East Central Minnesota Broadband Summit: Watching a Broadband Movement Grow

Yesterday I joined the East Central Minnesota Regional  Broadband Summit in Hinckley. It was a full room of community and business leaders, public sector folks and providers from five counties: Aitkin, Carlton, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Pine Counties. I tried to take pretty good notes and videos both to help folks in the area keep up on what’s happening but also so that it could serve as a model to others.

I have just a few broad comments. First, it was great to see a regional approach. It helps ensure that geographic gaps get covered; it creates more opportunity for economies of scale. I was impressed with my friends and colleagues (Bernadine Joselyn and Bill Coleman) who helped local leaders take the reins in planning and agreeing to help lead deployment of broadband initiatives. There was a sense that the people best able to take charge were the people in the room.

I applaud the providers who attended. In a break out session I attended the providers were frank in saying that part of the problem is communication. No commercial provider wants to share their strategic plan with competitors (understandably) – but unfortunately that leaves customers in the dark too. I heard that in another break out session plans were made to work on communication in terms of determining what the providers need to move forward to provide better broadband.

In the end, the group walked away with seven good umbrella ideas – each had legs and a head to push forward…

The day started with a keynote from Bernadine Joselyn (from the Blandin Foundation) as she cheers the communities gathered to create and claim futures that are resilient, vibrant—and connected.

Bill Hoffman of Connect Minnesota showed attendees both how to find and use the Connect Minnesota maps to get info on who has access in their area and how businesses and residents are using broadband in Minnesota. Bill was kind enough to share his presentation:

Local providers spoke briefly about connectivity in the area:

Midcontinent – NTNet is backbone – 6,000 miles of fiber in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. We are transparent with what we do. We’d be happy to work with someone on this rural initiative.

Frontier – largest regulated rural phone company with 166 exchanges in Minnesota. Serves up to 20 Mbps to customers. We will meet the business customers – generally at 6 Mbps, but will serve more if folks are willing to pay. We are moving forward to support exchanges outside of our areas – especially for businesses. This is unusual for an ILEC.

CenturyLink –In Minnesota we serve 196 exchanges – our footprint is a checkerboard map. We have been investing in upgrade from copper to fiber. Our mantra is “fiber first”. Bandwidth consumption is going vertical – primarily via video and multimedia. We use multiple sources to invest in our areas. Our roots are in rural. Spent $1 billion in MN since 2005. Connect America Fund received $30 million; $11 million in Minnesota. We are finalizing plans – Pine County, Kanabec & Carlton we are looking at about 20 areas. We are working with Klobuchar & Franken to get to release more CAF funding. We are looking to build fiber to cell towers, 14,000 tower; 1,000 in Minnesota – looking to add 250 more this year 8 or so in EC Minnesota.  We’re not interested in municipal overbuild. But we are happy to partner with public entities.

Savage – a small provider serves 30 communities in EC MN. We offer phone, cable, broadband. We provide fiber to businesses. We are building fiber to all areas, working on better cable – we’re working on 100Mbps by 2014 in 70 percent of our area.

We heard from a range of local experts, my notes here are thin (OK Tweets) but…

  • Keith Thelen gave the highlights of the Kanabec broadband feasibility study . Keith did a nice job pulling out highlights from the report that had been written by U-reka Broadband.
  • Superintendent Gilman alludes to a report that says homes with broadband save $8000/year. This was a theme I heard picked up by others as a way to pull in non-adopters.
  • Doyle Jelsing spoke about how the bank (and other businesses) would like broadband to help make business and residents’ life more efficient. It would be nice to get folks to move to online banking.
  • Roxy Traxler spoke about the need to get everyone online to take advantage of e-government initiatives. The towns have decent coverage, anchor institutions are covered but the home and businesses 3 miles outside the towns are not served.

Then the groups met by sectors to consider the following key questions:

Key questions:

  1. How well does our network support current technology use?
  2. What are the trends in our sector that will change our technology needs and are we prepared for these changes?
  3. What might we do together that we cannot do alone?

From those notes came “umbrella ideas” worth fleshing out and the afternoon was spent again in small groups with attendees fleshing out the ideas and coming up with game plans for the next steps forward. I have captured the presentations from each small group:

Goal: making the Internet and technology involved relevant and useful to the public.

Obstacles: affordability and availability and relevancy of connectivity (ex: how to make the Internet relevant on an individual basis; overcoming digital literacy)

We want to familiarize ourselves and our elected officials on the Governor’s Broadband Task Force report.  Involve local officials.  Long term goal: lay foundation to get these goals addressed and involve everyone who needs to be involved.  Townships have an important role to play.  Maybe MN Assoc of Townships could play a role … we should involve them in these discussions.

Barriers: geography, terrain, cost, customers unwilling/unable to pay the cost.  Concern about investing in equipment that may become obsolete.

Possible solutions: What about sharing a connection?  Can wireless be a solution to get to the last mile?  But we still need fiber in the ground for back haul to connect to the “big internet.”  What about possible  partnership between satellite service providers and wireless?  Satellite is likely to be part of the solution for deep rural.

Explore using the ARMER system and MORE TOWERS.  MNDOT will allow the use of 4 of those towers.  We should look into this more.

Partnerships: could the small providers partner with larger providers?

Continue to talk: convene more meetings like this that allow folks to hear and listen to one another.

Good conversation; good outcome.  Participating providers expressed a willingness to explore what a public-private partnership might look like.  Agreed that communities need a better sense from providers of what they need from communities to partner.  We heard that providers are ready and willing to engage in this conversation.  Especially in Kanabec county, because a feasibility study has been done there.

Our goal: sustainable and affordable broadband service for all.

We explored the opportunity of creating a regional broadband cooperative.  This would likely require county leadership.  Possible partners include: phone companies;  East Central Energy. They already have the capacity to build, provide service, market, and could collaborate w/ county to provide 100 affordable access to everyone in the county. We would have the structure, interest, and county would be the political rep to talk to public.  Also need outreach to state and federal legislators to provide some seed money – needs to become self sufficient .

We talked about regional marketing and how it might look to work collaboratively as a region on the message of why broadband is important.

Benefits of broadband are many, including: Education of students; Keeping people in their homes; Social aspect of using broadband

Long term goal:  Help businesses in our region use online marketing tools to enhance their businesses and/or survive.

Barrier: understanding and educating our businesses

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