Project FINE

I am pleased to introduce the exhibitors for the 2012 Broadband Conference (Building our Connected Future: Minnesota’s Better with Broadband!). Today our featured exhibitor is Project FINE.

Project FINE

Project FINE is a local, private, non-profit, tax exempt organization that helps newcomers integrate into the community. We provide foreign language interpreters and translators as well as opportunities for education, information, referral, and empowerment for immigrants and refugees. Our work is accomplished through a small staff, volunteers, interpreters, and extensive collaboration with local service providers.

Project FINE received support through the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) initiative.

Meet the Representatives:

Fatima Said

A refugee to the United States from her native Bosnia, Fatima Said came to Project FINE with a background in education and business, as well as 12 years of experience as a teacher and director of the Head Start program at Child Care Resources and Referral in Rochester.  In addition to her duties at Project FINE, Fatima is also very involved in both the Winona and Rochester Communities.

Ask Us About

Project FINE has worked to provide computers and training to their constituents. They have received donated computers and money from community partners.  They offer a wide range of computer classes and have computer science majors that are tutoring FINE clients. The community response to broadband efforts has been terrific; people come early to the classes and want more.

Learn more…

The following is an archive of a webinar in which Fatima spoke to the MIRC partners about the work in Winona:

Right of Way Issues in Lake County

Right of Way has come up with Minnesota Broadband Task Force subcommittee on Coordination across Government Levels – both this and earlier iterations of the Task Force. It’s a wonky issue. As a broadband consumer, I’m not super interested in rights of way – but from what I’ve seen it’s a very big issue for the broadband providers – especially as they build out services. I think the most recent chapter in they in Lake County story helps shine a light on why rights of way is such a big deal to the providers and to the local governments.

Last week the Lake County News Chronicle reported on Lake Connections issues gaining access to rights of way in the form of access to post fiber on the local utility poles…

Lake Connections is currently stringing aerial fiber along utility poles in Two Harbors for the project’s first phase. This fiber will be the backbone of the project, which will extend broadband service to residents in all of Lake County as well as parts of St. Louis County. But according to Lake County Commissioner Paul Bergman, the ownership of about 165 Two Harbors-based poles is in question.

Bergman informed the News-Chronicle last Monday that the county signed a pole attachment agreement with the city before stringing the fiber. The agreement, however, did not clearly state which poles the city owned and now Frontier is taking issue with the pole attachments.

“Lake County has placed fiber on Frontier-owned poles without submitting permit applications to Frontier,” said Kirk Lehman, general manager for Frontier Communications in northern Minnesota, in a prepared statement. He said Frontier has continuing property records that identify which poles they own, information which they provided to Lake Connections and the City of Two Harbors prior to construction.

But it seems that there are some questions about who is responsible for the poles…

Jeff Roiland, project manager for Lake Connections, said the city has been maintaining the poles in question for years and wonders why ownership is an issue. Two Harbors Mayor Randy Bolen conceded that the city has been maintaining and replacing the poles as needed, but he said the question of ownership never came up before the fiber project. Frontier said they didn’t authorize this city-performed maintenance on their poles.

So the plan seems to be to come up with an agreement…

Instead, city officials will set up a mediated meeting between Lake Connections and Frontier Communications.

At the action meeting Monday, the council approved a motion by Bolen to set up the meeting. In the motion, Bolen proposed that the meeting include County Administrator Matt Huddleston, Roiland, Klein, Overom, Kirk Lehman, Frontier Communications general manager for Northern Minnesota and another Frontier representative of Lehman’s choosing. Bolen said, with the exception of city attorney Overom, “attorneys and politicians” would not be permitted at the meeting.

If the issue isn’t resolved at the meeting, which Bolen said he hopes will happen within a week, the city will send a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

As hard as I’m sure this is for everyone involved – it’s a good example of why the Broadband Task Force is looking at these sorts of issues. A case where an ounce of prevention might be worth a pound of figuring out ownership after the fact.

Broadband and Economic Development: Surveys Show…

In September, I wrote about a sneak preview of study from Craig Settles on Moving the Needle Forward on Broadband and Economic Development, which looked at the gap between what politicians seem to be touting as an outcome of better broadband and the actual reasonably expected benefits of broadband. The full report is now available. (I’m hoping that we’ll hear more about the report and the connection between broadband and economic development next month at the broadband conference in Duluth (Nov 13-14): Building our Connected Future: Minnesota’s Better with Broadband. Craig is one of the keynote speakers.

