Headwaters RDC Regional Roundtable on Broadband – land of haves and have-nots

Continuing the regional tour of broadband discussion with Bill Coleman, today we talked in Bemidji with folks in the Headwaters Regional Development Commission area. There were 20 some people in the room including Representative Steve Green, Representative Matt Bliss and Andy Martin from Senator Klobuchar’s office.

The area is an extreme case of haves and have-nots. Many areas have FTTH; some lack adequate cell coverage. For those who have it access to broadband is like breathing air, those who don’t have it are struggling. There is frustration with some large a national incumbents and happiness with local providers. Community members wanted to know how to either engage disinterested providers or enticed engaged providers; providers stressed the importance of public funding through Universal Service Funds (federally) and the Minnesota State grants.

You can see the presentation, video archive and my notes below.

Introductions from attendees – what’s your broadband story

  • We need kids to have access to broadband at home to do school work.
  • We need to make sure we avoid getting left behind in the digital world.
  • We need to be able to attract talent – broadband is not a luxury, it’s essential for people looking to move to a rural area – or any area.
  • The conversation has evolved – we don’t talk about why make it happen – it’s how to make it happen. Universal service is good for everyone.
  • Universal service and proper funding is necessary. The state grant program has been instrumental is stimulating broadband expansion.
  • The next question/issue is affordability.
  • If we want to watch Netflix at home, we start the download two days in advance.
  • I have DSL but I’d go back to dialup.
  • 8 to 10 houses per mile is not rural – but that makes the business case hard to make for a provider.
  • You don’t realize how much you use it until it’s taken away.
  • The areas that are left unserved are the toughest areas to reach and make a business case to serve.
  • We try to do upgrades to meet customer needs. We deal with the ROI – having support happens. We build as fast as we can.
  • We’re lucky in Bemidji esp for economic development. We don’t waste our time getting broadband we work on making use of it
  • Broadband is a right and it’s as critical as electricity and roads.
  • We have areas that don’t even have telephone yet. We need to get this done.
  • As a provider, we face challenges such as unpredictability of universal service. We need state funding to continue for our continued growth.
  • The state grant might need to consider a lower private/community match of 50 percent. We may need to increase that match to reach the higher cost areas. It will help us avoid a Swiss Cheese pattern of broadband.
  • TO keep you healthy – we need education, jobs – and without broadband it’s difficult. We can keep people in their homes if they have connectivity.
  • Matt Bliss – 20 miles east of here I have no broadband access. None.
    The universal service is a utility – maybe not a right. We have no control of that from the state.
    Last year I ran into the problems (at the Capital) with people pushing satellite and wireless, which is not going to cut it for businesses and telecommuters. Someone said – “if you want to telecommute, you just need to forward your phone to your cell phone.” Well my cell phone doesn’t always work in this area.
  • Steve Green – broadband is not a right if it were government would have to pay all of the bills and that would be a disaster.
    Our local companies have made great strides in expanding broadband. What they offer now is so much better than what was available 5 years again.
    You can only build it so fast. We have areas with so few people, fiber may not makes sense when you have to run fiber 10 miles to reach 5 houses.
    Satellite is a big push at the Capital by folks who have choices. It may be the future.
    I don’t want a bunch of people jumping on wireless and leaving seniors behind – because (presumably) if everyone goes to a national wireless provider and leaves the local provider without a customer.

Broadband Initiatives in the Headwaters Region

Jesse Fain – White Earth Band of Ojibwe

We have organizations on the reservation that are running whole departments off a hotspot. We have areas that don’t have cell access.

We get requests/questions from constituents about broadband and that drives action. We are trying to find out what we can do.

Through a feasibility (funded by Blandin and HRDC) we are trying to explore

  • Does it make sense to become a provider?
  • Can we go after ETC designation? Use a lifeline provider on tribal lands?
  • The creation of a utility commission.
  • We are looking at telemedicine as part of the USF.
  • We are looking at relationships with providers
  • We are looking at partnering with school and accessing e-rate

The driving force for broadband change is kids coming home from school and not being able to do homework.

Going forward the tribe is willing to use resources to go into new directions.

We own some infrastructure where we could put devices to spread wireless.

Ryan Zemek – HRDC on Lake of the Woods County

We are looking at hard to reach areas that are not profitable to serve

16 months ago, I started staffing Lake of the Woods. I worked to get a feel of what were issues. TO start – there are more jobs than people with tourism, a local pharmaceutical business. We are trying to attract and retain workers – and if we can’t provide what those workers expect we will lose them.

Our top concern – attract more people. What attracts/retains people? Housing, childcare and broadband.

We started with a survey.

