Reflection of Blandin’s role in broadband in rural Minnesota (and beyond) in 2015

Bernadine JoselynOne of the fun things we get to do at the end of the year at Blandin is create a summary of our inputs, outputs, and outcomes for our Trustees. It’s a great reason to reflect one what has happened and we’re pleased to see that the ball is moving farther down the field. More communities are going deeper to get more innovative in their use of broadband and more communities are working hard to figure out how to get better broadband to meet community needs. The question is no longer “why broadband?” it’s “when, where and how!” Here’s an abridged version of our report..

Our objectives are to:

  • Advance sustainable broadband adoption,
  • Increase community vitality, and
  • Enhance quality of life and place

We Invest

Grant funds: $1.5 million dedicated grant dollars allocated by Trustees for 2015-16, of which $759,658 was expended in 75 individual grant awards. The remaining $740,342 grant dollars for 2016 will be dispersed beginning in January in support of projects developed by the current Blandin Broadband Community cohort (2015-2016) to advance community technology goals.

We Leverage Community Investment

Approximately $331,000 in match contributed by partnering Blandin Broadband Communities and community project grantees.  A project developed with technical and facilitation assistance provided through BCBP received a $2 million state grant to bring broadband to all or part of three Itasca County townships.

We match community resources and vision with technical support, grants, internet-based information and educational resources, webinars, and conferences.  Program components include:

  • Community Project Grants
  • Community Broadband Resources (technical assistance) and
  • Blandin Broadband Community (BBC) partnerships.

Community Project Grants  BBC 2015

Grants:  In 2015, 75 grants were approved to 48 organizations for a total of $759,658.

Some highlights from the 2015-2016 cohort of ten Blandin Broadband Communities:

  • In Red Wing, a group of professionals and volunteers who are involved in STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) from K-14 are meeting on a bimonthly basis. The group is focusing on what it can do to support technology initiatives underway in the region.
  • In Nobles County, community broadband champions are working to establish nine free access wireless ‘hot spots’ across the county with a goal of providing unserved country residents high speed broadband access within five miles of their home. The Nobles Blandin Broadband Steering Committee also is engaging community members in a study of what it would take to bring a fiber network to the county.
  • In response to many complaints that local broadband service in Chisago County is slow, costly, or unavailable at all, the county’s Blandin Broadband Community Steering Committee undertook a survey of county residents about their broadband use and broadband needs. 900 residents responded. Of those surveyed, 28.8% said that with better broadband access they would telecommute, and 22.6% said they would operate a home-based business with faster internet. This information is being shared with county commissioners, school boards, state legislators, and providers, with the goal of persuading providers to expand their services in the area.
  • In Martin County, the Blandin Broadband Steering Committee supported a summer camp training for student in grades 9 – 12 to build mobile computer applications. Each student built an “app” about Martin County that is now available for all residents and visitors. The success of the first App Camp inspired the grant committee to double down on collaboration with all areas schools to create more opportunities for students to apply their math skills and learn computer programing. A shared community calendar has been created for all Martin County communities and area school districts. Usage and crosscommunity collaboration is growing.
  • The Sherburne County Blandin Broadband Steering Committee established “SherBand” to educate and partner with residents to help Sherburne County get and use the broadband it needs to secure its economic competitiveness and vitality. The group includes more than twenty local economic development professionals, elected officials, chambers of commerce, library, education and workforce development representatives, and business leaders. They attend local fairs, farmers’ markets, music festivals and other events to spread the word of the importance of broadband. “Sherband” members report: “Through the process we have heard hundreds of stories from residents and businesses struggling to receive reliable and affordable broadband service. New alliances and partnerships have formed and momentum continues to spread.” The county now donates all of their expired computers to PC’s for People allowing a wide variety of county residents to have digital access for the first time.

In 2015, $137,500 in grant dollars were awarded to fund seven Robust Network Feasibility Studies.  Those studies are now underway. Blandin has funded 27 RNFF studies since the program began in 2007. These feasibility studies provide sound information for local decision-makers and partnership building.

  • RNFF recipients Cook and Lac qui Parle Counties have partnered with existing cooperatives to construct fiber optic networks. A coalition of communities in southwestern Minnesota now provides 100% fiber connectivity in their communities with partners delivering wireless services in rural areas.  A new cooperative in Renville/Sibley Counties has a fiber network under construction.
  • Other communities, like the Cloquet Valley area north of Duluth, used their studies to convince the area electric cooperative to extend their wireless services into the area. Or in Redwood and Todd Counties, to encourage incremental broadband investment by companies like New Ulm Telephone Company or Arvig, including the leveraging of state grant dollars to expand broadband.
  • There are additional communities, like Kanabec County, that have conducted their study and been aggressive in courting private sector providers and seen few tangible results due to the significant investment barriers. They continue to seek partners and funding opportunities to close the ROI gap that precludes private investment.

Community Broadband Resources (technical assistance)

Through this technical and facilitation-support component of BCBP, Blandin provided almost 200 hours of assistance to ten communities. Community Broadband Resources is designed to meet communities “where they are at”; the kinds of assistance requested ranged from technical, educational, or informational to convening/facilitation support.  The foundation was able to respond to every request received.

