever trickle down to the students. I recently wrote about some of the terrific free higher ed learning being offered online. It spurred some discussion offline about the value of education – does the value rest in the diploma or the knowledge gained?

Is online learning more or less effective than traditional learning?

We may be too early in the innovation to fairly answer that question. I’ve seen contrary reports.  Also I saw a great post on effective elearning that explains that elearning is just the delivery channel…

On balance, the evidence would suggest that the medium, the delivery channel, is much less important in determining effectiveness than the learning strategy you choose to address the task in hand (exposition, instruction, guided discovery, exploration, etc.), the social context in which the medium is used (self-study, one-to-one, group) and, indeed, the relevance and importance of the subject matter on which you are focusing. Thomas L Russell reviewed 355 research reports, summaries and papers that documented no significant differences in student outcomes between alternate modes of education delivery. It is the method that matters when it comes to effectiveness, not the medium.

I think educators are just developing the methods now, although the same article highlights two methods made available through the new media…

However, e-learning is a medium which opens up the possibility for methods that would otherwise be impractical or impossible to deliver using traditional means. Let’s take two examples:

  • The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) makes it possible for many thousands of students to learn together at the same time. While the underlying pedagogy of a MOOC can, in some cases, resemble that of a traditional course, the sheer scale of the endeavour and the opportunities that this provides for peer interaction make the MOOC something very different from what we have ever been able to experience face-to-face.
  • An immersive and highly-realistic training tool, such as a flight simulator, has no meaningful traditional equivalent other than practice in the real world.

Is eleanring through a smartphone effective? Does is make sense to improve “mlearning” or improve student access to laptops or other devices?

This is sort of a loaded question. The Connect Minnesota indicates that a lot of people are accessing eleaning online BUT those folks who are accessing eleaning via phone are Minnesota adults without a college degree and households where annual income less than $50,000. I think we can deduce that those people are using the technology they can afford, not necessarily the technology they think is best for the job. Folks with college degrees in households with higher annual incomes are not accessing elearning by phone at the same rate.

Recently I heard Jack Geller talk about huge swathes of activity moving to mobile devices because more people have mobile devices. In some ways, it’s industry (in this case education) that needs to catch up with the consumers. But will education make the effort to catch up with a critical mass? (I know research is being done in the area.)

Back to the Connect Minnesota report, I think the do make the point that elearning is here to stay and is growing…

Higher education is shifting from a physical campus presence to one allowing students to attend on-campus, online, or both. Nationally data shows that college students are embracing the change, too, with more than 6 million college students currently enrolled in at least one online course.

Separating broadband hype from broadband hope

Last night I was working on a report that is intended to light a fire under community leaders who are annoyingly (to me) ambivalent about broadband. Why don’t they get it? It got a little late and at some point I think I may have said broadband cures cancer. So it was fun to find myself reading Craig Settles’ recent report – Moving the Needle Forward on Broadband and Economic Development. It takes a careful look at the gap between what politicians seem to be touting as an outcome of better broadband and the actual reasonably expected benefits of broadband. (I should add that it sounds like a sneak preview to a larger report to come.)

Craig surveyed International Economic Development Council members about the real impacts of broadband on a community – specifically he asks about:

  1. attracting new businesses,
  2. making local companies more competitive,
  3. revising depressed business districts,
  4. revising depressed communities,
  5. improving individuals’ ability to earn income, and
  6. increasing home-­‐based businesses.

Here’s a quick look at what value economic developers seem to attribute to various broadband speeds:

Cure cancer doesn’t make the list – but what’s there is so much more valuable in that it sets realistic expectations. It’s a practical tool that economic developers can use to figure out what kind of speeds are required to achieve the goals they are trying to meet in their communities. If you’re looking to lure new businesses to the area – you want to plan big. If you are interested in boosting local incomes, then a more modest approach may work just as well. I think this chart does such a good job of helping economic developers set realistic expectations based on the custom goals of the community.

And speaking of realistic expectations – Craig points out that few of the economic developers are focusing on 4 Mbps as the minimum speeds required to see economic benefits. Yet that is the federal definition of broadband. This may be a disconnect of another sort…

The question of speed is important because this is the crux of so many critical broadband issues. Federal government agencies have defined broadband as networks that move data at 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps. Entities requesting money from these agencies can qualify for billions of dollars by meeting these standards. Broadband maps from these agencies can determine communities to be served by broadband – and thus be ineligible for government assistance – if those communities meet this minimum.

When state governments are developing broadband policies, establishing funding programs, committing resources and measuring the success of policies and programs, the federal definition of broadband guides those actions. If “improving the economy” is a major reason for committing resources to broadband efforts, how can agencies and politicians expect success when guided by a speed threshold 90% of experts believe is insufficient to reach the goal?

