Broadband Discussion with Senator Smith at Itasca Community College

Today I attended a broadband conversation/listening session with Senator Tina Smith at the Itasca Community College. I always enjoy these listening sessions. It’s an opportunity to hear from the people on the front lines about their concerns. At the table were broadband providers, business owners and community leaders. Hot topics include concerns about CAF II. Everyone appreciates the federal funding but there are concerns with the speed requirements (10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up) and the timeline providers are given to upgrade to such a slow speed (6 years) . The concern is that that speed, especially with that timeline is slower than consumers represented by attendees but the upgrade is enough to dissuade another provider from entering the market.

People were also concerned about the maps, saying that we need legitimate maps, especially when funding decisions are based on the maps. And there was lots of praise for the Office of Broadband Development.

Here are my full notes – but first I’ll let folks, on a snowy day like today Grand Rapids is well over a three hour white-knuckle drive. So there may be some typos. BUT I wanted to get this out ASAP.

Introductions –

  • Bernadine Jocelyn, Blandin Broadband
  • Bart Johnson, Itasca County College Provost
  • Mark Zimmerman, IEDC (Itasca Economic Development Corporation)
  • Danna Mackenzie, MN DEED Office of Broadband
  • Pete Makowsli, Office of Senator Tina Smith
  • Fred Underwood, Fond du Lac Band IT
  • Jon Loeffen, Northeast Service Cooperative
  • Marsha Green, Essentia Health
  • Burl Ives, Timberlake Lodge, County Board
  • Ross Wagner, Aitkin County
  • Bree Maki, , Office of Senator Tina Smith
  • Terry Snyder, Itasca County
  • Matt Grose, Deer River Public Schools
  • Aaron Saude, Big Fork Valley Hospital
  • Jason Jenesich, MediaCom
  • Scott Savage, SCI Broadband
  • Brian Zelenak, Mille Lacs Energy

Aitkin County  –

CenturyLink & Frontier are using CAF 2 Funding for projects here – the problem is that they only need to get to 10/1, which means we may be OK now but we won’t be for long.  If the standards were set higher that might solve a lot of problems.

CAF 3 – maybe we can use for something like  fiber backbone.

Mille Lacs Energy –

We need broadband for a smartgrid. It’s an opportunity for us to save money and pass those saving onto electricity customers. When we combine broadband & electricity we recoup cost savings for our customers


We serve our members (education-based) we work with other providers to provide broadband to the private sector. We have a great asset in NE Minnesota.


We have a plan to build out to 4500 homes in our area.


We have 20 years of partnering through NESC. It helps create immersive online learning programs for communities with lower populations. We can work together to get one teacher for special classes.

We just got broadband this year (at my house). We still have neighbors to need to drive into the library.

Cable Association

We are focusing on Last Mile for our customers. It’s important to build a better broadband mousetrap to extend to the last mile to reach lower density areas. Financially it’s a challenge to serve those areas.

Minnesota has done a good job getting providers to build out to lower population density areas. Our companies are trying to build out to rural areas. Cable

Families need broadband for education. Books are no longer – the homework is on the iPad. But it’s hard to reach the lower population density areas. Without grant money we’re not going to see continued growth.


Higher speed standards is something we hear about every day – especially from people on the wrong side of the divide. Also we need accurate maps. We are getting to places that will require more support – so flexible programs is helpful.

Fond du Lac –

We are getting better broadband and so we’re in a better place that most of rural Minnesota. The challenge is that technology is discussed different than everything else in our world. We don’t buy “up to a gallon” of milk. Two thirds of the people making the decision don’t understand the technology details.

People don’t understand Net Neutrality.

Timberlake Lodge

9/10 of my (Itasca)  county don’t have access. I have half a town that has it, the rest don’t. 20 percent of my school doesn’t have it. You would be faster to drive to the library to get a download – then wait for it to download in some homes in Itasca County.