One of the things I really liked about the preview is that it provided a realistic chart that economic developers could use to figure out what kind of broadband speeds are required to achieve the goals they are trying to meet in their communities. The full report continues on with that theme; I think it works as a nice tool for economic developers and policymakers.

The original survey went to 1000 people; 365 recipients completed the survey. Here’s a breakdown of those respondents:

30% and 29% of respondents serve cities and counties respectively. 21% serve regions within their states. There is a heavy representation of rural communities (36%) and 20% of respondents serve a combination of rural, urban and suburban communities. Respondents overall represent areas with wide ranges of populations.

And here are the highlights, based on Craig’s blog post about the report:

  • only 11% of economic developers believe broadband’s biggest economic benefit to individuals is helping them find jobs;
  • 18% of respondents have insufficient speeds to produce economic outcomes listed and have given up hope for a solution;
  • another 13% do not have enough speed to get the job done, but are actively trying to find or create a solution;
  • 43.5% of respondents’ jurisdictions exist under duopoly conditions, 15.5% are in communities that live with a broadband monopoly;
  • about 12% of respondent’ say their communities plan to start building broadband networks in the next 18 months, another 22% hope to build a network at some point in the future;
  • 64% of respondents reject convention broadband remedies for urban areas to say “faster speeds, cheaper services” will have the biggest impact on economic development (value of computing centers compromised by crappy infrastructure in poor communities);
  • fiber continues to outshine wireless in terms of expected impact on economic outcomes, with the biggest gap in expectations in the areas of attracting businesses to a community and making local companies more competitive; and
  • 41% – 48% of respondents believe broadband can increase the number of home-based businesses; and
  • significant percentages of respondents say broadband adoption doesn’t mean jack if there are not programs in place to support workers, entrepreneurs and small businesses who get broadband access.

The report includes a nice comparison of economic impacts based on wireless versus fiber connectivity. Fiber clearly comes out on top, but it’s nice to see the delta, especially given the cost difference in deploying the two options.

Accompanying the report are open ended responses to two questions:

  1. Do you expect an increase in communities (through co-ops, nonprofits, community foundations, etc.) literally taking broadband infrastructure buildouts into their own hands? If so, how will these organizations overcome funding challenges?
  2. This is your opportunity to cut loose and tell us what you really think. How can you and your professional peers help communities get broadband services that improve local economic development?

Broadband Conference Exhibitor: Cybermation

I am pleased to introduce the exhibitors for the 2012 Broadband Conference (Building our Connected Future: Minnesota’s Better with Broadband!). Today our featured exhibitor is Cybermation:


Tom Ardolf co-founded Cybermation with his wife, Susie, in 1996.

His experience began with 4 years in the Intelligence and Security Command of the U.S. Army, from 1979-1983, working with various high tech projects as an electronics technician. Upon discharge, Tom joined Sanders Associates, a leading defense contractor based in Nashua, New Hampshire spending 3 years working on classified projects in an R&D environment, primarily specialized airborne platforms that were deployed for special projects throughout the world.

Returning to Minnesota, Tom completed a Bachelors in Engineering Technology from 1985-1988 at St. Cloud State University while simultaneously founding RT Enterprises in July of 1986. Tom continued working on an MBA at SCSU, completing his Masters studies in 1993. Due to lack of any available custom installers, Tom and Susie founded Cybermation in 1996 when building their home. The next 5 years were spent gaining education and experience in custom electronics and home systems. In 2001, Tom and Susie also developed commercial property into the Ardolf Technology Center and they continue to manage it today.

The genesis of Cybermation from these early days created evolutions of change in Cybermation over the next decade. New “high water marks” continue to be achieved, with examples being one of three firms considered as the System Integrator of the Year in 2008, multiple projects being featured in trade magazines and the recipient of three Mark of Excellence awards by CEA in 2010. In Q3/2010, Cybermation rolled out the CyberHealth Division, focusing on the tele-wellness market. The firm quickly achieved national recognition in multiple publications for their unique marketing & implementation strategies. In May/2012, Cybermation spun off the low voltage practice to focus entirely on the CyberHealth Division. In August of 2012, Cybermation was granted a distributorship for GrandCare as a result of its success in sales and support of systems throughout Minnesota.