[Quick promotional message – this makes me even more excited for the Fall Broadband Conference, where Craig will be speaking. When: Nov 13-14; where: Duluth]

Quick Update on Renville Sibley County Fiber – Vote Postponed to Oct 9

Nothing ever goes as quickly as we want – and the folks in Sibley and Renville Counties are learning that again. They had planned to vote on the option to move forward with their fiber network plan on Tuesday night (Sep 25).

Unfortunately it sounds like there were some last minute questions. The Mankato Free Press reports

Commissioners Oct. 9 will revisit discussion regarding bonding for the $70 million citizens group project that would upgrade and speed up Internet services in rural areas.

Commissioners said they want more information on the legal and financial particulars of the RS Fiber venture, a grass-roots effort that began nearly two years ago.

As far as the city votes go 10 of the 11 cities have approved bonding resolutions. Henderson says they are waiting to see what Sibley County does.

Grand Opening at Involta

I was lucky enough to be in Duluth yesterday for the Grand Opening of Involta, Duluth’s new data center. Back in May I met with Lisa Bodine from Involta to talk about the project. The quick recap – the folks at Duluth (APEX leading the pack) made a concerted effort to attract data centers to the area. Back in May, Lisa spoke about the attraction of Duluth – specifically clients, community and climate.

That sentiment was echoed yesterday as Jeff Thorsteinson spoke about “people at the heart” of the Involta-Duluth project being core to its success. That and access to power and geography. Duluth has the cold, but lacks a lot of wind and earthquakes. Apparently that makes a good recipe for data center success.

It looked like there were a couple hundred people at the event. It was a gorgeous day, which never hurts but clearly the community came out to celebrate a project that they are all excited about. It’s an opportunity to bring jobs and improve broadband in the area.

Presenters included several folks from Involta, Senator Roger Reinert, DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips, David Olson from the MN Chamber of Commerce, David Ross from the Duluth Chamber, Brian Hanson from APEX and Mayor Don Ness. In fact I caught Mayor Ness’s comments on camera – you’ll see I wasn’t in the front row, but I think the audio is OK:

Chicago is going for broadband gold!

There’s not a lot to report here – except to say I admire any city that’s going for top dog status! According to CED

Chicago wants to be the city with the greatest availability of ultra-high-speed broadband in the United States.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office on Monday announced that the city is launching the Chicago Broadband Challenge.

I also admire any city that opens the challenge up to the people. According to the City of Chicago website

The Chicago Broadband Challenge will be facilitated by a website at http://www.cityofchicago.org/broadband and will invite the public to participate with ideas and insight as to how the city can best make use of its existing broadband infrastructure and potential uses for a future expansion of broadband access. The conversation will inform the way the City moves forward with its broadband development.  Any individual, company, student, non-profit organization or community group is welcome to respond to the Broadband challenge, either informally through the website, or as part of the formal responses the city will be soliciting through a request for information.

The City of Chicago is releasing a Request for Information (RFI) today, that seeks to engage private companies, universities, and other organizations to accomplish three main goals: building world-class broadband infrastructure for the city; extending broadband service into underserved areas; and providing free Wi-Fi access in public spaces throughout Chicago.

It will be fun to see what happens. It’s an interesting approach.

Klobuchar Cosponsors Bipartisan Legislation to Increase Wireless Access in Rural Communities

I want to thank Brent Christensen for permission to repost an article from the recent MTA (Minnesota Telecom Alliance) New Bytes…

On September 11, after consulting with the MTA and other stakeholders, Senator Amy Klobuchar cosponsored bipartisan legislation to increase wireless broadband access in rural communities. The bill, introduced by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), would provide incentives for wireless carriers to lease unused spectrum to rural or smaller carriers in order to expand wireless coverage in rural areas.

“In today’s 21st century economy, access to high-speed Internet is not just a benefit for businesses, students and families – it is essential,” Klobuchar said. “This bill will help expand high-quality, wireless communications to rural areas, giving local businesses the ability to connect to global markets and strengthening the rural communities that are so vital to Minnesota’s economy.”

“The increasing importance of wireless communications and broadband has a direct correlation to our nation’s competitiveness, economy, and national security,” said Senator Snowe. “The main goal of this legislation is to provide a catalyst to expand next generation wireless broadband service to rural areas, which will mean more reliable service, more innovation, and more choice to consumers and businesses. I am pleased this bipartisan legislation has Sen. Klobuchar’s support and will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure consumers in rural areas of Maine and the nation have the access to the broadband services they require to succeed.”

The Rural Spectrum Accessibility Act would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a program that would provide a 3-year extension of the spectrum license to wireless carriers that lease unused spectrum to rural and smaller carriers, encouraging collaboration between companies to bridge service gaps in rural areas.