Just read that $300 million of fed funding is going to broadband; and $30 million in MN. That’s not enough. I don’t need education I need funding to get the broadband.

People at the capitol don’t know what we don’t have.

What would it be like if 1 out of 4 in Minneapolis didn’t have broadband? Would “We’re working on it” be on OK answer then?

Itasca County

We have to fund a lot of things – but we recognize how important broadband is. Our resorts need it or people won’t visit. As county, how can we do more.


We been working on this (with Blandin) for about 5 years. We have a good model to support providers. The OBD has done a great job. All of the providers have tried to help. We’ve gotten about 20 percent covered that wasn’t covered before.

On the federal side – the 10/1 access is too slow. That speed seems 20 years old. We need to hold providers to higher standard with quicker turn-arounds for higher speed results. Story: The firehouse isn’t really connected – we need broadband.

Big Fork Hospital

We are apparently the smallest town with a hospital. We used to use a mobile hotpsot at the hospital – not we are part of the Gigazone. Two weeks ago a customer need a CT Scan – it took 40 minutes to do it. We’re afraid to add on new telehealth applications until we know we have access to handle it. We also want to make sure that patients have access at home so that we can monitor them remotely.

Deer River (Essentia) Health

Through 47 different sites, we’ve done 5,000 online visits. Thanks to broadband and telehealth.


The OBD has done a good job. We have good partners in the good. We need to work on use as well as access to broadband.

Sen Smith

We need to be funding more – TF has suggested $70M per biennium. It’s a matter of equity.

We just based a national Omnibus with funding for broadband – but again we need more.

What advice do folks have for me regarding CAF 2?

  • It doesn’t access last mile. Having fiber as a backbone is good – but the copper from the node to the house is a problem.
  • Providers have 6-7 years to implement – that’s too long especially given the speed requirements.
  • As a provider, I’m looking for new areas to build. When another provider upgrades to CAF 2 speeds, it doesn’t get the customers what they need BUT it does make that area look less attractive to another provider.
  • One problem is that the CAF 2 funding doesn’t require providers who indicate where they plan to expand – it only requires them to say how many households they might serve. This leads to cherry picking.
  • It stifles competition.
  • As a (nonprofit/tribal) provider, we don’t want to go into the areas that have service – we want to serve unserved areas. When we tried to expand to such areas, we found that another CAF 2 funded provider had claimed spaces but not deployed upgrades. We were able to convince them to removed their claims but most cities/towns don’t’ have the ability to negotiate with them they way we are.
  • Nothing about a telecom network is similar to the newer data networks. Yet the rules still look at telecom networks. Fractional T1 access no longer works. CAF 2 doesn’t spur projects, it’s turned into a way to stifle them.
  • If the CAF 2 buildout requirement timing could be tightened up – maybe the feds could forget about 7 years and go with the Minnesota grant standard of 2 years. IN MN, you don’t get funding in advance, you get reimbursed. Now if someone challenges another project, they get two years to actually provide that service. (And if they don’t they can’t apply for the next round of grants.)
  • We’re getting patchwork networks and what provider can come in and fill in those patchworks?
  • Partnership is important – permitting is hard too. OBD has worked successfully to get railroad permits working. Other states have not been as successful. Minnesota has done a good job smoothing some of those paths.
  • We are doing paperwork with RUS now. Part of the regulatory process we need to say if we’re using fiber for broadband or electricity – they made us choose. If we said it was electricity we needed environmental review – but if it’s broadband, we don’t.

Sen Smith – working on a Bill to try to figure out within Rural Utilities – are there ways they can work better?

How does MN Compare (FTTP) with Midwest states?
Minnesota is slightly better.

It doesn’t have to be FTTP – the majority of cable operators use a hybrid network. That’s what we do at Mediacom.

Transport doesn’t matter – fiber or whatever. BUT it can’t unfairly disadvantage the customers. Bits are bits. Even cell could work so long as it meets the speed requirements – and not disadvantage customers.

This entry was posted in 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 (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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