Cybermation is now strictly a tele-health and tele-wellness company that provides assistive technology to help the elderly remain independent and in their own homes for as long as possible. Personal Emergency Response Systems, lockable GPS locator watches, and medication dispensing systems are just a few of the items available. Among many of the helpful products that Cybermation supplies is the GrandCare System. GrandCare takes all the areas where a senior might need assistance and combines them into one easy to use, easy to manage touch screen system that requires no technical ability to use. Everything from medication reminders, locked control of medication disbursement, blood pressure and blood glucose monitoring and motion sensing are addressed. But the best part of GrandCare is that it takes these necessary services and adds something invaluable to them: socialization. With GrandCare’s simple emailing, video chatting, and picture streaming, as well as interactive calendar and appointment scheduling, it makes friends and family that are far away suddenly available to a loved one literally at the touch of a button. Add the fact that care givers can monitor all the information available through the system remotely, and you have a piece of equipment that is invaluable to someone who would like nothing more than to stay in their home, but needs a little care to be able to do so.

Learn more:

The price of broadband for rural telcos

Thanks to Ann Higgins for the heads up on an article on squeezing more broadband out of copper infrastructure. The article pitches two specific solutions for improving service through copper, which could be good solutions, but it was really the question of what does a rural telco do to move forward that interested me. How do you makes the business case for major versus minor upgrades and what’s the final end game for most rural providers? This article offers more iterative approaches to better broadband.

There’s DSL Management Solution…

ASSIA proposes using its DSL Management Solution to accomplish the task of delivering a maximum of 100 Mbps of downstream throughput over a single copper pair, he said.

There’s vectoring…

Keith Russell, product manager of Alcatel-Lucent, thinks VDSL2 vectoring will do the job of pushing higher throughputs because its noise cancellation capabilities normalize all lines for smooth transport of IPTV signals.

Keith Russell, product manager of Alcatel-Lucent, thinks VDSL2 vectoring will do the job of pushing higher throughputs because its noise cancellation capabilities normalize all lines for smooth transport of IPTV signals.

Vectoring, though, has its drawbacks, Russell admitted.

There’s the Broadband Accelerator…

The B.A. is basically an “analog broadband amplifier” that is spliced into the line between the DSLAM and the residence to boost network performance, he said. It can–or should–deliver 15 to 30 megabits of bandwidth per household which would minimally feed a triple play offer.
The goal, Auer said, is “to keep those customers happy with something you can deploy today.”

Again – three interesting approaches – but what does it mean in the trenches – for the providers and ultimately for folks in rural area? Brent Christensen, President of Minnesota Telecom Alliance was kind enough to help put some perspective on it for me…

This article hits the broadband deployment argument squarely on the head. What we have known for years as providers, who actually serve customers, is that they want broadband. If you ask the common person on the street how they get their broadband they probably couldn’t tell you, they just know they have it. They may not even know they have broadband, they just know they can get on the Internet. There are business cases where it makes sense to continue to use existing copper plant, while at the same time increasing broadband speed offerings. This is done two ways, either by shortening copper loop lengths by deploying Digital Loop Cabinets (fiber from the CO to the cabinet and using existing copper to the customer) or electronics like those suggested in the article to expand bandwidth capabilities from the existing copper (or both).

In my mind, fiber is the ultimate “end state”. There are many in the wireless world that would seriously disagree. Regardless, there is no way you can successfully build a fiber network and supporting infrastructure from scratch with no existing revenue. You start out so far in the hole you can never dig out to operate the new network, say nothing of repaying the borrowed money. That is why you no longer see private CLEC’s starting up the way they did after the 1996 act.

Both wired and wireless networks have their place. It isn’t just one or the other. Several MTA member companies have both and use both to provide broadband to their customers. My family’s company, for instance, is deploying unlicensed wireless broadband to CLEC customers they cannot reach today with fiber or copper. The goal is to develop the customer base and deploy wired services to them as it becomes necessary/feasible. That new revenue will pay for the upgrades and keep the company from having to service debt. This is one strategy of keeping the eye on the target….get broadband to customers who want it, and don’t have it today. Other MTA members have operations where that strategy doesn’t make sense for them. Those companies have existing customers and are using the revenues from those existing customers to re-build their infrastructure from copper to fiber.