Recipients of Community Broadband Resource assistance say…

  • “Blandin’s Community Broadband Resources Program helped us to win a spot as a quarter-finalist in Frontier Communication’s America’s Best Communities Program. As one of 50 quarter-finalists, we were awarded significant community economic development planning dollars that we have used to engage more than 100 community members around ten significant project concepts.  Blandin’s help make it happen!”   ~ Tangi Schaapveld, Chisago Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce
  • “Itasca County is fortunate to have had the assistance of Blandin’s staff, connections, and resources. Itasca County knew we needed to be a leader in the broadband conversation and to carry a vision forward. But as public sector, we do not have the resources to put into staff to coordinate such a project and have no experience with developing a communication campaign.  With Blandin’s assistance, we were about to purchase a survey tool and utilize broadband expertise to gather information about need and interest for broadband in the rural areas of Itasca County and to mobilize a team of champions.  These community broadband champions devoted hours to getting their neighbors on board with our initiative.  We have now established good relationships with our area broadband providers and have given them data and maps that identify their best opportunities for broadband expansion.  Utilizing the data Itasca County generated through this initiative, Paul Bunyan Communication’s submitted an application to DEED’s Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program.  If successful, this project would facilitate expansion of broadband into more than 1,000 homes and over 80 businesses while leveraging four million local dollars, including a $250,000 Itasca County commitment.   We would never have been able to move this project forward, especially in such a short time frame, without the support and many resources provided by Blandin.  We are extremely grateful.”   ~ Trish Harren, Itasca County Administrator
  • “Blandin Foundation has helped our broadband initiatives in Martin County and the City of Fairmont through your Community Broadband Resources program. Having an experienced consultant help us sort through the complexities of our broadband analysis and provider relationships has been very helpful.  By helping us design our RFP for our upcoming feasibility study, we are sure that the study will give us the information that we need to make smart next steps.”               ~ Scott Higgins, Martin County Coordinator

Blandin Broadband Community (BBC) Partnerships

Information/Education Support: In 2015 the Blandin on Broadband Blog (BoB) and monthly eNews continued to serve as the state’s key information resource on policy and practice related to broadband access and utilization.  E-News subscribers have more than doubled in the past 11 months, from 1,014 in January 2015 to 2,102 recipients in November 2015, and blog subscribers increased from 775 in 2014 to 1,127 today. Subscribers include legislators, journalists, national broadband figures and community members. Blog content frequently is cited and amplified by other state-wide and national media.  The average number of blog posts per month was 46 in 2015, compared to 42 per month in 2014. Visitors to BoB are able to “share” posts with their colleagues through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels. In 2015 BoB articles have been shared 8,083 times.

Webinars: Staff coordinated the delivery of 10 webinars in 2015. Topics were generated by staff in response to stakeholder perceived needs and interests. Participation in the webinars ranged from 10 to 30, for a total of 205, with an average participation rate of 20. All webinar content is archived on the Blandin on Broadband blog, where they has been viewed 357 times. The webinar PowerPoint presentations have been accessed 1,432 times.

Convenings: Foundation staff recruited more than 25 organizations to join in co-sponsoring a statewide conference Border to Border Broadband: Better Together.  Over 160 participants, including legislators, county commissioners, economic development professionals, internet service providers, and community broadband champions participated in this “So what? Now what?” conversation about Minnesotans’ shared aspirations for border to border broadband.

Conference highlights included:

  • Interactive sessions in which participants articulated a “broadband vision” for Minnesota. A panel of state legislators provided feedback on the vision in real time.
  • More than 20 Native youth from three reservation communities attended a custom workshop to build skills for using free online applications to tell their own stories and the stories of their communities. o Lt. Governor Tina Smith chose the conference as the venue to announce the awardees of Minnesota’s 2015 $11 million broadband development fund grants.
  • Blandin Broadband Communities presented their best practices. o Over 40 presenters in three tracks (Digital Literacy; Innovation; Partnerships).

Other Community Technology Events: As part of an abiding effort to support and inspire an innovative culture in our partner communities, in 2015 the foundation also continued its support of community technology events, such as the Hack 2.0 in Willmar in September. “Hack-a-thons” like this one gather together folks from the region and beyond who are interested in developing technology solutions for local public problems.

Promoting Co-ops as Part of the Answer: Cooperative broadband providers deliver the best broadband services in rural Minnesota and most of the significant public private broadband partnerships have a cooperative as the private sector partner.  In 2015 Blandin Foundation has convened discussions among existing broadband cooperatives, electric cooperatives and cooperative stakeholder organizations to determine the opportunities and barriers to expanded delivery of broadband services by cooperatives.  There is significant interest from the cooperative community to move this initiative forward.  The Border-to-Border Broadband Conference was infused with the cooperative message, and we will continue the discussion there and afterward.

Bringing Rural Voice to St. Paul  and Influence beyond Minnesota

In 2015 I was reappointed by Governor Dayton to represent rural perspectives on his Broadband Task Force. I was also pleased to be invited by the US Senate Democratic Oversight Committee to provide expert testimony on best practices for addressing the digital divide in rural America.

In 2015 Blandin Foundation also was invited to showcase its experience and expertise in community-based broadband adoption efforts at The Summit on Rural America, and Grantmakers-in-Aging, both in Washington DC.  And on behalf of the rural communities we serve, Blandin Foundation responded to a call from the Obama Administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council for input on how the administration can better meet the communication technology needs of rural Americans. We solicited and aggregated input from rural broadband advocates across the state, ensuring their perspectives reached Washington.  A number of Blandin’s recommendations were reflected in the BOC’s report, including to empower communities with tools and resources to attract broadband investment and promote meaningful use, and to focus on public-private partnerships, including with philanthropy.

It has been a rewarding 2015 and we look forward to new challenges in 2016!

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