The Northern MN expectation became a problem – we need to raise the bar. The answer can’t be “broadband is bad but we can get by”.

Average broadband speed in Lake of the Woods? 9 Mbps down and .9 Mbps up – and people pay for that!

We know we need partners. We don’t want to become a provider. How can we attract a provider. We understand it’s not profitable to come into our area – but it’s essential for our area!

Connectivity is essential for resorts – few vacationers can really unplug entirely.

The average vacationer is Lake of the Woods spends 6.5 hours fishing. Got to give them something to do the rest of the time.

How to Attract Broadband Investment

Gary Johnson – Paul Bunyan

Thanks to legislators that have smoothed the way for better broadband. Nice to have legislators (such as Klobuchar) that are focusing on our needs.

We have invested $150 million – leveraging USDA loans.

Upload is important for productivity

Public investment in broadband needs to be long term. Investing in the future is how we were able to go with FTTP in our area. Why would we invest in anything else?

Fiber supports wireless. We need policy that supports rural providers – that helps support anything from seniors to 5G. Wireless providers need to connect to fiber.

Satellites are really far away – latency and upload will always be issues – that’s physics. And they still live in the world of data caps.

Universal service is a foundational solution for us. If we got electricity to homes – why are we even talking about the problems doing it with broadband.

BUT you need to look at fiber as a long term investment. We need to continue to fund USF.

What is happening in Itasca?

At Paul Bunyan, we’re talking to new areas. Itasca is one of those areas. They did four things that helped:

  1. They were the champions – gathering data, gaging interest
  2. They promoted the need to their neighbors.
  3. They eliminated roadblocks with easements and permits.
  4. They are a financial partner.

Mapping helps too.

The Office of Broadband Development has done a good job streamlining the process. The 50 percent match is increasing becoming a challenge. Partnering with others has been helpful.

Mark Klinkhammer – Garden Valley Telephone

We provide services since 1905. We started putting fiber in the ground in 2005; in 5 years or so we’ll have all FTTH. It’s been done chunk at a time. We rely heavily on USF and USDA loans. Recently we started looking outside our area. It’s harder in other areas because we don’t qualify for subsidies.
We’ve been talking with Roseau Electric to expand to some areas. They are a cooperative so they are motivated to get services to their people.

Gene Curtis – Arvig

Been around since 1950s. We are reidentifying ourselves as broadband providers. We work in northern areas and some in metro area (only fiber there). We are taking advantage of A-CAM. There will be a lot of construction in the next few years. Areas outside of A-CAM – we go into those areas and offer to put in main line fiber – some free drops to businesses. Copper in the ground is just not going to meet today’s requirements. Competition is good and not all of the areas  have competition. It’s good for the people we serve.

We bring fiber to the tower to meet the needs of wireless providers. We’re adding 100 people to our construction company this year. We have a short build season – we need to be ready.

We are doing crowd fibering – we get local champions to sell fiber to their neighbors.

Any thoughts on the challenge process?

It’s a good component to  have a check and balance. You don’t want to duplicate investment. But we’ve seen incumbent providers use this to defend their underserved customers. Maybe the challenging provider should have to provide better service if they challenge. Let’s make is less about protecting an area and more about getting best value.

My provider isn’t here. How can we get a provider that is more engaged? We cry, complain to no avail.

Everyone has a different lens. CenturyLink is a for-profit business. CAF will help some. They have a lot of money coming but it’s up to the provider how to use it. OR invest your neighbors to join a conversation with another provider that might be able to get into your area. Asking your federal representative to support universal service would also be helpful.

I don’t think it’s a good thing to give CAF money for 10/1 access.


How important is it to be a cooperative?
It’s a different business philosophy. But that philosophy has an impact on how we invest.
We have coops – that’s how we have electricity and good companies.

From Steve Green – Education and health and human services are eating more of our budget (from 75-78 percent) but we what if we eliminated barriers to providing services? Can we go after the agencies to reduce barriers? I don’t like funding anything that feed into more government.

Does aerial deployment make sense?
If you partner with an electric cooperative, it makes sense. Especially if they are willing to maintain the lines. (They have the equipment.) But for us to do it doesn’t make sense. Aerial is more susceptible to weather – but the electric folks are used to that.
You don’t see a ton of saving by going aerial.

What’s the county role?
We have contacted our provider. We were told we need to partner – maybe even with White Earth, maybe with DEED. We have a high rate of poverty so affordability is an added issue.

How can we get rid of our incumbent?
You might be able to attract a new provider who will overbuild. It’s doable. There aren’t a lot of regulatory issues.

This entry was posted in Blandin Foundation, Conferences, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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