The trick to being a successful provider (public or private) is that you have to be at the cutting edge of technology, not the bleeding edge. You have to always be one step ahead of the customer’s needs. If you are even with their needs you are too late. If you are more than one step ahead you will fail because you don’t have the resources to pay the necessary administrative and operational expenses.

Broadband Confernece Exhibitor: PCs for People

I am pleased to introduce the exhibitors for the 2012 Broadband Conference (Building our Connected Future: Minnesota’s Better with Broadband!). Today our featured exhibitor is PCs for People:

PCs for People

PCs for People creates new opportunities by providing personal computers and education to people who have limited experience with technology due to social, physical and/or economic circumstances.

Meet the Representatives:

Sam Drong
Sam serves as the Program Director for PCs for People. Over the last two years he has helped deliver over 1,000 computers to rural Minnesota, partnered with United Way to deliver computers to metro-area food shelves, and helped PCs for People gain industry certifications in data sanitization to ensure hard drives are completely erased.

Casey Sorenson
Casey has been the Executive Director of PCs for People since it incorporated as 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2008. Under Casey’s leadership, the organization’s impact has vastly increased. Since 2008, PCs for People has gone from distributing 400 computers to 4,000 computers in 2012.

Ask Us About

In the last couple of years, working through the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project, PCs for People has helped rural communities bring refurbished computers to low-income residents in the area. We work with local contacts to organize local used computer drives and computer give-away events. PCs for People drives the computer refurbishing process. We wipe the computers clean, install new software and test so that each computer recipient gets a computer built to support their needs. The video below describes the process through a tour of our facilities in St Paul.

Kanabec County Feasibility Study: $2 million for FTTH in town, $9 million for rural FTTH or $7 for fiber-wireless hybrid

It’s a business week for broadband in Minnesota. It’s good to see.  Last night Kanabec County learned more about their options at meeting with U-reka Broadband, the company selected last May to perform a comprehensive broadband network feasibility study. According to the Kanabec County Times

A goal of KBI is to improve broadband access across the county in order to meet the State of Minnesota Broadband Task Force 2015 goals. This task force was appointed by Governor Mark Dayton in November 2011. Those goals include “border-to-border” high speed Internet and cell phone access throughout Minnesota by 2015.

Like many predominantly rural counties, Kanabec is noticing a growing chasm in broadband speeds in their area. The cities have considerably faster broadband access that outlying areas. According to the feasibility study unveiled last night…

Kanabec County has a digital divide between the residents of Mora and Ogilvie and the remainder of the rural residents of the county. Only twenty-three percent of the counties residents have access to competitive broadband services and with the improvement of Midcontinent broadband services due in November of 2012 this gap will continue to grow. The incumbent rural providers do not have plans for service improvement that will match the State of Minnesota Broadband Task Force goals and competition is limited within Kanabec County.

The study considered two models…

Two models were considered for this study: 1) A rural Fiber-Wireless Hybrid project which would deliver wireless broadband services in partnership with a private provider to all of Kanabec County and provide a foundation for a future FTTP build and 2) A rural FTTP build utilizing a private provider to deliver voice, video and internet services. Both models were developed and each has a high probability of success; to achieve a cash flow position on the FTTP network a $10.00 monthly fee per subscriber would be required to make the financials of the project viable.

The report details the demand for improved service – both in terms of statistics and based on conversations with key stakeholders in sectors such as healthcare, business, local government and education. It details costs associated with each model. It also outlines current options available through incumbent providers. The Kanabec County Times succinctly posits the next steps…

The Hybrid Fiber-Wireless Network was estimated to cost approximately $7 million. The FTTP Network was estimated to cost approximately $2 million to cover town/city areas and $9 million to cover rural areas.

Next steps for KBI include deciding who, such as Kanabec County or the city of Mora, will be sponsoring the organization and going forward, making decisions about which model they prefer and continuing to develop and investigate partnerships with wireless providers and existing providers like Midcontinent and CenturyLink.

It’s interesting to take a look at the unique assets and challenges in Kanabec, but for other communities considering broadband the report is also a nice peek at what they need to consider in their own community.

I’ve mentioned it before – but not for a while – it’s also nice to see the report invoke the Minnesota Broadband Goals. Because there wasn’t any funding attached to the speed goals set by the state (5-10 Mbps up and 10-20 Mbps down by 2015) it’s easy to think that the goals aren’t having an impact, but clearly they are. Counties are making decisions based on the goals set in 2010.