On Tuesday I was able to attend Senator Schmit’s listening session on broadband in Bemidji. About a dozen people attended, despite is being Veteran’s Day, hunting season and a snowy and slick driving day.
(Senator Schmit is visit other communities through the end of the week. Get details.)
The folks who attended were knowledgeable and passionate. Nancy Vyskocil, the the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, spoke about their work with Impact 2020. The decided to focus on three goals: education, workforce and infrastructure. Broadband fits under the infrastructure goal. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Nancy has a background in telecommunications. They reports and comments to the FCC have been very astute.
Sally Fineday, member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and broadband advocate also spoke about the needs on the reservations. Broadband access on the reservations is 64 percent; compared to 97-98 percent throughout the rest of the US.
Attendees recognized that broadband coverage is uneven. Areas served by Paul Bunyan Telephone are well served, but just a few miles outside of Crookston you might have no broadband no cell coverage. Park Rapids is OK. Northern part of county out of luck. Red Lake is not well served – it’s hard territory.
Someone noted that it would cost $11M to reach unserved areas. That covers a lot of land – but not a lot of population. But from an economic development perspective, it makes sense to serve resorts and manufacturers. It’s a high risk business model. They asked – how can we mitigate that risk?
We heard a couple of inspiring stories – from health care applications (MyChart) from Sandford. Sittsworth meets has more than 12,000 Facebook fans. (They don’t sell online – but they apparently sell the heck out of everything in the store now!) There’s a jewelry company serving 56 countries with online sales. (The Bemidji Pionneer was there to capture stories.)
That being said, there is still room for public education on benefits of broadband to boost adoption. There are businesses that are unserved and they don’t know their options. And many people noted that broadband is a barrier for education – emphasizing that big broadband is needed for education!
Someone representing satellite cooperative was there too. That helped make the case that a last mile solution will have to be technology agnostic. [I’ve been hearing more about about wireless mesh networks that seem to make sense – hoping to write more on that as soon as I find some free time!]
Folks noted that they don’t have public computers in these areas. Many communities don’t have libraries. If you don’t ‘have access to the schools there really aren’t other places to go for access, which has an impact on adoption. There’s a cycle of no demand because there’s no hope of getting it and there’s not hope because there’s no demand…
Finally people were asking about the Office of Broadband Development (OBD). Attendees recognized that it wasn’t the State’s job to build the network but hoped that the new director would be able to work with those who would build the network. They are looking for ways to make it easier to build the network and ways to reward the providers who have been striving to provide service to rural areas for a long time. Someone noted that if you’re carrier of last resort you must serve everyone. That concept has not gone to broadband. Maybe it should. Also we can’t keep throwing money at big companies if they aren’t serving the needs of the unserved.
They also want someone who will work with local leaders. OBD should be the driver of efforts coming from the locals in the field. Every community has a different solution. We need a facilitator, activist and to tell the story to the legislator. Put power in the hands of the doers.
We don’t need more tracking. We need more doing. Data is only data unless you do something with it! Need to build coalitions!
Here’s a minute of the session…